Faithfulness Beyond Instruction

Yesterday’s post contrasted narrative theology with the “owners manual” view of the Bible. I know that once this conversation wanders too far people will lose patience. But here’s why I think it’s important to have at least a basic idea of what the Bible is:

What we think the Bible is will deeply impact how we read it and what we try to do with it.

To be clear: even if you don’t have a clear answer to the question, “What is the Bible?” there are Christian-cultural markers that have created assumptions for you (either by acceptance of them or rejection of them) concerning what the Bible is and, therefore, what we should do with it.

What I want to make clear today, if it wasn’t clear yesterday, is that narrative theology can carry a strong imperatival force–it can issue a summons to act in certain ways. But it does so by a different route than the instruction manual approach.

Narrative theology takes the overarching story as the key to what the Bible is. Not key in the sense that it opens some other door, but key in the sense that even the parts of scripture that are not, themselves, stories nonetheless find their coherence and interpretive framework from the larger story in which they are embedded.

More than that, narrative theology recognizes the inherently storied nature of all human life.

“Story is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories… narrative imagining is our fundamental form of predicting [and our] fundamental cognitive instrument for explanation.” (Mark Turner, The Literary Mind [v, 20])

So here’s where narrative theology strikes pay dirt: it provides a way of thinking and talking about the Bible and the Christian story using the category by which we are making sense of all reality.

We tell stories about our Christian communities: where we came from, what we believe, what we do. Narrative theology says: the Story of your community is the story of the crucified and risen Christ–how does your story retell the Story that defines it?

Narrative theology draws in our sacramental practices. What are we doing when we take the bread and cup? We are enacting the story that not only founds us, but that we are called to be living illustrations of in our life together. It is not some “other” thing we tack on, the sacrament is the thing that we are, in a different mode.

As individuals we have stories, too. Often these are stories shaped by loss, by shame, by guilt, by pain. And I wonder if having those stories both embraced within and at the same time relativized by a greater defining story of a crucified and risen Christ isn’t part of the narrative reframing that God intends for God’s people when we are joined to the story of Israel that has its climax in the story of the crucified and risen Christ.

Narrative theology is about (to borrow a phrase from Richard Hays) “conversion of the imagination,” or, to take the language of Rom 12, being transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is a much harder business than turning to the Bible as a reference manual for correct behavior. It involves a lifetime’s depth of familiarity with the story and a commitment to make that story not only our own as persons but also our own as a people.

The story defines who we are. And as we learn that identity, we acquire the wisdom of knowing what we should do so as to be living enactments of that story in the corners of the world to which God has called us.

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