This weekend I reflected on the importance of narrative theology for keeping our theology from coming off the rails. A commenter drew attention to an article in this month’s Christianity Today to ask about those parts of the Bible that aren’t, in fact, narrative.
This is an important question to address. What’s all this talk about the Bible as “story” when we have these lovely psalms and proverbs and prophets and letters?
It’s an important question to wrestle with, but one that ultimately misses the point.
To say that the Bible is a story, and not just any story but the story of God’s revelation of himself in, and salvation of the world through, Jesus Christ, is to provide an overarching framework within which all the parts find their significance.
Let’s take the Psalms.
Psalm 1 begins like this:
The truly happy person
doesn’t follow wicked advice,
doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
these persons love the LORD ’s Instruction,
and they recite God’s Instruction day and night! (CEB)
Who is YHWH? What is this Instruction, this Torah, that YHWH has given? Why should someone who sings this song think that keeping such Torah will lead to happiness and flourishing?
The Psalm assumes the story of Israel, a particular God who has done particular things (such as giving Torah) and made particular promises.
I’m not just cherry picking.
Psalm 2 is an enthronement psalm, celebrating Israel’s king: “Why do the nations so furiously rage together? And why do the peoples imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up and rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his anointed” (Handel’s Messiah Version).
It assumes not only YHWH and Israel, but a particular place for the king, and a particular relationship between the king and YHWH. It even assumes Abrahamic promises of inherited land, now being focused on this royal emissary.
You can sing the psalms without the story, but you’ll be transforming their meaning.
This is one reason why the article in CT was not very helpful or profound in its critiques of narrative theology. In essence, the article was a complaint about people who had done a bad job telling the story, or who had not figured out what to do with psalms or proverbs or that dread beast Qoheleth.
Similar points could be raised about NT letters. One might say, rightly, that Paul did not write stories. Of course he didn’t. And this misses the point entirely.
Paul is writing as part of a religious world formed by the story of Israel and Israel’s God. When he speaks to churches and says, “Our fathers were all under the cloud,” he is writing them into the story of Israel. When he says, “Our unrighteousness will not nullify the righteousness of God, will it?” he is comparing two characters in a story the he recognizes himself to be part of–and that he recognizes Jesus to lie at the center of as well. (More here.)
Within this huge story of Israel and of creation heading to consummation, however, there is a smaller story, an inner story that determines the rest. For Israel, that story was the Exodus. For Christians, that story is the Christ-event.
When we want to know what it looks like for this story to be on track, for this story to–for once!–not run off the rails, we look to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
It’s in light of his instruction that we can sing Psalm 1 with its praise of Torah; it’s in light of his crucifixion and resurrection that we can sing Psalm 1 with its expectations of flourishing; it’s in light of his enthronement that we can sing Psalm 2 and know what it is to have a king who has asked, and is being given, the world as his inheritance (and, incidentally, sharing it with us).
So no, I don’t find the lack of narrative at points to be any argument against narrative theology. In fact, I would argue that those parts can only be read aright in light of the larger story within which they are given voice and thereby find their meaning.