A Great, and Complicated, Narrative

Every now and then we circle back around to whether it’s all that helpful to think about the Bible in terms of “narrative” when so much of what we read there does not fit into the narrative genre.

I, of course, say yes. The Lord of the Rings is no less a story because Tom Bombadil sings his random song.

In his Theology of the Old Testament Walter Brueggemann hits just the right note:

…it is clear that story in the Old Testament has some special privilege as a governing genre. To be sure, much of the Old Testament is not in narrative form. But in other genres such as commandment, song, and oracle, I suggest that the same claims of narrative reality are operative, albeit one step removed from narrative rendering. Thus the great hymns of Israel (Exodus 15; Judges 5; Deuteronomy 33) operate with a narrative framework. The commandments are regularly embedded in the stories of Exodus and sojourn. Prophetic oracles characteristically tell what Yahweh has done and will do. (p. 66)

There is a narrative reality to the life of Israel. Its story of God provides shape to the entirety of its religious life, even those parts that are not story telling per se.

Another question about narrative arrives from a different quarter. It is sometimes asserted that the level of discontinuity from one scene to the next, particularly with the advent of Christ, undermines the “story” idea altogether.

I’m not buying that one.

Even when a character arrives on the scene in a way that the focused story does not give rise to on its own, even when the hero is imported from CTU or the CIA or Heaven, the disruption the character makes into the otherwise smooth-flowing story line does not undermine the story’s narratival character.

Here’s what Brueggemann has to say about the diversity of expression in the biblical story (in particular the OT, in this case):

The Bible insists upon a common narrative, but one which includes a diversity of voices; many stories comprise the story. God’s story is both single and several. It also insists upon upon a narrative which at times is most disjointed and the connectedness of which is perceived only by way of struggle. (p. 89)

Of course, any statement that begins, “The Bible insists” is already a faith statement: the idea that there is “a” Bible, equivalent to certain canonical texts and not others, is a claim of people of faith.

And, willingness to see a unity in that book is, itself, an act of faith, one that many critical scholars have spurned. Though one that people who have little or not faith can accept in order to see the world created by our sacred text.

But once we have done so, once we have said, “This Bible,” then the draw of the story, in all its complexity, is the route ahead for reading the book as a unified whole.

Reading as a story is the means by which we have our imaginations infused with the new world of glorious possibility that God is bringing to bear in the midst of the old.

10 thoughts on “A Great, and Complicated, Narrative”

  1. Daniel,
    I would read brueggemann as saying that the OT does not have one narrative but multiple competing narratives, and the NT as the key to which of those narratives is right. Thus Paul pre-conversion can see the narrative of Phinneas (purity thru divine sanctioned violence) but after meeting Christ recognize a cruciform narrative instead.

    So it seems confusing to say that there is one great narrative in the bible. This causes us to try to harmonize all of it when I think Paul and Jesus instead reject parts in order to prefer the narrative that points to Christ. This harmonizing tends to lead to justifying violence and a violent image if God.

    If the Bible is not inerrant (as you say) then can’t we affirm that the narratives that do not reflect Christ are bad narratives?

  2. Alongside LOTR, another example is the original Les Misérables. Only about half of it is straightforward narrative, another third is historical anecdote or description of places and institutions no longer extant, and much of the rest is philosophical or social commentary. Poems and songs are scattered throughout. Several letters are reproduced in whole. The story is told from a variety of character’s perspectives (maintaining their own biases and ignorance for lengthy stretches), and events are not always told in chronological order. Long periods of time are skipped over, sometimes without this being made explicit. Yet for all that, the book as a whole is clearly an epic novel. Indeed, it is widely considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century.

    Its major themes are pretty darn biblical as well, but that’s also the case with Tolkien’s epic. ;)

  3. Personally, I’m a huge proponent of looking at the Bible in terms of a narrative. While it is complicated, there’s a lot to be said from looking at it in this way. Whether my view is solely based upon the fact that I’m a book lover and always have been, however, has yet to be determined. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject!

  4. I learned to read the Bible as narrative from Walter Brueggemann’s 1977 book, THE BIBLE MAKES SENSE. This is a great read, and just 155 pages! Available for pennies on Amazon.com, too.

  5. Back at my Roman Catholic high school a priest told me that the Old Testament was a record of one people’s experience of their relationship with God. 20 some years and loads of theology and bible study later, this is still the best description I have found.

  6. Yes, Daniel, I agree with all this. Thanks!

    However, I’d encourage folks to consider that the narrative of Scripture is one which we don’t simply _read_ (in a repesentationalist, modern sense) but rather one which we participate, through performance and enactment.

    Through the Liturgy (including the Creed and the public reading of Scripture and the ritual enactment of the Paschal Mystery) we actually enter into the narrative, and become participants (not mere spectators) in it.


    1. I’m with you on the second paragraph, but not the third, my friend.

      I find that liturgy is too thin way to participate. It doesn’t draw us into the story of Christ, even though it does draw us into the story of the church’s attempt to respond in worship. The Eucharist is a great reminder and reentry into the narrative, but that has to be one that propels us into lives of self-giving love as well as unity of worship.

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