Saturday, June 27, 2009
Reflections on Narrative Theology
I recently taught a course called "Narrative Theology" and thought I would post a few reflections on the experience. I found it to be one of my most stimulating teaching experiences thus far. The course was challenging to prep, because there isn't an established "canon" of course material upon which one can draw. Narrative theology is not so much a "discipline," or a "field" of study as it is a convergence of theologians and writings which share similar, albeit distinct, concerns and questions. What is theology? What is the point of it? What's the relation between narrative and theology? Who, or what, determines the meaning of a text? How is a theological proposal authorized or legitimated? What's the role of one's community in interpretation and theologizing? The questions go on.
While this schematization has its problems, it is helpful to think of narrative theology in terms of two "schools," Yale and Chicago. The Yale school includes theologians such as Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, and Stanley Hauerwas. The Chicago school boasts David Tracey, Sally McFague, and Paul Ricouer. It's crude to put it this way, but you might think of the Yale school folks as emphasizing the particularity and finality of the biblical narrative as appropriated within one's interpretive, religious community, while the windy city theologians emphasize the power of biblical narrative and metaphor to open new "possible worlds" (Ricoeur) and to intersect and dialogue with equally valid disciplines of discourse across interpretive communities.
The most intriguing discussions during the course centered around questions regarding the task of theology. We can grant that the Bible contains lots of narratives (duh), but what does a theology that attends intentionally to narrative and employs it as a form of theological discourse provide? Does narrative theology actually contribute a new way of doing theology? And if it does, is it an improvement on pre-modern theologizing? (or is it just a fancy way of saying we ought to be biblical (Yale) and our theology ought to be creatively engaged with the world (Chicago)?
I offer four initial suggestions (I welcome others from readers--especially those who took the course) as to what aspects of Narrative theology seem most helpful and potentially constructive for evangelical theology and its mission. These four suggestions come by way of four representative theologians.
(1) From Hans Frei: the warning that we have "eclipsed the biblical narrative" with something else. I fear that the evangelical church has substituted the raw and affective power of the biblical narratives, with all its depth, richness, complexity and perplexity, with other things (e.g. ideologies about scripture which leave scripture itself behind, self-help material, vague generalities regarding the "meaning of life," a CEO God rather than the Trinity, etc.)
(2) From George Lindbeck (and Wittgenstein): The insight that meaning is contextual. Words do not mean things, people do. And people speak words in a context. When the crusader, lopping off his enemy's head, say's "Jesus is Lord!" what does "Jesus is Lord" mean? It doesn't mean the same thing as when the martyr says it. This point has innumerable applications for theology, church life, evangelism, witness, etc.
(3) From Paul Ricoeur: On good literature (and especially Scripture) as opening up "possible worlds." The narratives of Scripture suggest new worlds we can can live in--worlds that give us hope for a better future. Preachers ought to read Ricoeur and consider how, when preaching the text, they can invite their listeners to enter the world of the Bible and to substitute its grand, hopeful (not all of them seem so, of course) narratives for their own little ones (materialism, "success," fatalism, etc.)
(4) From Sally McFague: On parable and metaphor as illuminating the mysterious intersection of the divine and the human, the sacred and the secular. Jesus' parables, she points out, are masterpieces of parabolic theology, in which the infinite is expressed through the finite, the Kingdom of God through the reality of the human. Coins, sheep and Samaritans become vehicles through which God's redemption is made tangible and accessible. Theologians ought to work hard at seeing the presence of God in the stuff of real life.