Why Narrative Theology?

Within Protestantism (and more specifically Evangelicalism) there has been a tendency toward the abstractions of doctrinal confessions. Theology has most often tended toward bullet pointed statements of confession. While this has its place it fails to grapple with the revelation of God which we confess as such: the very form of the Scriptures. The nature of Scripture itself is not first and foremost abstract universal claims, but primarily story. Why is this? Should it affect the manner in which we reflect upon our theological confessions? How might it be reflected appropriately without simply becoming (like so many sermons) three points and a poem? (Even the “world” regards story as more important to communication than bullet-points).
The following were listed by David F. Ford* as reasons offered “for the attractiveness of narrative” in theological reflection (ironically enough offered in bullet-pointed fashion):

  • it is the main genre of the Bible
  • it is the underlying structure of the Christian creeds, baptism and eucharist
  • its concreteness and particularity deserve primacy in relation to the more abstract, generalizing approach of much doctrine and theology
  • it gives a proper prominence to people in interaction, to specific contexts and to actions and events, all of which tend to be marginalized or treated too generally and abstractly by traditional theological discourse
  • it provides a way into doctrine and ethics which is definite, imaginative and well-suited to the gospel while not claiming an exclusive or imperialistic universality
  • it is the basic, irreducible way to express human experience and identity
  • it enables a fresh approach to the relationship of historical fact to Christian truth
  • it provides a forum for encounter and discussion, not only between very different types of Christian theology, but also between various religions and cultures (all of which have their stories) and between theology and other disciplines (e.g. literary studies, history, psychology, anthropology).

The story of God is the story of redemption and life. It is the story we find ourselves caught up in and carrying various threads of the divine narrative toward their culmination in new creation. The story of Scripture is our story and the cosmos’ story. So let’s at least speak in ways that flows from God’s own self revelation in Scripture, in the Word made flesh, and in the Spirit within. Let us tell the old, old story as the new experience of the divine life…as reflecting Father, Son and Spirit.
* D. F. Ford, ‘Narrative Theology,’ pp.489-91 in R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden, eds, A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (London: SCM, 1990), pp.489, 490.

Lamenting Lamentations: A Literary-Theology

lamentationsIn teaching the book of Lamentations, I was (once again) struck by the structure of this little book in its Hebrew form. It seems by its very structure to shape the Hebrew reader/hearer. Of course, any reading of the text that simply notes structural issues and not the text proper would fall short, but I’m offering here only a brief look at these structural elements as one more move toward the theology of Lamentations which seems stated by the text proper (which I bring up to clarify the theological trajectory which cannot properly be stated apart from the text).
The first two chapters have triple bicolon strophes per verse (22 verses each) with each strophe beginning with the next letter of the acrostic acrostic. Chapter 3 (66 verses) has triple bicolons where each bicolon of that strophe begins with that letter of the acrostic and is signified by a new verse number. Chapter four (22 verses) is doubled bicolons per strophe each strophe beginning with the acrostic. And chapter five (22 verses) is a dissolution of any of these patterns: no acrostic, no continuity of bicolons, irregular strophes. It makes the crescendo of the lament at chapter three begin its decline into full breaking of any sense of control by chapter five. This is signified by the heightened use of the acrostic even though the count of bicolons is identical to the first two chapters. It is a move toward greater disorder of a judged people (a sort of return to Genesis 1.2’s tohu-wabohu or being “unfilled and unfruitful”). It functions as the pottery of Jeremiah 18 that is not to the intention of the potter and must be undone from its form.
The soul of the LORD’s people are laid bare. They are undone. Can anything be made of this or is this the end of all?
Taking up the text itself, this places them right where the LORD wanted them in order to bring life from death, hope from despair, and salvation from judgment. The earth might fall into disarray, all order into disorder, but the LORD’s kingdom is established, his reign is life, his rule: restoration.
19 You, Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
20 Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
    renew our days as of old
22 unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lam.5.19-22 NIV 2011; bold for emphasis)
Acrostic in the Scriptures refers to the successive 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet beginning the first word and following in succession to the end of the alphabet.
Bicolon is a two line poetic unit.
Strophe refers to the larger thought unit of any number of smaller units (perhaps also called a “stanza”).
Tricolon is a three line poetic unit.

Literature for Ethics and Theology


“Literature is important for ethics because literature is as complicated as life itself, and cannot be decoded or boiled down. Ethical insight comes from reading it–first sequentially and then reflectively–not from trying to extract a ‘message’ from it.”*

This is one of the primary problems I have witnessed in folks reading and preaching from the OT. There is a strong tendency to undo the complexities inherent to the ethics (or theology) of the text and instead seek an abstracted principle that fails to do justice to the fullest intent of the text.
We like to simplify. The problem is that life is not so simple. Ethics (and theology) are not so simple. The teaching of truth in prose or storied form allows for far more complexities to remain including leaving some questions open-ended. And that is a good, even when troubling, thing.
* John Barton, Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explanations (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2003), p.63.

The Beauty of the Bible

How to Read the Bible as LiteratureThe more I study the Scriptures, the more I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the Scriptures…and by the God who has inspired writers in their own day and culture to write with beauty. The deeper I dig, the more treasures I discover. It never ceases to amaze me what depths of literary fashioning the Scriptures have been formed by. Thankfully others have helped along the way (for a very concise introduction to literary reading, see 5 Strategies for Reading the Bible as Literature; better yet, pick up a copy of Leland Ryken’s brief “How to Read the Bible as Literature” [Zondervan, 1984]).
One of my assignments I’ve given my Former Prophets class is to write a brief “Literary” research paper. I was surprised to read some of their topics: mirroring, poetic analysis, characterization, irony, wordplay, inclusios, and chiasms (among others). Even their papers remind me of the depths of the creativity which pertains to God’s creation (of these students, the writers of Scripture, and the Scripture itself). God is creative beyond comprehension…it should not therefore surprise us that God’s word to us is so creative as well.

Who Do You Believe? Jean Valjean and the Amalekite

Les Miserables 1999
Les Miserables 1999 (Photo credit: Rick Payette)

My wife and I went on a date (admittedly a rare occurrence with four children) to see Les Misérables. It was a wonderful (at times depressing) musical film adaptation of the classic book by Victor Hugo (which I have never read). One of the things which struck me was the sense in which we are beholden to the story delivered by Jean Valjean. He tells of his reason for the nineteen years imprisonment (stealing bread for his sister’s son) as an inclusio (in the opening scene just before his release and again at the end just before he dies).
The question is: Can we take Jean Valjean at his word?  It is a literary technique to allow for ambiguity by keeping such significant claims in the mouth of the perpetrator.  After all, don’t most criminals have some form of justification that is claimed?  Should we believe this man who wants to assert his innocence?  As it turns out, we are never shown the actual incident.  There is no narrator who asserts this claim. Such things would actually validate the claims of Valjean, but as it stands (at least in the musical film adaptation…again…I haven’t read the book so I cannot say at all how it is presented by Victor Hugo) we are actually left to wonder if Valjean speaks the truth or not.  I want to believe him (he is the “hero” of the tale), but struggle to do so (he is also the man in need of constant redemption).
This leads me to think of the account of Saul’s demise in 2 Sam. 1:1-16. In this account, we find an Amalekite who brings word to David that Saul is dead. He recounts a tale of Saul instructing to take his life so that the Philistines would not have the pleasure. As it stands, we might be bound to believe this account of the Amalekite (in fact, David does; vv. 14, 16). But the narrator in 1 Samuel 31:1-6 states that Saul tried to convince his own armor-bearer to finish him off, but in end falls on his sword to end his life to which the armor-bearer does likewise (vv.5-6).
So which account should we believe?  The words of the narrator (1 Sam) or the character of the Amalekite (2 Sam)?  I personally think it is normal that one would accept the words of the narrator over any character given that the narrator typically asserts some sense of omniscience in all accounts. This is the conundrum of literary stylizing.  One cannot simply assume that all characters (particularly those painted in some way as untrustworthy–a criminal imprisoned for 19 years, an Amalekite) speak the truth. It is this ambiguity which actually helps to create a deeper sense of reality to the whole tale. We do not know the reality, but in the end it would not matter. In either case, we are led toward other matters more pressing: the redemption of Jean Valjean and the rise of David as king in the place of Saul and his sons.

The Beauty of the Book of Job

Ah…the beauty of the poetics of Job at last have been discovered and boiled down to the following helpful equation (courtesy of Robert Polzin, Biblical Structuralism, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p.75):   Fx(a) : Fy(b) ≅ Fx(b) : Fa – 1(y) 
Aren’t you overwhelmed by the clear structure of the theodicy of Job?  Does it not amaze you that the ancient writer could wrestle with the ultimate questions of justice and come to such mind-blowing formula? I figured someone else might enjoy this bit of literary humor besides myself.  At least this is not the normal for a “literary reading” (though I can’t see any way around such in structuralism). 🙂