A culture war is being fought over Scripture. On one side, critical-historical scholars attack the very notion of scriptural authority. Fundamentalism retaliates with literalism, but struggles to be consistent: holy kisses are uncommon (Rom. 16, 16), while many happily eat black pudding and own two shirts, despite injunctions (Acts 15, 20; Lk. 3, 11). Meanwhile, post-modernism rejects the truth claims of both camps. A refreshing alternative is narrative theology, a literary approach to scripture with new possibilities for reaching theological conclusions. Essential to this approach is the observation that the canon of scripture is mainly narrative in genre. With roots in Biblical studies, literary methods and Wittgensteinian philosophy, it flourished in the 1970s in North America, particularly Yale (Loving, 3). In this study, I will outline the tenets and antitheses of this theological approach with particular emphasis on improvisation as a means of developing doctrine. After examining several examples of improvisation as an alternative to either fundamentalism or locating authority solely in reader-response, I will then offer an evaluation of this theological method.
Hodge and the Princeton School stand, perhaps, at the polar opposite of the spectrum from narrative theology. Hodge sought to systematize theology along rationalist-empiricist lines, sharing methods with natural scientists (McGrath, 2011, 136). Auerbach was one of the first to emphasize the narrative quality of scripture and begin a corrective process against empiricism (Loving, 2000, 10). Diverse scholars today affirm the primacy of narrative in scripture. From N.T. Wright to Hauerwas (in Hayes, 1996, 255), many agree that story, not propositions, forms the Biblical basis of theology. Wright argues that narrative has the greater power to transform and challenge, and to form identity and community (2005, 19). He contrasts the canonical gospel accounts with non-narrative Gnostic writings like the Gospel of Thomas (ibid., 46), just as Wells (2004, 16) warns against dangerously abstract and oppressive theology divorced from history by Enlightenment theologians. McGrath describes narrative theology as one among the literary approaches, concerning itself with what texts say rather than critically evaluating their historicity and origins (2011, 135). On this, Goldingay posits that narrative approaches capture the burden of texts, which critical-historical scholars and systematic theologians often miss (1995, 18).
Narrative theologians see in scripture more than a collection of discrete stories. Rather, they discern a controlling story or metanarrative (Wright, 2005, 18) with central theological concerns (Bauckham, 2003, 14; Placher, 2002, 37). Narrative theologians endeavour to discriminate sub-plot and local-temporal appropriation from the overarching coherent story. Bauckham cites the historical summaries as evidence of this ‘big story’ about the meaning of the whole of reality (2003, 48). Jenson (2003, 29) claims that smaller narrative units must illumine the grand story arc; indeed Steinmetz (2003, 54) draws the analogy of mystery writing where seemingly odd details only later fall into place to make sense of a whole, and in which ‘second-narrative moments’ call for earlier units to be reinterpreted. Such canonical treatment of texts is anathema to critical-historians (ibid., 56). This overarching narrative is characterized by development, i.e. there are discontinuity and surprise as well as continuity and the fulfilment of expectations (Wright, 2005, 39).
For Wells, both scripture and doctrine resemble drama even more than narrative (2004, 12; 59). Others agree that theology must be performed to be rightly understood (Davis and Hays, 2003, 3). Hauerwas emphasizes that only the community formed by the story can understand it correctly, in media res rather than as a detached observer (in Hays, 1996, 255). Wells (2004, 53) and Wright (2005, 45) both suggest that the scriptural metanarrative is a Theo-drama in five acts. For Wright, the acts are Creation, the Fall, Israel, Jesus and the New Testament Church including the church today. Wells challenges whether it is right to consider the church the final act, and suggests that Creation and the Fall should constitute one act (due to the scant narratives on this early part of the drama), and a further act, the Eschaton, in which all things reach their conclusion. This difference accounts perhaps for Wright’s more conservative stance and Wells’ more risk-taking approach to theology, since the latter does not see the church’s role as getting theology right in the end. Such delineations into acts are ultimately subjective.
For contemporary times, Wells finds even drama too static a genre (2004, 12), preferring improvisation. He argues that not every situation is explained directly in scripture. In the post-apostolic church, we are in media res as characters within the drama (Jenson, 2003, 32) but with no script to follow for issues such as assisted suicide, genetic modification or stem cell research (Wells, 2004, 62; Wright, 2005, 15). We trust the final consummation (Davis and Hays, 2003, 5), but Hauerwas supports Wells in claiming that flexibility is a required virtue, the ability to welcome the unexpected, not fearing surprises but participating in the unscripted part of an unfinished story (in Hayes, 1996, 258). Wright (2005, 27) offers the Shakespeare analogy: an incomplete play is discovered and experts attempt to finish the post-humus work according to their familiarity with Shakespeare. Wells stresses that theologians must improvise responses to new situations, like actors in a training school, not in a theatre of the absurd (Jenson, 2003, 32), but with continuity alongside development. Wright (2005, 51) and Brueggeman (2002, 61) agree that theological responses should not be mere repetition, but involve innovation with constancy. Brueggemann sees this as a better alternative to ‘cold reiterative objectivity, [with] no missional or moral energy’ (ibid., 18). In fact, this model of improvisation, of re-interpreting texts for new contexts, is already exemplified in the early church where authors and editors gave new senses to texts (Davis and Hays, 2003, 3), leaders engaged theologically with new issues such as the incorporation of Gentiles into the church, and abrogated earlier parts of the story as new things happen. Again, Wells notes aptly how the early church took risks and made mistakes, arguing that there is no golden age or blueprint to re-create in fundamentalist ways, only new situations to improvise (2004, 66).
Part Two: Three examples of improvisation
Two initial examples of theological improvisation, namely the abolition of slavery and female ordination, serve to demonstrate narrative theology and improvisation in practice. Wilberforce is championed today, but was considered by many of his contemporaries to be blatantly contravening scripture in insisting slavery be abolished (Chalke, 2013). Narrative theology provides a two-fold rationale for Wilberforce’s agenda. Firstly, references to slave ownership could be seen as cultural appropriations within the bigger story, and not ahistorical propositions condoning a dehumanizing practice. Secondly, as the narrative develops, change is seen and the trajectory can be traced beyond the apostolic church to subsequent ages. Early on, slavery is accepted albeit with protection of human dignity unknown outside God’s self-revelation to his people. By the NT, Paul refuses to chastise Titus’s fugitive slave, even declaring that there is neither free nor slave (Gal. 3, 28). The natural conclusion is the eventual abolition of this practice. Blount (2002) seems to miss this gradual development in his argument, almost discounting scripture rather than continuing the storyline (ref). Paul also declares that there is neither male nor female (also Gal. 3, 28), and similar improvisation has taken place concerning women in ordained ministry. Again, scripture seems to warrant such development beyond the first century Roman Empire, with a steady development from OT to NT. The dramatic development and faithful improvisation, extrapolating earlier scripted acts to today, seem to warrant liberation of women and slaves.
More recently, the church has been considering doctrine relating to human sexuality, in particular same-sex relationships. Part of the process of establishing doctrine relates to the primacy of material as it relates to the key acts in the biblical meta-narrative. Even Hays with his conservative views on the issue concedes that same-sex relationships are a minor concern compared to economic justice (1996, 381). He thus agrees with Brueggemann (2002, 12) and Placher (202, 31) who refer to ‘lesser’, culture-specific biblical material as opposed to God’s eternal purposes and will, assigning prohibitions of homosexual practice to the former. However, while Brueggemann and Placher attempt thus to sanction homosexual relationships, Hays convincingly places this secondary issue within a main Act of the Theo-drama by his successful hermeneutic of Rom. 1 in which he shows homosexuality to be an illustration of wider consequences of idolatry and the Fall. Wright’s exegesis also places human sexuality as complementary within God’s creative purposes, which makes it harder to relegate teaching on homosexuality to culture-specific ‘lesser’ material (2004, 21).
Interestingly, narrative approaches to homosexuality are employed, yielding contradictory results, by Steve Chalke (2013) and his critics Downes (2013) and Holmes (2013). Chalke claims that it is his very seriousness about scriptural authority which makes him wrestle with the Biblical references to homosexuality. He cites Copernicus and Wilberforce as examples of the Church’s condemnation for alleged license in accepting scripture, and suggests that homosexuality should be treated like the issues of slavery and female ordination. He counters Wright’s and Hay’s views above, demonstrating how arguments against women in leadership roles are rooted in nature and creation (1 Tim. 2, 11-14) just as Paul also goes to creation in his teaching in Rom. 1, 18-32. But his main argument is that homosexuality should be accepted as a trajectory of the liberation and inclusivity of the NT church: surely if issues of slavery and women in leadership can be re-cast in light of human development and new contexts, the same should hold for same-sex relationships? Chalke’s term ‘trajectory’ overlaps significantly with Wells’ use of ‘improvisation’. However, while Downes and Holmes both accept that this trajectory indeed precludes slavery and permits women clergy, despite biblical decrees to the contrary, they argue that homosexuality cannot be thus accepted. They claim that concerning women and slaves the seeds of change, or ambiguity, can be found in the biblical narrative, whereas every reference to homosexual practice, OT as well as NT, is negative. With no NT starting point, there is no trajectory, merely revisionism. They, like Wright and Hays, take this fact to require continuity and not innovation as the church responds to calls, internal and external, to sanction same-sex unions.
Part Three: An evaluation of narrative theology
Narrative theology is acceptable to many precisely because it prioritizes scripture, unlike perhaps contemporary trends such as Trinitarian and radical orthodox theologies which according to Wright (2005, 11) lack a rigorously biblical basis. Narrative theology is true to the nature of scripture in prioritizing story, returning perhaps to how the apostles interpreted scripture before the focus became allegorization and lectio divina (ibid., 52). It avoids the bibliolatry of fundamentalism, with its approach to development and discontinuity in the story. It affirms that God acts in history, decisively in the incarnation, and allows for creativity and imagination over dulling abstraction. Wright (ibid., 19) describes aptly how narrative jolts readers into thinking and acting differently, thus providing a model of how scripture transforms creation itself (ibid., 21). Furthermore, it challenges de-storied, individualist spirituality, calling Christians to take part in the story of the whole community. The academy and church are brought together to live theology out in relevant ways.
A key weakness of narrative theology is its neglect, or at least demotion, of non-narrative genres. Such a ‘narrative hegemony’ subjugates the lyric and prophetic portions of scripture which speak in their own powerful ways of God and his plans (Loving, 2000; 46; Goldingay, 1995, 6). Perhaps the strongest criticism comes from Kerr who claims this narrative approach has more basis in ‘this story-obsessed culture’ than theology (1975, 132). Kerr states this too strongly, but certainly narrative approaches are subjective and open to bias and cultural assumptions such as liberal democracy, capitalism and relativism to which their proponents are blind. In claiming which elements of the story constitute the overarching metanarrative and not sub-plot or local-temporal expression, there is an inherent selectivity. Who decides what is main plot or sub-plot, or what belongs in created order or is temporal? Are weak voices (or Two Thirds World voices, LGBT voices, etc) heard in the narrative selected? Wright warns wisely of the ever-present possibility of self-deceit, positing that historical-critical scholarship is still needed in order to discover what biblical authors meant in their contexts (Wright, 2005, 81).
Narrative theology offers an exciting alternative to the propositional theology of rationalist and Enlightenment thinking, more faithful to the nature of scripture and less dully abstract. Improvisation is a useful method of Christian theology today, tracing the development within scripture and ensuring our theology today is both faithful and dynamic. On this basis, black pudding is permitted, but the spirit of harmony and sensitivity of the Council of Jerusalem is essential. Improvisation offers a theologically reflected rationale for the abolition of slavery and the ordination of women priests, despite obvious scriptural references to the contrary. Regarding the theological stance on same-sex partnerships, however, the subjectivity and selectivity of narrative theology become apparent. Yet as complex as these issues are, one key strength of this approach is that it provides a theological common ground for those of differing opinions, one that offers respite from theological culture wars and offers the hope for respect, understanding, and a continued searching together rather than schism.
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