I’m participating in a small forum on, among other things, critical realism somewhere in the damp, green depths of the English countryside at the moment. Critical realism can be addressed from different angles, but one major area of relevance for Christian preachers, teachers, and theologians is the current movement towards historical readings of the New Testament. Critical realism has been used by people like Tom Wright to situate such readings between the naïve realism of modernist historiography and the radical epistemological scepticism of postmodernism.
But the question still arises: What is the relationship between the historical reading and other more devotional, pastoral or theological readings? The example was given yesterday of a woman in theological education who had felt led by the Spirit to give a verse of scripture to someone in desperate need of comfort and encouragement, looked at the narrative context, realized it was contextually inappropriate, didn’t give the verse, and then regretted it later. So does the historical reading have any sort of priority or greater authority than other readings? Do we still have to fall back on a hermeneutic pluralism if scripture is to be comprehensively formative for the church?
Others arrive at the same dilemma by a rather more pessimistic route. Given the fragmentation of Christian “truth” and the current hermeneutical disarray, why should we think that the narrative-historical approach is anything other than one more despairing attempt to shore up a radically failing system? So the question is not whether all methods are equally good but whether all are equally pointless.This is partly where Joseph Miller ends up in a thoughtful and articulate email that he sent to me. I don’t usually do “guest posts” as such, but I think this is worth quoting in full. I won’t attempt to give any direct “advice” here, but the questions he poses are very important. What is the epistemological status of the the narrative-historical approach. How does it relate to other readings? And more troublingly, is our current interest in it a sign of hope or a symptom of despair? Is the promise real or illusory? Here is Joseph’s piece…
With respect to the narrative-historical hermeneutic, I sense that it possesses a greater degree of sensitivity to the actual storyline of scripture and the ancient mindset behind it, as opposed to what we understand (or can understand) through the prism of modern evangelical definitions of the “literal, grammatical, historical” method of interpretation. As you have pointed out in previous posts defining narrative theology, much of what evangelicalism today calls faithfulness to the Bible and Christian truth is actually more of a faithfulness to a form of theology extrapolated from the text, which has been developed within the confines of historical/cultural movements peculiar to particular communities within the western (Caucasian) world. Consider in the United States, for example, how much attention has been given to working out a literal and scientific interpretation to the Genesis account of creation in the face of fundamentalist atheism in the last 100 years, and how much bearing acceptance of a literal six-day creation narrative has on someone’s identity as a Christian theist in those circles. The definition of what it means to even be a Christian has become more and more narrowly defined as a result of the conclusions wrought from such culture wars.
From what I have personally experienced growing up in an evangelical church exposed to strict definitions of what it means to be a Christian based on the understanding of salvation as a personal, individualistic “love relationship” with Jesus Christ, I see that a culture has developed which views alternative approaches to the Christian narrative framework with intense suspicion and distrust. This could be the result of the inadvertent placement and relationship between various epistemological nodes within the fabric of their Christian reality, but it largely has to do with the absolute primacy placed on “salvation” from “a Hell you deserve to a Heaven you don’t.” In fact, within that culture, almost any issue considered important to a Bible-believing Christian becomes an inviolable standard in a long row of tenets requiring surveillance lest any-one fall and topple the entire structure of Christian belief and identity. When the Heaven-Hell salvation paradigm stands at the core of Christian truth, there is indeed no higher ultimatum and no more relevant question than what becomes of our “eternal destiny.” Other questions pertaining to immediate issues in this life, such as those relating to social justice or volunteerism, can easily be minimized as a mis-focusing of our Christian mission to preach the Gospel and fulfill the Great Commission.
Preoccupation with the question, “What must I do to be saved?” in the evangelical context I’m familiar with has driven into the ground the ability of many believers to relate to society and engage with diverse mindsets in an understanding, intelligent way, to the effect that many of those I have seen grow up in the church end up becoming disaffected with Christianity because they don’t have the tools to actually makes sense of their Christian identity in a way that is consistent with its teachings yet able to make distinctions in the world without oversimplifying the categories or narrowly grasping the labels they’ve always applied to it. The strongest Christians, unfortunately, are often the ones who are least in touch with their own social and historical context, and who are therefore out of touch with the application of their faith in living communities of people outside of their own church congregation.
Because of this background experience with Christianity, I have struggled much in finding a way to reconcile my desire to know God, serve Christ and relate to others (Christian or non-Christian) with the perceptions of my own Christian communities that I find to be highly affected by our intellectual history and cultural viewpoint. As far as seeking grounding in a Christian universe is concerned, as well as developing convictions about doctrinal truths and a definable Christian viewpoint on a given subject, I find myself existing within the space of Christian identity but floating without course and possibly drifting towards some landmark outside of that domain.
This all brings me to the question, why hold on to any hermeneutical approach to the New Testament at all when the manner in which Christian communities have held onto their own throughout the centuries is largely aberrant in some fundamental sense from the perspective of some other disassociated and equally self-assured Christian community? In a tangential sense, I feel like a narrative-historical approach to the NT is actually the same situation working out in the thoughts of disaffected evangelicals, in which we are responding to a cultural/historical intellectual crisis of our own and are merely developing ways of coping with the difficulties of holding on to Christian conviction in a postmodern age. Is the struggle even worth it after all? It seems that embracing all approaches to Scripture as meaningful within the communities that embrace them is the only way to find a middle ground. Will we ever be able to land on any “true” understanding of the Christian narrative as long as culturally—and perceptually—bound Christianity exists?
Obviously, I believe it is worth it to find a middle way and correct the excesses of any approach to Christ and his message, but at what point does the constant tweaking and readjusting of our perceptions trail off into an inane pursuit that has no measurable result over however many years we are engaged in it? Is that not the perennial struggle Christians have faced even up to the present day? What is your advice to a man who is not willing to push Christianity out and still sees its premises as more valid than those of any other worldview meta-narrative, yet finds an increasing disenchantment with Christianity itself due in part to the meaningless struggles it seems to generate between professing Christians?