In an article in the latest edition of Christianity Today (“The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony”) Leslie Fields examines the current preference expressed by many evangelicals for narrative over doctrine. She offers by way of evidence a statement made by Derek Flood in a Huffington Post article: “Christian faith is not primarily about arguing over right beliefs and doctrines, it is about letting the story of God’s grace become our story and shape our lives.” Evangelicals are falling over each other these days in their enthusiasm to insert their beliefs into the wide open space between once-upon-a-time and happy-ever-after. Indeed we are.
Fields acknowledges in general terms the importance of narrative for the construction of Christian identity. She notes that our culture is ‘saturated with “the power of story” ’. But she is concerned that the “rise of narrative in our culture and our churches, for all its good, has a dark understory”, because our culture has dismissed the “One Story” in favour of a rampant narrative pluralism:
Language and narrative now are used not to discover meaning imbedded in creation by an omnipotent Creator. Instead, they are used to create personal and subjective meanings in the face of non-meaning.
The problem we have is that believers are “increasingly accommodating the culture’s counterstories, its plots of consumerism, idolatry, and self-fulfilment”. Why? Because they simply don’t know “God’s master story”. The situation has not been helped by bad habits of Christian instruction, but the underlying problem was identified by Hans Frei in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (1980): enlightenment modes of thought have led to the fragmentation of knowledge. The result? We cannot see the wood for the trees. Or the trees for the branches. Or the branches for the leaves.
To this extent, in Fields’ analysis, the turn to narrative has been all to the good. It has restored the integrity of scripture. The practice, however, has not always lived up to the theory. What troubles Fields is the extreme reductionism of popular attempts to retell the biblical story. She quotes Peter Leithart, one of my favourite theologians, to good effect:
Scripture once transformed the world precisely because Bible students clung to the letter. Once the letter is reduced to a malleable vehicle, Scripture loses its potency.
She takes issue with “postmodern churches and pastors” for their highly selective, prejudicial reworkings of the biblical narrative, which “end appealingly without wrath, judgment, or any unpleasant inequality”, and she is right to do so. Narrative theology has been steered too far to the left. But the answer is not to put the brakes on, or worse, to swerve wildly back to the right. The answer is to go straight ahead, to let the narrative take us where it wants to go.
What Fields advocates is a both/and solution. God’s truths are “both propositional and incarnational, both theological and experiential”.
Doctrine can do what Bible stories alone cannot: take us beyond the time-and-place limits of human events to encompass the full scope of God’s magnificent redemption.
This approach, however, will simply deliver an unsatisfactory—and typically evangelical—compromise. It is not the way to guard against the abuse of narrative, it is not the way to fix the problems with the old propositional approaches, it is not the way to understand scripture.
1. Fields wants to send narrative theology to its room because it has misbehaved: too many people—they know who they are—have taken it as a licence to tell the biblical story the way they think it ought to be told. If you ask me, that is a small-minded, unadventurous, the-grown-ups-know-best response to the problem. The problem is real enough, but the way forward, in my view, is not to regulate narrative theology but to learn to let scripture speak consistently and unrestrictedly in its own narrative voice.
2. One of the main reasons why a narrative approach to theology is being pushed so vigorously at the moment is that too many questions are being raised about the cogency of our doctrines. We’re really not sure that the grown-ups can be trusted. There is no point in counter-asserting creeds, propositions, and doctrines that get the story wrong, or just don’t get the story, which is frankly what it comes down to. The issue here is not so much the particular itemized “beliefs”. it is the fact of itemized beliefs. It is how beliefs are framed. Doctrine constructs and frames its “truths” rationally, systematically, in abstraction from the texts; scripture constructs and frames its “truths” narratively, chaotically and contingently.
3. Narrative theology, currently, is reformative. It is a tool that has been picked up for a specific reason, and we should not be surprised if it brings into question aspects of the prevailing evangelical belief system. In that regard, it makes no sense to pursue a both/and strategy. It’s like having builders come in to fix up an old property and then telling them to ignore the problem of major subsidence.
4. Why we need doctrine in order to “encompass the full scope of God’s magnificent redemption” is beyond me. Either it’s there in the biblical narrative or it’s not. Either the Bible tells the story of—among other things—how God redeemed his people from their sins or it doesn’t.
5. Fields’ argument that “narrative” is not the only genre in scripture, that the Bible also contains “proverbs, poetry, law, exhortation, prophesy, lament, riddle, letters, visions, genealogies, and prayers”, is obviously true at the literary level but misses the point of a narrative theology. A narrative theology does not merely promote the narrative parts of scripture, potentially at the expense of the non-narrative material. A narrative theology holds that the theological content of scripture is narratively constructed and bounded, which means in practice that we cannot speak of Jesus, faith, discipleship, salvation, grace, kingdom, justification, resurrection, wrath, heaven, hades, etc., apart from the story of Israel.
6. The story of Israel is not mere story—it is not a literary device. It is a matter of history, and it is history that must establish the story as authoritative. The postmodern popularizers get the story wrong not because they disregard this or that evangelical rule of faith but because they fail—in their concern to have scripture speak to postmodern people today—to deal consistently with the historical dimension. A narrative hermeneutic alone will always be vulnerable to the sort criticism that Fields offers in this article. It is too malleable. But the answer is not to fix the ball and chain of doctrine to its leg. The answer is a narrative-historical hermeneutic. The answer is to recognize that what scripture gives us is the story which the historical community of the people of God told about itself. There is no need to go beyond the “time-and-place limits of human events” in order to expound and defend the theological truth of scripture.
7. Fields quotes Edith Humphrey, finally: “We don’t participate in a story… we participate in him.” Cute, but it misses the point. We cannot participate in Christ without participating in the story that makes sense of his life, mission, death and exaltation.