unPodcast: Does the narrative-historical method help us to answer the question “Why be a Christian?”

This is the script for the recent podcast of the same name for those who prefer the sound of the voice in their head.

Here’s the question that I want to address. It was sent to me by someone who gets the narrative-historical approach to reading the Bible and is wondering whether it has anything to say about the more fundamental matter of the credibility of the Christian view of God.

I’m enjoying your work…. I have a question for you. I don’t mean it negatively or as an attack upon you. With your understanding, why should we be Christians? Or rather, in your view, why is Christianity the best way of understanding God, life, etc.? I’m having a few doubts on the existence of God (though I find atheist arguments anachronistic and unpersuasive) and so I was wondering how the narrative-historical understanding would speak to this.

One of the legacies of the long cultural dominance of European Christianity, which we call Christendom, has been the assumption that the Christian worldview is in direct competition with other worldviews, whether religious or secular. So a large part of the theological enterprise has been directed towards defending what is taken to be the biblical construction of reality and picking holes in other people’s constructions of reality. That seems to me to be the premise of questions of the type “why is Christianity the best way of understanding God, life, etc.?” Is the Christian account of reality correct? Or is the secular-atheist account of reality correct? Which to choose?

On the face of it, it looks like a question that a non-Christian would ask: give me reasons to believe in your God. But as it gets harder and harder to sustain traditional Christian belief in an aggressively secular environment, the dilemma is probably more acutely felt by Christians trying to cling on to their faith. The theological paradigm that has kept me afloat until now is taking on water at an alarming rate. Your narrative-historical paradigm looks more robust. Should I swim over and clamber on board?

The perennial and unanswerable question of whether there is a God obviously lies at the heart of this controversy. But since we are concerned specifically with the Christian account of reality, we are likely to ask too whether God, if he exists, really became man in the person of Jesus in order to bring about the redemption of humanity. Is the Christ event the metaphysical axis around which the universe eternally revolves? It doesn’t half complicate things.

So does the narrative-historical method help us to answer these questions, resolve the dilemma, settle the doubts, keep us afloat? Does it help us to decide whether or not Christianity is the best way of understanding life? Does it put a new stumbling block in the way of the agnostics and atheists to stub their toes on? Might it even be put to evangelistic use?

I think probably not, but let’s give it a go.

How to read the Bible for all it was worth

The narrative-historical method has to do quite narrowly with how we read the Bible. The basic argument—well, my basic argument—is that scripture gives us the story that Israel began to tell, from the exile onwards about its experience of living under a series of largely hostile pagan empires, from Babylon to Rome. Daniel’s vision of the judgment of the four beasts of empire and the giving of kingdom to “one like a son of man” is definitive in this regard. It says it all.

It seems to me right to start with the exile for the reason that this was the traumatic historical event that provoked Israel to account for its experience and self-understanding by means of a comprehensive, complex, prophetic telling of its story.

This is not to say that there is no genuine historical material prior to the exile—I’m not saying that the story of pre-exilic Israel was entirely an invention, though no doubt some of it was. We also need to take account of the prophetic witness against 8th century Israel and the circumstances of the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom. But it’s from the 6th century onwards that we are on solid historical ground talking about Israel as a people that felt bound to examine its quandary and generate hope for the future by self-consciously telling its story.

This paragraph from Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament makes the point well:

Whatever older materials may have been utilized (and the use of older materials can hardly be doubted), the exilic and/or postexilic location of the final form of the text suggests that the Old Testament materials, understood normatively, are to be taken precisely in an acute crisis of displacement, when old certitudes—sociopolitical as well as theological—had failed. Indeed, the crisis of displacement looms as definitive in the self-understanding of Judaism that emerged in the exile and thereafter. With the failure of long-trusted institutions, the faith community that generated the final form of the text, and that was generated by it, was thrown back in a singular way on the textual-rhetorical possibility for life-space. In acute dislocation when appeal could no longer be made to city, king, or temple, it was to this text that Israel increasingly had to look. (W. Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, 74-75)

So the story-telling begins in earnest with the exile, but the story itself goes way back further.

It begins with the progressive frustration of the purposes of the creator God, who then chooses a priestly people to serve him in the midst of the nations; and it looks ahead to the concrete victory of Israel’s God over the regional powers which, in one way or another, symbolically or actually, had dominated Israel’s world since the calling of Abraham out of the shadow of Babel.

The exile was the turning point. Israel reacted to the sudden, shocking realisation of how precarious its tenure of the Land was by imagining a glorious new future in which Jerusalem was not merely restored but was made, in effect, the capital of an empire of YHWH.

In Daniel’s words, “the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (Dan. 7:27).

The New Testament, I think, is a continuation—not the only one available at the time—of exactly that narrative. It addresses the questions: How would the idolatrous and unrighteous empire be finally overthrown? How would the God of Israel finally establish his own righteous rule over the nations governed by Rome?

The answer that the New Testament gives is: through the faithfulness of Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, seated at his right hand, and appointed judge of the pagan world to the end that, sooner or later, the nations that formerly had bowed the knee to Rome would confess Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of the God of Israel.

What the modern reader then has to decide is whether we are still waiting for that outcome or whether it makes more sense to suppose that it was fulfilled, in typically ambiguous and unsatisfactory historical fashion, in the conversion of the Roman Empire in the years after Constantine.

Theology and history

The narrative-historical method teaches us to foreground the historical community which told its story in this way—recognising, of course, a significant bifurcation in the New Testament period caused by the refusal of Israel to accept that its God had raised Jesus from the dead. The story of Jesus does not function on its own, as a free-floating theo-mythological, more or less gnostic redemptive event. It makes sense only as a critical episode in the long unfinished story of the historical community of the people of God.

This has implications, then, for how we speak about the incarnation—that modification of a simple rational monotheism that has been the hallmark of Christian theology since the patristic period. If we want to retain the language of the doctrine, I think we have to speak of God becoming incarnate specifically in the story of his people. That may put the doctrine under too much strain, but it’s worth trying. The Synoptic Gospels give us the story of the Son who is sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel, who is rejected by the tenants and killed, but who will nevertheless inherit. Even John speaks of the “word” becoming flesh and dwelling among his own people, among the Jews. It was only as the church escaped the pull of the Jewish narrative that it became possible—and no doubt necessary—to translate the “incarnation” of divine wisdom in first century Israel into more abstract, universal categories.

The method also teaches us, I think—though this is, of course, debatable—that the New Testament argument about the coming kingdom of God was not a totalising one. Even at its most ambitious it works within the inevitable limits of concrete historical experience. The primary objective of New Testament eschatological expectation was not the conversion of all humanity or the redemption of the cosmos, but the realistic annexation of that part of the world currently governed by Rome. This programme gave us Christendom, which went on to develop its own expansionist tendencies—the spread of Christian civilisation throughout the world by means of the machinery of European imperialism, the delusion of ideological finality. But Christendom has also run up against the normal constraints of history and has collapsed. Nothing lasts forever. So the shrunken church in the secular West is having to fall back on a tightly circumscribed, reconfigured existence under a new cultural hegemony.

The church, in my view, has no prospect of winning the competition between worldviews. Nor does it need to win that competition. The “theological” task is only to give a credible account of our own peculiar, persistent, defiant vocation under changing historical circumstances.

Why be a Christian?

So here, I think, we have roughly the narrative-historical frame within which to consider the supposedly ultimate questions about God and the meaning of life.

The early church believed that it would eventually be vindicated, justified for its belief that Jesus was the Son of God who would rule over the nations (cf. Rom. 15:12). And indeed, it got its “I told you so” moment in history as Christianity was ratified as the official religion of the empire.

Perhaps the church under secularism today could articulate for itself an analogous hope, a future “day of the Lord” when we will be publicly vindicated or justified for sticking to the unfashionable task of serving the good, righteous, holy, compassionate, almighty creator God in the face of massive cultural indifference.

What in our experience of the Spirit of God now might be regarded as a foretaste, an anticipation, a guarantee of a transformative “I told you so” moment to come—fifty years from now, a hundred years from now?

I don’t know. But it’s the sort of avenue that the narrative-historical method directs us down when we ask the question “why be a Christian?” Why be a Christian? Because the creator God, who raised his Son from the dead, is going to do something in the future—in realistic, meaningful historical terms—to demonstrate his rightness, his righteousness, to demonstrate to our society that he is not a redundant hypothesis.

Why be a Christian? Because the story has prophetic power.

Remember how Paul portrayed the faith of the Thessalonians: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9–10). Yes, the proof of the pudding was partly in the eating. These Gentiles found the experience of freedom and life in the Spirit more compelling than their former life as worshippers of the pagan gods, their benighted bondage to the “elementary principles of the world” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:2-3; Gal. 3:1-6; 4:3).

But the real “proof”, the real demonstration of the legitimacy or plausibility of their faith in Christ lay in the future. Would the wrath of God come upon the pagan religious system? And would Jesus deliver them when it did? That was the faith by which they would eventually be justified. They just had to wait and see.

So why be a Christian—rather than a Buddhist or an atheist? Well, I wouldn’t put the question in quite those terms. I would rather ask something like: Why serve the living God at this moment in history? Why become part of the community that has told, is telling, its story in this way—a community which traces its identity and purpose back through the centuries of Christian ascendancy, to the traumatic reformation of the New Testament period, and further back through the experience of imperial oppression and exile and exodus, to the calling of Sarah and Abraham to be the beginning of a new creation people, in microcosm, in the Land, in the midst of a permanently “fallen” humanity?

Do I want to be part of that? Why should I be part of that?

The task of the church is to serve the interests of the living God as a priesthood in the world, as indiscriminate community—young and old, rich and poor, wise and foolish, male and female and whatever: to worship him, to mediate his presence, to proclaim his glory, to defend his name, to speak his mind.

If a person has the desire or feels called to become part of this new creation, to enter into this priestly community, then he or she must reckon with the conditions of membership: to receive the offer of inclusion as a gift of grace because the future of this people was bought by Jesus’ blood, to put off the old creation and put on the new, to profess allegiance to our exalted Lord, and to enter into the life of the powerful Spirit of the living God.

Here’s where I think we end up

The narrative-historical method can only bring into focus the realistic experience of that part of Israel that came to believe that the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus was the solution to the age-old conflict with pagan empire.

This change of perspective—from the theological to the consistently historical—makes a big difference to how we read the Bible and understand our relation to it. It suggests, not least, that belief in the biblical God must happen as a dynamic engagement with the whole story, including that part of the story that is still to come.

The story remains problematic in all sorts of ways, but in my view it gives us a much more meaningful, much more robust, much more sea-worthy account of God than the standard conservative-evangelical story about a God who descends into history at an arbitrary moment to redeem humanity.

It generates a worldview, but not one that must compete with the dominant secular narratives. It generates a worldview in microcosm, a space within the world, where an alternative, prophetic account of things is sustained. A “Christian”, if we must use that misleading label, is someone who lives in that space.

John Shakespeare | Sat, 10/20/2018 - 13:07 | Permalink


Andrew, you say, “What the modern reader then has to decide is whether we are still waiting for that outcome or whether it makes more sense to suppose that it was fulfilled, in typically ambiguous and unsatisfactory historical fashion, in the conversion of the Roman Empire in the years after Constantine.”

I can’t figure out why you don’t feel a third option—God changed his mind—worth considering.

In the Old Testament, Yahweh was portrayed in a way that makes Christians uncomfortable, so we have gone to great pains to explain it away. But it’s still there: He sometimes overreacted, he sometimes regretted his actions, and he sometimes changed his mind.

If Paul was right that Jesus was returning soon after the fullness of Gentiles believed and caused his fellow Jews to repent, then we can easily say this didn’t happen so Yahweh probably changed his mind.

Obviously the Jews didn’t repent, even after the destruction of Jerusalem, but I think Paul knew that might be the case. But that doesn’t require YHWH to have changed his mind.

Otherwise, it depends on how we read the parousia language. It’s arguable, yes, that the New Testament churches expected an actual bodily return of Jesus, but I don’t think that’s a necessary conclusion to reach.

The “coming of one like a son of man” motif only speaks of the public vindication of the one who suffered and the transfer of kingdom to him/them. Several passages speak only of a revelation of Christ to the nations. Paul’s confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations in Philippians 2:11 does not need a bodily return. Does the descending Jesus in 1 Thessalonians 4 stay or return to heaven? John explicitly says that Christ will reign in heaven at the right hand of God, with the martyrs, throughout the thousand years. Paul’s account of the reign of Christ until the last enemy has been destroyed in 1 Corinthians 15 is compatible with that idea.

So what’s expected would be: the ending of persecution, the ending of pagan domination, the recognition by the nations that Jesus is Lord, and the vindication of the churches, including the resurrection of the martyrs to reign with Christ. That’s not too difficult to square with history.

I think your conclusion is better than most. Until I read Christopher Hays’ stuff on the parousia, it was the best explanation I had come across. I still think identifying the Roman Empire as the kingdom of God is a stretch few will find convincing, although it certainly makes more sense than spiritualizing the kingdom of God.

The biggest weakness I see in your narrative shaping is a failure to recognize the ongoing development of Jewish eschatological views. You keep pointing back at OT passages and saying, See, there’s no mention of various eschatological expectations we find in the NT, so Jesus and his contemporaries must not have expected these things to literally take place.

I think the teachings of Jesus and his followers perfectly match the expectations we find in the OT paired with the new expectations we find in apocryphal literature—millennial reign, resurrection, judgment, etc.

Richard Worden… | Thu, 11/15/2018 - 19:40 | Permalink

Very well done. Despite my tendency to see some of your work as pushing “the evidence” too far in certain historical fulfilment directions, this overview of the why and the what of Christian commitments strikes me as right on the main path of faith. In fact, my impression of main stream Evangelical Christian tradition is not in any notably way different from what you have said here. Kudos!