The Gospel and Narrative
by Matt Shrader
Long John Silver is a prominent name in the minds of those young (and older) boys who have read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Throughout the entire story young Jim Hawkins struggles with who the real Long John Silver is and how to understand his actions. Is he the affable, generous sea cook, and friend to Jim? Or, is he the merciless thief and murderer who covets Captain Flint’s treasure and will use Jim for his own means? Jim learns that it is dangerous to assume that he understands the person of this one-legged marauder. He also learns, in the end, that the content of Silver’s actions reveal the pirate.
Aletheia has reviewed two recent books by prominent Emergent Church figures. The first book presented was Rob Bell’s Love Wins (May 2011 issue). The second was Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity (July 2011 issue). These two books do more than hint at a particular assumption they make concerning the nature of doctrine. McLaren gives ample space to the “narrative question.”1 Bell likewise gives much space to this discussion in another book (Velvet Elvis). Bell, though, uses the word “story” in conjunction with his discussion of the Bible and the idea appears throughout Love Wins.2 As in Treasure Island, knowing a key assumption (such as: “He’s a pirate!!!”) lends to a better understanding of actions or “writings.”
The assumption that doctrine needs to be understood according to its “narrative” quality needs closer inspection. “Narrative” is perhaps different than what you may think. Narrative is normally understood as a kind (genre) of literature, the gospels being prime examples. Narrative is also understood, however, by some to be the best ‘descriptor’ of the nature of theology. This is a serious issue because it distorts the very basis and essence of Christianity.
I would like to take a closer look at what is meant by narrative according to “narrative theology.” Narrative theology assumes a different understanding of the nature of doctrine. This discussion will show that this assumption is wrong. The narrative or story description of the gospel and its basis for the Christian life is also wrong at the most fundamental level. Indeed, there are produced different kinds of theological methods which in turn produce different kinds of Christianity.3
Appearance and Discussion. Using narrative as a basic understanding of the nature of doctrine has roots in 20th century theological debates about the place of experience in determining truth and doctrine.4 Narrative theologians see themselves as peacemakers between the opposing views of (what they consider to be) the incorrect literalism of orthodoxy and the also incorrect experiential theology of liberal theology.5 The leaders of this type of theology are called neo-liberal or postliberal.6
There are different kinds of narrative theologies, but they all have a similar core approach. Narrative theology attempts to understand theology under the concept of story and storytelling, i.e., the biblical writer is telling the story of his own spiritual interaction with God. This assumes that God is interacting with the world. God’s interaction is itself a story. It is the story, or grand narrative (meta-narrative). Narrative theology may also believe that a religious community also has a story they tell as a part of the grand story. The individual, then, exercises faith by aligning his personal story with God’s story (or his community’s). Basically, when one reads the biblical narrative one must understand that the Bible wants to communicate as “interaction,” and then know God by grasping that inexpressible message of the narrative. Biblical interpretation becomes focused on these larger issues.
The Danger of Narrative. One of the most significant dangers with narrative theology is what it denies. It does not allow for truth or doctrine to be communicated adequately in propositions. Narrative theology applies postmodern thinking (where absolute truth cannot be adequately expressed because of the failings of language) to the language, history, and nature of the Bible.7
The narrative approach to theology stresses that the biblical writers did not necessarily intend to give a reliable historical account. Instead, their intent was to give a record of their own narrative as it fit within the larger narrative of history. The historical events and details (real or not) of Scripture are to be taken only as a part of the framework of the writer. The important aspect of the story/narrative is to show the interaction of the main subject of the story with God. This interaction is most adequately expressed in a story because of the limits of language to produce propositional talk about the divine. What happens is that propositions are downplayed because they feel it is not proper to focus on the details of the story. They may or may not be outright denied, but they are not the primary focus of the storyteller. They are secondary issues. As one critique argues: “Narrative theologians distinguish truth from an historic revelation objectively given in historical acts and also from a propositional revelation objectively given in Scripture.”8
Narrative theology usually stresses the presence of a divine plan, protagonists who represent evil, and ultimately a divine reconciliation. The Christian “symbols” such as creation, fall, redemption, and heaven are employed as referring to corresponding points on the plotline of God’s plan. To say that we know the specifics of these events oversteps the boundaries of the narrative approach. Sadly, they often deny that the Bible makes black and white assertions about issues such as heaven and eternity.
Narrative theology limits what we can positively know about God from the Bible simply by saying that these issues were not central to the storyteller. The point of the Bible story is to communicate something other than propositions. Truth about God cannot be stated so simply as propositional theology has said. So, what does this mean for the gospel?
Biblical Propositions/Assertions and the Gospel Erosion:
The danger with narrative theology has been given in summary form. To answer the question: “So what?” we must understand a little about what propositions are and why they are so important to historic Christianity. Propositions are those times when someone makes a general (or specific) statement about reality. They refer to a knowable truth. I would argue that there are biblical propositions that cannot be reduced to story form.
A prime example is that the Gospel is founded on certain propositional statements about historical events. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 gives us a few of those historical events: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” It is vital for the gospel and for the Christian faith that these are real facts. As Paul goes on to say in verse 17: “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!”
While I believe that there are significant methodological and philosophical deficiencies in the thinking of narrative type theology,9 one can evaluate the narrative system by simply recognizing that it “readily obscures historical fact and clouds the foundations of a stable faith.”10 By arguing that the historical facts are not necessarily reliable and are matters of secondary importance, narrative theology risks losing the foundation of the Christian faith.
The Christian faith relies upon the revelation of God within space and time in a humanly understandable manner (i.e., language). The gospel is absolutely dependent upon the historical reality of the events of Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return communicated in a knowable manner. Christianity believes there is a God who has a relationship with humanity, that humanity has the ability to know God, and that God has revealed Himself.11 Narrative theology is ambiguous at best with regard to the historical truth of these events and their knowability.
How does this transfer to McLaren and Bell? Many puzzle at some of the statements they make when they elaborate on their theology. How can Bell claim that hell is not forever despite some seemingly clear statements from Scripture to the contrary?If we see that he has such a reliance on narrative theology, then his reasoning becomes clear. If he reasons that the overall story/narrative of Scripture affirms that God is loving and gets what he wants, then it follows that the passages on hell are to be understood within this framework.12 They then reason that an eternal hell runs counter to the overriding narrative of the Bible. Therefore, one must assume one either has read/interpreted it incorrectly or realizes that it is not meant to be taken as a propositional statement.
The assumptions within a narrative approach are vitally important in order to understand their Christianity. Not only do the historical events of the gospel become fuzzy, but the demands of the gospel are denied outright many times. Belief about the ultimate is downplayed because knowledge of it is limited. Christianity becomes “big enough, wide enough, and generous enough”13 to include the perspective of just about anybody.
Narrative as a descriptor of the nature of theology produces a theology that strips away the substance of historic Christian orthodoxy.14 While the product of narrative theology is to be ultimately rejected, there is something to be learned from the interaction. Understanding the identity of someone (human or divine) can be greatly enhanced through narrative because we can see what the person has done. Also, we ought to recognize that the Bible does produce a comprehensive, united narrative of all of history (meta-narrative).15 Christianity, however, affirms that this narrative corresponds to the propositions of the Bible concerning at least God, humanity’s place in the world, and the need for sinners to know Jesus Christ. There is a false and a true meta-narrative. One is not free to choose one’s own meta-narrative because the Bible presents the true meta-narrative through propositional content. The propositions of the gospel demand a decision. While narrative is a legitimate genre of Scripture, this does not mean propositions are not present nor that all of Scripture is narrative.
While the references to narrative by Bell and McLaren may not mean they accept all the points of narrative theology as put forth by men such as Hans Frei, Stanley Hauerwas, or George Lindbeck, it does help to explain why they can ignore so many clear statements of Scripture concerning the gospel and the eternal ramifications of accepting and rejecting it. It does begin to explain how their versions of Christianity are so dissonant from orthodoxy. The assumption to remove or downplay the propositional character of truth and Scripture is significant. And, it is wrong.
1.Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 33-66. Also telling is McLaren’s specific acceptance of Hans Frei’s work on page 13 and also page 262, endnote 10.
2.Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 40-69.
3.Notice the title of McLaren’s book: A New Kind of Christianity, Rob Bell’s admission of “new understandings of Christian faith” (Velvet Elvis, 14), and Rick Shrader’s title to his Aletheia article concerning McLaren’s book: “A New Kind of Christianity Liberalism.”
4.For an introduction to the history and main ideas of narrative theology, see: Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1992), 271-285.
5.Cf. George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 1-3; Hans Frei, “Response to ‘Narrative Theology: An Evangelical Appraisal,’” Trinity Journal 8.1 (Spring 1987), 21.
6.George Hunsinger, “Postliberal Theology,” The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, ed. by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 42-57.
7.There are a variety of approaches to narrative theology. I am simply trying to focus on some of the main ideas common among them. For an overview of the various approaches, see: Gabriel Fackre, “Narrative Theology: An Overview,” Interpretation 37 no 4 (Oct. 1983), 340-352.
8.Carl F. H. Henry, “Narrative Theology: An Evangelical Appraisal,” Trinity Journal 8. (spring 1987), 12.
9.A few treatments of the possible deficiencies are given in: George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2002), 207-235; and Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
10.Henry, “Narrative Theology,” 13.
11.See the “Possibility of Theology,” in Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: Volume 1 (Allen Park: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009), 9-12.
12.Bell argues for understanding God’s love in precisely this manner, Love Wins, 95-119.
14.Bell’s claim that you can always find somebody in church history who has a certain view (Ibid, 109-110) does not mean that all views are equally legitimate. It is a logical non sequitur. The existence of doctrinal orthodoxy and heresy is another serious debate that Bell (and McLaren) get dead wrong.
15.Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 93-95.