The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony
The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony
I am halfway through a new version of the Bible, a much-hyped story version that's streamlined to highlight the overall plot: God's story of redemption. I'm so busy trying to follow the narrative, I hardly miss the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and all the non-narrative books that have been largely excised. But as a university teacher of narrative, I find the plot too slow and convoluted.
I'm disappointed until I remember: Oh yes! There are already novelized versions! Many of their narratives are better!
Just 18 years ago, Robert Weathers noted that most evangelicals were "baffled" by the growing literary interest in the Bible. The bafflement is over. Journals are abuzz with narrative theology. Church mission statements are increasingly presented as "narratives."
In the past ten years, especially in the past five, dozens of authors have called for readers to see the Scriptures as narrative and particularly to read the Bible as a single story. Their books include The Story, The Heart of the Story, The Bible in Brief: The Story from Adam to Armageddon, The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative, and many others. A growing number of pastors and theologians attack doctrinal and propositional readings of Scripture. Derek Flood, in his 2011 Huffington Post article "Why Faith Is a Story, Not Doctrine," sums up for many the new slant on Christianity: "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."
How have we traveled so far and so fast into narrative, from bafflement to bestsellers, to urgent call, and to replacing doctrine? What's behind the sudden and unprecedented swoon into narrative? And, most important: Will the church survive it?
A Baptized Imagination
I will not retract my enthusiasm for narrative entirely. It is about time that Christians value "Once upon a time …." For generations, many Christians viewed story and its various forms—fairy tale, novel, myth, legend—as contrivance at best, products of the fallen imagination at worst. In our recent past, Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton among others have rescued the church from its suspicion of "pagan" stories. They have dissolved the great divide between sacred and secular narratives. All our human stories of heroes, monsters, journeys, and sacrifice give voice to our universal quest for identity, purpose, and deliverance. Instead of competing with God's story, these stories gesture toward it. Writer Frederick Buechner presents the gospel story itself as fairy tale, comedy, tragedy, as "a tale that is too good not to be true." Or, in Lewis's words, "In the story of Christ … all the other stories have somehow come true."
We are story creatures who live in a God-made "story-shaped world" that itself began with the words, "In the beginning." Thus, writing narrative—and reading it—is an act of faith that places us in time and space, locating us in a chronology that suggests by its very order both the cause and meaning of our lives. Narrative affirms that the felt randomness of our lives is not the final word. Instead, beneath and among it all is a coherence, a unity, a "mattering."
I've watched people write stories from their lives where they discover patterns and designs and meanings they had not seen in living them. "Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home," writes Scott Russell Sanders in his essay "The Most Human Art." We in the church have done this for generations: We stand and give our testimonies, narratives of God's presence in our lives. And in the telling, we are safely placed within God's and our own story.
But the evangelical church's discovery of narrative has a more direct and immediate source: our narrative age. Our culture is saturated with "the power of story." The phrase and approach have penetrated nearly every discipline and discourse, from architecture to zoology. In the book The Triumph of Narrative, journalist Robert Fulford says storytelling stands at the very heart of civilized life. Narrative, he says, is how we explain, teach, and entertain ourselves (and often how we do all three at once). Story has unquestionably become the dominant means of understanding our world, ourselves, and each other. When neighbors and strangers meet today, they often ask not, "What do you do?" but "What is your story?"
And why not? In the broadest terms, narrative—specifically personal narrative, "this-is-my-story" that is its prime expression—restores the value of the personal in the face of impersonal science and technology, as well as the gods of our age, which privilege reason and fact over the personal and experiential. Narrative is quintessentially democratic. It insists that everyone has a story and that all are valued.
Who will Narrate the World?
Yet the rise of narrative in our culture and our churches, for all its good, has a dark understory.
At the risk of oversimplifying what is both familiar and hopelessly complex, here's a thumbnail: Our culture's love affair with story corresponds to its dismissal of the One Story. Western society has rejected both the God of the Scriptures and his master narrative. In the absence of a universal storyline, we must make one up. No, we must make many up, because no single story can contain all that is real and true for all people, or so it's believed. 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 church, then, is faced with a plethora of narratives that oppose and compete with God's story. Which story or stories will believers choose and follow? Too many believers are choosing the wrong one, say theologians Stanley Hauerwas, Michael Goheen, and Edith Humphrey, among others. Christians are increasingly accommodating the culture's counterstories, its plots of consumerism, idolatry, and self-fulfillment. And they're doing it largely because they don't know God's master story.
Hauerwas recalls asking a classroom of theology students, most of whom had grown up in the church, "What is the story of the Bible?" He was met by blank stares. Goheen, professor of religious studies at Trinity Western University, found his students could neither relate the story of the Bible nor explain why it was important. Goheen has become one of the most vocal and urgent advocates of "reading the Bible as One Story." Robert Webber, a pioneer in narrative, continued his wake-up call to the church with the book Who Gets to Narrate the World?: Contending for the Christian Story in a Age of Rivals.
Apologists have issued the same warning. Lesslie Newbigin, one of the most prominent missiologists of the 20th century, argued that Christians cannot effectively speak the gospel to our culture without "a sense of the Scriptures as a canonical whole, as the story which provides the true context for our understanding of the meaning of our lives."
These are serious charges, yet they ring true. How have believers failed to grasp and articulate the overarching story of Scripture, God's redemptive plan from Eden to the New Jerusalem? Some throw stones at the Sunday school movement, which teaches kids the Bible piecemeal, rarely attempting to contextualize baby Moses in the Nile, brave Daniel in the lions' den, and the annual parade of other fragmented and fatigued Bible characters into the whole gospel story. Others blame a catechetical and moralistic approach, which turns real characters and stories into abstract, lifeless doctrine or ethical "lessons."
These practices are part of a deeper tension identified in Hans Frei's groundbreaking book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in 18th and 19th Century Hermeneutics (1980), generally considered to signal the narrative turn in theology. Frei argues that our willingness to read texts out of context goes back to the Enlightenment and Newtonian science, which sought knowledge by breaking everything into its smallest pieces. The historical-critical method, the grammatical method, higher criticism, and systematic theology became the dominant means of interpreting Scripture. All of these methods intellectualized and subdivided the texts, and located their meaning outside the text. Frei contends that any interpretation of the Scriptures that discounts the realistic, historical narrative will result in distortion.
Since Frei's book, others, such as literary scholars Leland Ryken and Robert Alter, have awakened us to the significance and artistry of the biblical narratives as well as the other genres present. One of the exciting gains of narrative theology is its potential to heal the divide between doctrine and application—how we actually live our lives. Critics of the doctrinal approach to Christianity charge it with cultural irrelevance and a disembodied intellectualism, and embrace the return to biblical narratives of flawed blood-and-flesh men and women like us. As we identify with their stories, reading them holistically with our minds, hearts, and spirits, we are encouraged to live out God's story in our own.
Many theologians have celebrated this turn. The Promise of Narrative Theology was not only a book but also a phrase spoken by many. Its influence upon the church can hardly be overstated. But narrative—even a larger literary approach—cannot right all ills. It's past time to identify what narrative cannot and should not do. This enterprise, still new, is already in danger. The camel that will carry us across the desert is overloaded and stumbling.
Losing the Story in Narrative
Back to my own Bible reading: I never made it through that one-story version of the Bible, despite the removal and/or abridgment of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and all those other non-story parts, such as the lists of genealogies and laws. I confess to impatience—whether with God or the editors, I am not sure. If this is Story, why is it so long and convoluted? Why is the plot so twisted?
Others, apparently, have had the same response. The two editors of this version created their own spinoffs (both using the word story in the title). Both paperbacks condense the Scripture's story yet further and rely on the authors' own stories to illustrate the Bible's stories.
I went on to read the 100 Minute Bible, written for "people who want an easy access into the central Christian story." (Shockingly, Joseph's portion, a page and a half, omits the theme of forgiveness and God's sovereignty.) I tried a novelized form of the Bible and a few other books named earlier. Some enterprising people have even condensed the Bible's story into a three-minute video. Astoundingly, in all but the most cryptic and badly written versions, I am still moved by God's audacious love for humankind. But I do not mistake much of this storytelling for God's words.
It's depressingly ironic. Though the larger narrative theology movement revives a deep respect for the Bible's language and literature, many of the commercial products show little respect for Story. Story, as all high-school English students know, relies not simply on what happened but also on the language and literary devices used to tell it: metaphor, description, analogy, repetition, parable, image. Nor does this larger narrative movement pay heed to the other literary genres God chose to speak his words through—poetry, lament, epistle, proclamation, prophesy.
Writing a 'Better Story'
Despite what I hope are good intentions, some of the one-story Bibles are in danger of committing the same reductionistic error mentioned above. Using Peter Leithart's metaphor, many of these story versions treat the language of Scripture as simply a "husk" that can be disposed of to access the "kernel" of meaning. Whether the kernel is a point of theology, a poetic image of God, or an event that does indeed advance the narrative, the language and figures of speech God inspired appear to be dispensable. In his brilliant book Deep Exegesis, Leithart warns that "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."
Somehow, in pursuit of the larger story, we've empowered ourselves to reorganize, distill, edit, and rewrite the actual Scriptures. We have failed to recognize that each of these activities not only interprets but also reduces Scripture.
In pursuit of Story, we've abridged the Bible. We've edited out the non-narrative parts. We've reworded the text. We in the church have been committing such acts of revision comfortably for some time. And for postmodern churches and pastors who are calling for a "new kind of Christianity," this is not enough. Some high-profile pastors are forming a Christianity defined purely by Story. "Story" is a near-exclusive category that rejects traditional formulations of the Christian faith: apologetics, doctrine, systematic theology, propositional truths. The Christian faith is first, last, and always a story. And we've not been telling the story right, say Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and other leaders in the emergent church. All are looking to tell a "better story" than the one they accuse evangelicals of telling.
"[T]elling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn't do, or say, or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn't a very good story," Bell complains in Love Wins. Bell defines even hell in terms of story: "Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story." McLaren calls the church's message "the six-line Greco-Roman narrative (Eden, Fall, condemnation, salvation, heaven, hell)," which is rooted in Plato and Aristotle rather than Jesus, he claims. Reading McLaren's three-book fable series fleshing out his new vision of the Christian life, many complain that original sin, creation-fall-redemption, the deity of Christ, God's holiness, God's sovereignty, the offense of the Cross, worship, justification, and divine inspiration of the Bible—among other elements—are nowhere to be found. The worst enemy in these stories, as in every creative writing class, is dogma, moralizing, and certainty.
McLaren's and Bell's stories end appealingly without wrath, judgment, or any unpleasant inequality, with "everyone enjoying God's good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right." This is "a better story," says Bell, not because it is more biblically accurate, but because it is "bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes."
And why wouldn't we choose the better story? In the postmodern view, stories are not fixed or absolute. They are fluid, changing shape and form with each teller, shifting in the mind of each listener. Pagitt, pastor of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis, writes, "What we [Christians] believe is not 'timeless.'" Theology will be "ever-changing," thus "complex understandings meant for all people, in all places, for all times, are simply not possible."
Fascinated with Ourselves
Even among evangelicals, unfortunately, we find unsettling parallels in our embrace of Story. The emphasis on understanding God's metanarrative and placing our story within God's story has so affirmed our own stories, we've begun to displace the scriptural narratives with our own "better stories." Christianity has always had a taste for sensational testimonies. But a recent string of books from Christian publishers, all best-selling—Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back; 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life; 23 Minutes in Hell; and, a more recent addition to the new genre of children-going-to-heaven stories, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven—should give us pause. The heaven books, two of which sold more than 1.5 million in less than a year, have launched ministries and speaking careers in conservative, Bible-proclaiming churches where the authors share their "testimonies." Yet each book makes claims that conflict, often significantly, with the Bible's account of death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
Nor do we require stories about God and the afterlife to be true. The Shack, which has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling books of all time, is a fictional narrative that doesn't claim experiential truth—"this happened to me"—but does claim to teach truth about God and the Christian life. Numerous churches and Christians have embraced William Paul Young's portrait of God as a chuckling African American woman and Jesus as a perky, flannel-clad carpenter. One Christian television interviewer gushed to the author, "God has used you to shatter the preconceptions a lot of us have about God."
Many of our "preconceptions," of course, are formed by God's Word itself. When pastor Todd Putney convened an enthusiastic community discussion of The Shack, it didn't go as he had hoped. "I thought that book would be a bridge to the God of the Scriptures, but it wasn't. No one wanted to go there. They preferred the story and the god of The Shack over the God of the Scriptures."
The group A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future wisely recognized in its fifth tenet that "spirituality, made independent from God's story, is often characterized by … an overly therapeutic culture … and a narcissistic preoccupation with one's own experience." As Eugene Peterson has observed, "the 'text' that seems to be most in favor on the American landscape today is the sovereign self."
As a writer and creative-writing teacher, I see a parallel movement in the halls of memoir, a genre plagued by scandals. As writers recount events from their lives, they hear the siren call to craft a "better story" than the one actually lived. Many answer the call. Some of the most egregious deceptions (he wasn't a Native American orphan but a middle-aged white guy; she wasn't raised by a gang in L.A., and so forth) are explained by a thirst for fame and fortune. But some are undoubtedly the consequence of the postmodern shrug toward truth. The text, and truth itself, is forever malleable by the supreme authorial self. Narcissism and solipsism abound in our literature. Patricia Hampl, one of the seminal contemporary writers and critics of memoir, advises writers to overcome their egocentrism. The purpose of memoir, she reminds us, is not "the fulfillment of the self, or its aggrandizing, but the deft insertion of the self into an over-whelming design." But in a time when the possibility of objective truth is a fiction, the writer-storyteller sees the self as the overwhelming design. We don't submit to a larger story because we are the larger story.
Before we knew the terms "narrative theology" or "emergent church" or "postmodernism," we knew the stories and events: "In the beginning was the Word …"; "Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah …"; "A farmer went out in his field …"; "The rich man died and was there in Abraham's bosom …"; "There was a man who had two sons …"; "So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross …"; "And then I saw a new heaven and a new earth …."
We must return to these stories and events to remember not just the Bible stories, but the story that contains them all—the One Story of God's incomprehensible, outrageous acts of redemption, the stories of a God gathering a people for his name. Here in its pages appear fierce and unlikely heroes, terrifying battles, pilloried prophets, resistant saints, miraculous healings, a foot-washing King, a bloodied God on a cross, a hollow tomb, the final wrath and glory judgment, and a denouement that ends more miraculously than anything we could imagine: the coming of a new city with open gates and a purified people now called sons and daughters who, needing no other light, will enter and walk by the light of the Lamb.
Not everyone will be there. It is not a safe or simple story. Yet the story is for all of us to hear and to heed. We are invited into these pages, not as editors with red pens in hand, but as supplicants seeking understanding and truth. We are invited to live into this narrative, but not to rewrite it, either to gut it of its offense or to reshape it for short attention spans and better sales.
When we read the Bible through the lens of any single genre, agenda, or need, distortion will result. It is critical to grasp the Scriptures' narrative unity to resist our culture's counterstories, but we need not reduce the Scriptures to a single genre to grasp its One Story. God gave us stories indeed, but he also gave us proverbs, poetry, law, exhortation, prophesy, lament, riddle, letters, visions, genealogies, and prayers. Man lives by every word that proceeds from God's mouth. All Scripture makes us wise unto salvation. We need to say, with the apostle Paul, that "we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word" (2 Cor. 4:2, ESV).
For reasons we will likely never know, God, who could have placed in our hands any kind of book he wanted, chose to give us a plurivocal, polyphonic, multilinear anthology, a magnificently irreducible book that contains as many rhetorical forms and voices as we have temperaments and experience. God knew—of course!—that we need them all. It's time, then, to replace the term "narrative theology" with "literary theology" to include all the literary genres God chose to speak through.
Clearly, God's truths are both propositional and incarnational, both theological and experiential. Each is necessary to the other. Each interprets the other. In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Mark Noll reminds us that doctrinal creeds are needed now more than ever because they "concentrate with fearsome energy on the themes that define the heart of Christianity." 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.
Finally, following the concern of Edith Humphrey, professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary: All of us must examine ourselves, that our human love for God's story does not obscure the God of the Story, that our love for the written word does not displace our love for the Word of God himself. We can be so distracted and dazzled by narrative theology that we neglect the living, indwelling presence within and beyond the story. "We don't participate in a story," she writes, "we participate in him."
It is not the story but the living Christ who saves us.
Leslie Leyland Fields has taught creative nonfiction in Seattle Pacific University's Master of Fine Arts Program, and she'll be returning to Covenant College this fall as writer-in-residence. Her memoir is titled Surviving the Island of Grace: Life on the Wild Edge of America.
Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "The Gospel Is More Than a Story," a Bible study based on this article.