My blogging brother Randy Roda (superhero name: THE RODANATOR), in his response to my last post, wisely asked for a description of narrative theology. This is important, I think, given the fact that the narrative theological approach finds frequent expression, not only in our blog conversations, but also in much of contemporary theological discourse.
So, here goes.
Perhaps narrative theology can best be described as a 20th century reaction to Protestant liberalism’s individualism and its individualistic deconstruction of the biblical story. The narrative theological framework relies heavily upon the theological work of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (especially in their high christology, their emphasis upon orthodoxy, and their strong advocacy of a communal approach to both biblical interpretation and the life of discipleship). Also essential in the development of narrative theology was the philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre (whose concept of “virtue ethics” placed the focus of moral development upon the habits, patterns, and virtues of communities and the people they produce) and Clifford Geertz (whose “symbolic anthropology” took very seriously the matter of a community’s symbols and practices in the matter of framing reality).
If you are looking for some other contemporary theological voices that resonate with the tones of narrative theology, I would encourage you to explore the work of Peter Berger, Hans Frei, and Stanley Hauerwas (whose tutelage had quite an impact on me when I was at Duke).
Narrative theology, as I see it, revolves around the following foundational tenets:
1. Biblical interpretation must treat Scripture as a narrative if its truth is to be holistically and rightly discerned (as opposed to treating Scripture as a series independent revelations that can be prooftexted for the purpose of buttressing a particular theological argument). This doesn’t mean, of course, that narrative theologians cannot isolate certain biblical passages in our theological discourse. But narrative theology itself is, in many ways, a reaction against both liberalism’s and fundamentalism’s efforts to subordinate the entirety of Scripture to certain favorite texts.
2. According to the narrative approach, systematic theology misses the mark when it reduces theological conversation to a series of abstract theological propositions that have no real bearing upon our ethics and communal development. For the narrative theologian, systematic theology must treat theology itself as a narrative—the story of how the Creator relates to the Creation, followed by the story of how the “created” relate to one another.
3. Perhaps most importantly, narrative theology demands the presence of a strong communal ethic, since a community is needed if a narrative is to be formed, articulated, incarnated, and passed on to future generations. As a result, the Christian faith, for the narrative theologian, is not simply a matter of intellectual assent. It is more a matter of embracing (and being embraced by) a christocentric community’s distinctive practices, habits, and traditions, all of which enable a person to participate in the story (narrative) of God’s redemption. For the proponent of narrative theology, in other words, rugged individualism in the life of faith makes little sense. Faith must be discerned and lived out in an authentic and alternative community—a community that Hauerwas and Willimon describe as a “Christian colony of resident aliens.” These “aliens” love and engage the world and its people, but they are alien to its ethical frameworks because of their transformation by Christ in the context of a radically Christ-centered community of believers.
4. For the narrative theologian, the primary purpose of the church is to BE the church. The church, in other words, does not exist primarily as an American political instrument or as watchdog for American culture. Rather, according to narrative theology, the church exists to incarnate the kind of biblical and redemptive community that is unlike anything else that the world has to offer—a community that functions by a counter-cultural collection of ethics and behavioral patterns, thereby illuminating the new kingdom inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Needless to say, narrative theology has been instrumental in the development of other post-liberal movements, such as radical orthodoxy (or paleo-orthodoxy), neo-evangelicalism, and, of course, the emerging church movement.
I came across the following quote recently on an interesting website: opensourcetheology.net. The quote, made by a “poster” named Andrew, sheds important light on the issue of narrative theology:
A narrative theology encourages us to draw meaning from larger structures. We are still prone to taking arbitrary proof texts out of context and building a predetermined case around them. Larger narrative structures are much more resistant to being bent to fit some reductive and rationalizing theological schema; narrative naturally allows for a diversity of perspectives without having to arbitrate between them…A narrative theology is informed not by a post-biblical belief system but by a community, which has to act and interpret its actions in the light of its theological tradition and experience.
If you wish to read more in the area of narrative theology, I would recommend the following works:
-The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative : A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (by Hans Frei);
-The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (by George Lindbeck);
-A Community of Character (by Stanley Hauerwas);
-Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology (edited by Stanley Hauerwas & L. Gregory Jones);
-Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (by Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon);
-The Story of God: Wesleyan Theology and Biblical Narrative (by Michael Lodahl);
-The Promise of Narrative Theology: Recovering the Gospel in the Church (by George W. Stroup)
I hope that this helps.