Over at his blog, Matt Gallion raised some interesting questions, via a comment from Slavoj Žižek, about the role of narrative in our thinking. Long story short, the question seemed to me to be about effective and persuasive communication: Are we best served by prosaic and uber-clear communication, or is there something to be said for subtlety? Also, should we shy away from narrative, just sticking to the facts ma’am?
My take is that narrative and creative engagement with ideas are foundational aspects of human social life, and while we often have the tendency to like to make everything as reductionist as possible so we know easily who to hate, I think the world is often murkier than we can make it seem. There is only one white and one black, but an infinite number of grays.
One of the problems of course is that liking narrative for narrative’s sake, and believing in the transformative power of language can once again but you (singular and plural) on the slippery road to unhinged subjectivity. For example, while I like much of this sermon I found online, it contains the following, which I think can become problematic:
Some people are very concerned to know whether [the events in the Bible] actually happened, and they will either believe it or disbelieve it based on whether it actually happened to an actual person at a real time in a real place. Curiously enough, these people are sometimes found in the pews of fundamentalist Christian churches, and sometimes in the pews of humanist Unitarian Universalist churches. I respect their desire to know what really happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. But I am not personally interested in it, any more than I am interested in whether there was ever a real King Lear or a real Mary Lennox. That question seems rather beside the point. These people are real and Jesus is real insofar as their stories, the lies that were told about them, tell us some very important truths. The truth the story of Jesus tells, like the truths in all of these stories, is born of its lies, its beautifully, skillfully told lies.
While I think the power of story is such that it can transform regardless of its historical-critical veracity, I think that routing one’s faith in something that even the believer understands to be a lie is risky business to say the least.
Though I think that the power of theological inquiry is greatly supported by a creative and imaginative quality of thought, I don’t think that doing away with the whole notion of truth in text is the way I would want to go. I believe than we can simultaneously embrace transforming narrative and tradition.
Books Mentioned in Video:
Amos Niven Wilder’s Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination
Sandra M. Schneiders’ The Revelatory Text
Hey man. Great post. But I have some questions:
Wouldn’t the rooting of one’s self in “history” or “fact” be just as slippery as rooting in story? Is it merely the style of a writing or its categorization that makes it a fact? Read the history of the American revolution in textbooks printed in the U.S. versus those in the UK and you’ll find two differing stories about the same event. What really happened? Put me there. Give me characters and emotion. Let me swim around in this a bit. It seems to me that the event – the story – is the thing that matters, and discourse on such is, at best, to be included in the preface, commentary, or footnotes.
Also, does doubting the truth of something necessarily mean you’re knowingly believing a lie? Specifically to the ears of postmoderns, this is a bold statement. For some, faith is the evidence of that which left no trail. But for me, faith is found in believing in something in full knowledge of my being bereft of evidence.
I see this posing of discourse and narrative against one another hinging on deconstruction. Take this very post, for example. There is a very good chance I’m pulling things from it that you weren’t saying. It just wasn’t there, but I came up with it. In a narrative, however, what you are saying is – to a point – irrelevant. The event isn’t the story itself, but the deconstruction of the story by the reader. What did it do to them and why? The handoff from writer to reader is not only an exchange of goods but also of ownership. What the writer was trying to say has been said, and that’s that. The reader, however, now owning the story is free to be changed by it for as long as they keep that window open. Another good example is the parables of Jesus. How many of us have drawn how many different meanings from the parables and acted accordingly? How many of us were wrong? Were any of us right? Is there a right or wrong to be drawn of was the fact that we experience the event of God at all the “it” to be gotten?
@Ian: Asking “What really happened?” raises interesting questions about historical veracity. In hindsight, can anything be specifically said to have happened?
Also, I’m not sure that Derrida (or his successors) would put the full weight of deconstruction on narrative over discourse (hence the whole idea of logocentrism I mentioned in my post). Deconstruction is just as possible and prevalent within discourse. The difference is the engagement of the intellectual presuppositions versus the pre-existing emotional state (as if humans could be so dichotomized, and as if intellectual crises were not existential). I want to utilize discourse not when I’m hoping to escape the risks of deconstruction, but when I intend to be more precise in my own self-expression. Therefore, my choice of genre and style are for me more than for the reader.
@Callid: Your video reminded me a lot of Rollins’s theories of evangelism. I like the idea of the transformative power of narrative as a means for seeing through the eyes of the Other. Although, I might suggest that you are guilty of the same thing that I am in the post you linked to: I dichotomized the world, presented only two options, and implied that people should choose. I did this in response to a specific conversation I was having with Ian, so I justify it slightly as a corrective post. Still, I think that both narrative and discourse have transformative power, though it does seem easier for me (and for the Creatives in my community) to engage transformation through the “theopoetic” (a term that I now love and will borrow, steal, and appropriate from this day forth).
Great post. I love the video format. I may have to try that someday.
On re-reading my comment, I’ve decided that my language of guilt sounds unintentionally harsh and condescending. I just meant to raise the possibility of a mild sort of false dichotomy (one that I introduced!), not to condemn your post as fallacious or “wrong.”
Great thoughts everyone. I agree with McLaren’s statement that we don’t see reality as reality, we make up stories about it. Which story are we living in?
@Ian Booyah brother, this question hits it for me: “Does doubting the truth of something necessarily mean you’re knowingly believing a lie?” Heck no! I think this is the kind of thing I wished had been avoided in that sermon I mentioned. I think Rumi was there with lines like, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing is a field. I’ll meet you there.” That is not to deny that there is wrongdoing or rightdoing, but to invite people into the consideration that beyond those categories there is another (set of categories).
@ Matt I agree whole-heartedly that the distinction between narrative/discourse is a false, mild, dichotomy. I am much more interested in the capacity of the reader to read any text with the understanding it is contingent, composed of many small suppositions, and a place to encounter the other. I think that this can occur with lots of different types of texts, and I only mean to suggest (perhaps incorrectly) that it is easier for folks to encounter that transformation in narrative, not that is an essential quality of narrative.
@ Jesse And, for that matter, what parts of my story are like yours?
@Callid: I don’t think your suggestions are off-base at all. At least for me, narrative is incredibly transformative. Also, I love this:
I am much more interested in the capacity of the reader to read any text with the understanding it is contingent, composed of many small suppositions, and a place to encounter the other.
Could be another line I borrow in the future.
@Matt Steal away compadre. Steal away.
Also, if you like the theopoetics thing, check out my (more focused) site http://theopoetics.net.
You mention J.R.R. Tolkien briefly in this video (The Christian narrative “buried in the text” of LOTR, whereas CS Lewis wrote very much “on the surface”- “parablesque” I believe was the term you used, which I’m sure was a proper word choice, but regardless….) I’m wondering how far you have delved into his notion of subcreation, and its theological implications with regard to narrative.
In addition, the thoughts presented reminded me on Farley Mowat’s famous utterance when under critical fire for the “narrative” alterations made to his book Never Cry Wolf- “To hell with the facts, I want the truth!”
Thanks for posting
I wonder if some of our questions arise from a literate view of history/facts while the writers/storytellers of the Scripture functioned in a largely oral society.
The problem is that we have two categories: truth and lie. And occasionally we also have the category of allegory, but even this must be stuffed into one box or the other when we (literary-minded folks) consider history. We have these categories because the medium we use is written (it can be checked, copy-written, verified, dissected and doesn’t have to be committed to memory) But in oral culture, the categories were different because the medium was different. The medium used to convey almost all messages was the oral story.
When we write a story, we consider the events of the story to be facts. The meaning of the facts comes in commentary or reflections written along with it. We have this luxury because we don’t have to remember both the story and the commentary.
In oral culture, the events of the story served a few different purposes. First, they could communicate what we would call a fact (something that actually happened and nothing more). Second, they were used to communicate the meaning the storyteller was trying to get across (they fulfilled what we use commentary for, but within the event itself- thus sometimes they coincided withe reality, and sometimes didn’t because they were used to communicate something considered more important than simple fact- they included the interpretation metaphorically). So, the events of a story in oral culture are more purposefully meaning-laden because those events are responsible for transmitting both the historical facts and the intended interpretation of those facts.
I think of it as the oral-cultural understanding of Marshall McLuan’s “the medium is the message.” If we were to ask the author of Matthew, for example, “Did Jesus really escape from Herod to Egypt when he was a baby? Or did you just lie about it?” His response might be, “It’s really important that you tell the story that way or future generations won’t know that Jesus is the new Moses.” -a response that frustrates the hard-fact-minded, but for the orally-minded, Jesus escape to Egypt is even more true than whatever actually happened in his childhood because the “event” contains a truth about Jesus (which is deemed to be more important than bare facts about Jesus).
All this stuff can be found in a lot of places. A good intro is Tex Sample’s “Ministry in an Oral Culture.” I also learned much from Casey Davis, who’s work is pretty localized to Rochester, NY and is unfortunately hard to get ahold of anywhere else.
So long and thanks for the fish,
Thank you for your video. I think your take is interesting and helpful. I appreciate your explanation and appeal to pastors and others that take texts as important dialogue partners for discerning significant values and meaning. I agree that narratives are particularly powerful ways of communicating values and trying on meanings. I think that listening to the stories from scripture or other paradigmatic texts as they are told as a story teller tells them can be a helpful approach to engaging the narrative approach. One idea I heard from a biblical scholar today that would be interesting to throw into the mix is this. The west tends to take our interpretative framework for stories from the Greeks and not so much the Hebraic sensibilities. The difference is that the Greeks believed that stories should have a moral, a hero that the listeners should identify with and follow as an example. For example, Aesop's Fables. A good moral examplar. Hebraic stories, on the other hand are stories about ancestors. They would be more like stories at family reunions, "Remember Uncle Jake, He was sure full of piss and vinegar–he'd wrestle God himself." In our western world view, we try to impose– or we do impose this Greek hermeneutic to the Hebrew Scriptures and it ends up making our view of the Bible and its values, claims and uses sometimes mixed up.
Any way, thanks for spurning ideas!