The Peculiarities Of Narrative Theology

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What is Narrative?

The word narrative is synonymous with a story, which is an account of events that can be actual or reported, this account can be used to help us understand better our experiences in the world, and they form us. Professor Jerome T. Walsh, a professor of the Old Testament at the University of Botswana and Dallas, describes narrative as a storytelling which is a ‘human universe and that stories help us to preserve the past, explore the present and extrapolate the future.’ Even Professor Esther D. Reed, a Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Exeter, says, ‘storytelling is part of the process of exploring and, articulating our own knowledge. Across traditions, stories, myths and images directs an expressing personal reality and encompassing shared cultural values and ideas.[1: Jerome T. Walsh, Old Testament Narrative: A Guide to Interpretation, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster, John Knox Press, 2009), pp.] [2: Reed E.D., Freathy R., Cornwall S., Davis A., Narrative Theology in Religious Education, British Journal of Religious Education, 2013, Vol. 35, No. 3, 297-312.]

Narrative is distinguished form other literary genre, apart from the plot, narrative has a sequence of other connected actions such as the character, place, and, circumstance. [3: Richard N. Soulen & R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 132]

In a narrative, there are two separate communication acts; the implied author who wrote a narrative for the implied reader, and the narrator who is telling the story which recounts how a narrator tells the story to a narrate.

In our life’s we use stories or narratives to make sense to our experiences. Storytelling is part of our life and stories are important because they help us to form our identity and to discover who we are. We also learn from stories, for example from the parables of Jesus, stories with a meaning. Stories help us to interpret our life.

Elizabeth M. Bruce in her article says, “We tell about our lives in story form. Stories also form us. They are important for the formation of our identity and they help us to know who we are. We learn from stories and stories help us to interpret life. Through stories we enter the meaning of others.” [4: Elizabeth M. Bruce, Narrative Inquiry: A Spiritual and Liberating Approach to Research, Religious Education 103 (3): 323-338.]

In 1984, Paul Ricoeur wrote about the narrative of the self, the self-identity. Ricoeur describes identity as the ‘recounting of a history of experiences and interactions involving the physical self over time.’ Therefore, it ‘accounts for our interactions and perceptions.’ Ricoeur continued that ‘narrative of the self-identity is intrinsically ethical in nature, formed from language which reflects our own morality and our ability to choose from where to start to tell our narrative.’ [5: Reed E.D., Freathy R., Cornwall S., Davis A., Narrative Theology in Religious Education, British Journal of Religious Education, 2013, Vol. 35, No. 3, 298.]

Professor Reed explains that narrative is also ‘the lived experience of communities of faith. The major religions has ‘living traditions’ comprising beliefs, texts and practices and are passed through generations. The faith communities tell their stories to articulate and contribute to the formation of religious narratives.’ [6: Esther D. Reed, Rob Freathy, Susannah Cornwall & Anna Davis (2013), Narrative theology in Religious Education, British Journal of Religious Education, 35:3, 297-312.]

In the Bible, God revealed himself mysteriously to the human person. The Bible has many narratives that are considered as a one completely great narrative from creation until the end of the world. The Bible’s stories recounts God’s story in history, with Israel and the world and each narrative story interweaves within each other so they are an ongoing story. The other forms of writings, such as hymns, prayers, parables, help the reader to understand better the historical stories and are as guidelines to practice our living life.

What is Narrative Theology?

Helmut Richard Niebuhr, a neo-orthodox within the American Protestantism and taught at the Yale Divinity School, was a Christian theological ethicists in the 20th Century and was one of the main sources of the postliberal theology in the “Yale School”. Niebuhr initiated the study of narrative theology in 1941 with his book “The Story of Our Lives”, which left undeveloped for decades, until 1970’s. From then onwards, scholars continued issuing articles and books related to narrative. Narrative theology is mainly an American contribution to postmodern anti-foundational theological thought although the important work done by the German and British contribution.

Gary L. Comstock, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Religious Studies Program at Iowa University, wrote an article, “Two Types of Narrative Theology”, were he defined two schools of narrative theology, the ‘Yale School’ and the ‘Chicago School’. Comstock tried to find an adequate name for each school. In fact, he named the Yale School as the Pure Narrative Theologians and the Chicago School as the Impure Narrative Theologians. Comstock described narrative theology as a “reflection on religious claim embedded in stories.” Professor Wentzel van Huyssteen, an auditor for the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, added to Comstock definition, narrative theology is also a “significant approach as one of the most viable and important alternatives for doing theology today.” Huyssteen sustain that “narrative theology takes this basic narrative seriously in order to think through the nature of specifically religious knowledge.” Theologians agree that Narrative theology is one of the most significant currents of the last twentieth century. In his article, Comstock declares, “few seem to have noticed a ‘nasty tension’ between narrativists but their relationship is cordial.” [7: Gary L. Comstock, Two Types of Narrative Theology, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Winter, 1987, pp. 687-717, Oxford University Press. 687] [8: Wentzel van Huyssteen, Narrative Theology: An adequate paradigm for theological reflection?, A Symposium on Narrative Theology at the Faculty of Theology (Section A) of the University of Pretoria, March 7,1989. 767] [9: Ibid., 768] [10: Comstock, 687.]

P. Brockelman stated, “As a paradigm for postmodern theology, narrative theology grows directly from the conviction that temporal narrativity constitutes the substance of personal human identity as the ultimate interpretation of the story of our lives.” As a result, there could be no history, literature, philosophy, or religion without the ontological condition of the human stories. [11: P Brockelman, Narrative knowledge, religious truth and pluralism, American Academy of Religion, Chicago, 1988.]

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Most narrative theologians agree that the biblical narratives contain historical truth, but they disagreed on the nature of the truth. Some scholars have made reasoned arguments for the rational justification of basic Christian beliefs as true while others believe that Christian faith does not require rational justification since its foundation is in a faith response.

Niebuhr is considered as the ‘father’ of the contemporary narrative theology, in his work he made an important distinction between the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ history. Comstock did an analysis of what he meant by internal and external history. He clarified, “the internal history has to do with the self-description of the Christian community in terms of their present experiences of the divine revelation; while the external history is past history understood from the perspective of the observers.”

According to Niebuhr, the tension between the two types of history has to retain “Christians must begin with their own present experiences of Christ but shout not isolate this from the criticism and correction of ‘external’ or scientific history.”Niebuhr continued expounding that the “Christians had to tell both stories, the internal history of our experiences with Christ as well as the external story of our experiences with nature, history and science.” [13: Huyssteen, 769] [14: Ibid.]

In fact, Huyssteen in his article refer to Comstock’s critics when he said there is a tension between the two schools because at the “present-day, narrativists have been unable to tell the ‘whole story’ by opting for either internal or external history, giving rose to a new and improper tension between the ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ narrativists.” Huyssteen says that this “might find a way to interpret Christianity to be faithful to the biblical narratives and at the same time remaining open to the philosophical and hermeneutical claims that result from the interpretation and explanation of these narratives.” [15: Comstock, 143 and Huyssteen, 769] [16: Huyssteen, 769]

Many narrative theologians follow the cultural linguistic approach that focuses only upon culture and language as the shaping forces of the meaning found in religious experience. The cultural linguistic theologians are broadly divided into two schools, the “Yale school” and the “Chicago school”. The Yale school focuses on culture and language as the primary shapers of both meaning and truth as found in the writings of George Lindbeck at Yale Divinity School. While the Chicago school looks more to a universal philosophical explanation of cultural-linguistic sources of theology, such as found in the writings of David Tracy at the University of Chicago. [17: Gary L. Comstock, Two Types of Narrative Theology, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Winter, 1987, pp. 687-717, Oxford University Press, 688.]

Comstock, in his article “Two Types of Narrative Theology”, called the Yale’s School as the Pure Narrative Theologians and explained that this school followed the cultural linguistic school. The pure narrative theology is an anti-foundational, cultural-linguistic and Wittgensteinian-inspired descriptivist. For theologians as Hans Frei, Stanley Hauerwas, George Lindbeck, David Kelsey and Stephen Crites claim that we have no resources to knowledge outside the biblical narrative to ascertain its truth; the particular truth of the narrative is interwoven in the strands of the story that it can hardly be separated from it. Whatever the meaning of a story, about the closest we can come to its truth is throughout participation in the narrative to realize its “truth for us.” Their narrative theology as an autonomous literary form is particularly suited to theological reflection.

The Pure Narrative Theology has a special status in the construction of theological statements, while abstract reasoning and philosophical categories do not belong to the essential task of what it means to do theology. Christian Faith is best understood by grasping the grammatical rules and concepts of its texts and practices.

Whilst the Chicago School, Comstock called it the Impure Narrative Theologians. The impure theologians find their inspiration in the hermeneutical, Gadamerian-inspired correlations. Impurist’s theologians such as Paul Ricoeur, Julian Hartt and others whilst agreeing with the ‘pure narrativists’ about the role of narrative in the communication of the Christian story they assert that narrative cannot authenticate themselves as true. Therefore, believers make faith assertions about the truth of the object historical events to which the stories point, events such as the physical resurrection and ascension of Christ. For them narrative exhibits philosophical, historical and psychological claims, and these need to be examined with the methods of those particular disciplines.

Jerry H. Stone explains that narrative theology has to move beyond the canonical story so that the believer’s personal life story is included within the context of the Christian community story. Since Christian education relates past tradition to the modern Christian experience in similar ways, we need to understand the three forms of story, the Canonical Story, the Life Story and the Community Story, in order to apply narrative theology to Christian education. As Gabriel Fackre points out, these three kinds of story bear a striking resemblance to the three forms of authority in traditional theology: scripture, human experience and tradition. [20: Miller Randolph Crump, Theologies of Religious Education, Birmingham, Religious Education Press, 1995, 263.]

The common similarities shared between the two scholars are the description of a narrative should be conducted in term of Scripture’s own narrative and autobiographies and not in categories alien to Biblical stories. The explanation of the Christian story should be in terms of the internal rules and procedures of the Biblical language and not in terms of philosophical theories or social-scientific law. The justification of Christianity should entails a liberating and authentic form of life. This means a form of life and thought that does not need justification by means of philosophical criteria for rationality and logic. [21: Huyssteen, 769] [22: H Pieterse, Gary Comstock’s two types of narrative theology: An evaluation. UPE Symposium on ‘Narrative interpretation’, February 17, 1989, 2.]

There are different ways how narrativists describe, explain and justify Christian story. These differences appears between the pure and impure narrative theologians. The main two differences between the two scholars are the epistemological (about the knowledge, justification and rationality of belief) and the hermeneutical (is the theory and the method of interpretation of biblical texts) criteria.

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