The Power of Story: Narrative Criticism

By the late 1970s, Christian theology and biblical studies appeared to be at an impasse. On the one hand, historical criticism in its various guises was still going strong; for example E.P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism was published in 1977, introducing the revolutionary ‘New Perspective on Paul’. But on the other hand, the Evangelical push-back was in full swing (the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was signed in 1978). At the same time, the postmodern critique was already on the march, and Biblical Studies was facing a surge in alternative and critical readings, especially from Latin America (e.g., Gustavo Gutierrez’s landmark A Theology of Liberation had been published in 1971 and translated into English in 1973), from women (e.g., Phyllis Trible’s essay “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation” and Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation were both published in 1973), and from American Black Christianity (e.g., James Cone wrote four major works between 1969-1975, including Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation). It was no longer a question of there being an old guard and upstarts with new ideas shaking up the discipline. Instead, there was a lot of energy pushing and pulling Biblical hermeneutics in many different directions. In such a situation, it is no surprise that a new hermeneutical approach arose that tried to find common ground among all these various movements: In the early 1980s, this was narrative theology and narrative criticism.

To put it in the most basic terms, narrative criticism argues that the best way to understand the biblical story is simply to treat it as a story. In some ways, narrative criticism can be thought of as part of the natural trajectory of historical criticism, which was on a long journey from a focus on sources of biblical material, through its forms and genres, its canonical structure, and its literary and rhetorical devices, to looking at its content as a whole. But in other ways, narrative criticism picks up on some of the presuppositions of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism: Without accepting the radical ideas of inerrancy, infallibility, and so on, narrative criticism shares their insistence on trusting the biblical text to shape and guide Christian life. Finally, because a story can be told and understood in many ways, it also fits well within the postmodern critiques.

The origins of narrative theology proper are often attributed to George Lindbeck’s 1984 book The Nature of Doctrine. Lindbeck proposed that religious doctrines are neither objectively true facts (as dogmatists and fundamentalists would have us believe), nor mere encodings of subjective experience (as classic liberalism would put it), but function like rules of a game, shaping how we live and find understanding and meaning within life. This is attached to the idea of narrative because, far more than anything else, our worldviews are shaped by the stories we tell and how we tell them. (Here, we might point out that the ancient Creeds all have a narrative shape, telling a brief story about Jesus.) While this narrative turn can be seen as a legitimately internal development within the Christian academy, it also picked up on ideas in the broader culture. Narrative psychology, for example, emerged in the 1970s with the insight that human identity is “storied” in nature. Feelings of alienation arise when either one’s cannot make sense of one’s own story, or when one’s story conflicts with the broader story told by one’s culture. From this perspective, narrative theology is simply applying this same insight to communities of faith, and narrative criticism emerges as a powerful tool in understanding how the stories of the Bible function in shaping Christian life and meaning-making.

Ronald Michener (see Postliberal Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, 4) has offered up five characteristics shared by narrative readings that are worth considering here. Narrative criticism is:

  1. Non-foundationalist (that is, it is not concerned with intellectual certainty or the provability of truth claims): Perhaps the most striking feature of narrative theology is that it renders the questions of historicity of the Bible, which were so important throughout the modern period, completely irrelevant to biblical interpretation. This doesn’t, as some conservative detractors claim, render the Bible ‘little more than a novel’; it just means that the Scriptures are allowed to speak on their own terms. Their truth is not dependent on how well they correspond to ‘outside’ events, but on their capacity to change lives. (For more on this, see the posts on devotional readings and Pentecostal hermeneutics.)
  2. Intratextual: Narrative critics think about not only the individual stories found in the Bible, but how those stories interact to form the bigger ‘Story’ of the Bible itself. In this way, it helped to undo the separation between the Old and New Testaments the rise of historical criticism had caused, and is more in keeping with not only how most Christians today read the Bible, but also how the Bible was understood traditionally. But, equally beneficial to my mind is that this approach also doesn’t simply subsume the stories into the Story; they are allowed to speak on their own before they are synthesized into the bigger picture. To put this in postmodern terms, narrative criticism upholds both narrative and metanarrative without allowing metanarrative to swallow up the smaller narratives.
  3. Socially-centered: Narrative criticism has also helped to return the Bible to the Church. It isn’t just about individual Christians having our worldviews shaped by the Bible, but the Bible shaping the perspectives of the community of faith together, as a whole. What makes Christians Christian, according to this perspective, is that we are united in being formed by these stories.
  4. Respectful of plurality and diversity: As the old saying goes, there are always two sides to every story. Narrative criticism embraces the potential for stories to be told — and read — in different ways. Thus it is like Pentecostal and postmodern hermeneutics in, that rather than denying the ambiguity of Biblical texts, it celebrates it as creating space for new stories to emerge. And, connected to this,
  5. Generous: One of Lindbeck’s major concerns was ecumenism: how different Christian traditions could talk to one another without compromising their unique theological perspectives. Again, by appreciating the ways stories can be told and retold in different ways, narrative criticism makes a lot of room for this sort of mutual sharing.

With these characteristics in mind, how exactly does narrative criticism work? What does it mean to understand the Bible ‘as a story’? First, as mentioned above, it takes the stories in the Bible on their own terms. So, if there are miraculous stories, for example, the interpreter doesn’t attempt to explain them — or explain them away — but rather accepts them as part of the story and looks at how they function within it. Or, if, as in the opening verse of Job, a character is called “perfect and upright,” we accept this statement as true for the purposes of our interpretation, irrespective of its external credibility. A narrative reading trusts the narrative voice telling the story.

Second, narrative criticism is focused on elements that we might recognize from a literature class: plot, setting, character, symbolism, and narrative devices like suspense and irony. A story’s meaning takes shape from how these elements interact to produce an effect on the reader. Here are a few examples:

  • Setting:
    • Place: The importance of ‘wilderness’ experiences in the Scriptures as times of spiritual struggle and growth, or mountains as places of encounter with God
    • Time: When the Gospels report that an event occurs during a major Feast, such as the Transfiguration’s connection with the Feast of Booths or the Passion narrative’s connection with Passover
  • Symbolism: See the above examples of symbolic settings, but also the wedding symbolism throughout the Gospels as a metaphor of the Kingdom of God; or, how Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume is symbolic of preparation for his burial
  • Irony: The crowning of Jesus by the soldiers or the sign ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ posted on his cross, in which the characters act to mock Jesus but are inadvertently speaking truth
  • Characterization:
    • Empathy: The disciples in Matthew are shown to be ‘just like’ the readers: people who want to do the right thing, but often fail, who are growing in understanding but don’t always get it right away, etc.
    • Antipathy: The portrayal of the Pharisees in the Gospels as Jesus’ foils (despite the fact that among first century Jewish groups, Jesus probably had the most in common with the Pharisees!)

I’ll stop there, but hopefully this gives you an idea of the kinds of things narrative criticism looks for in how it interprets the stories in the Bible.

Narrative criticism has a lot of things going for it. First, it is text-centered, understanding the Bible on its own terms rather than judging it against external criteria. Second, it has more in common with how Christians read and use the Bible than most other hermeneutical methods; in this way it can bring together the academy and the Church. Third, it allows the power of the Bible and its stories to change lives, communities, and cultures to shine through. Fourth, its intratextuality allows for a broader narrative to take shape than what the specific stories might suggest on their own; this ties into what has been called ‘trajectory hermeneutics’ over the past couple decades, in which interpreters look at how the biblical stories evolve internally over time on different themes or topics, such as slavery or gender roles. Here, what’s important is not where the biblical story ‘ends’, but the trajectory along which it leaves the reader to continue. And, fifth, narrative criticism rightly acknowledges that for the most part, our worldviews and beliefs are shaped by stories. As the late Ojibwe master storyteller Richard Wagamese put it:

All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. … We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship — we change the world, one story at a time. (Cited in Carol Anne Hilton’s Indigenomics)

For us as Christians, the stories of the Bible, and especially the Gospels, are our stories. They shape our world, our values, and our very identities. More than any other hermeneutical methodology, narrative criticism recognizes this fact.

But this does not mean that narrative criticism is without its weaknesses. As an intentionally subjective approach, it lacks objective criteria for the analysis of texts. Even though it’s text-centered, the focus is on the text as a cultural artifact, a shared story belonging to the community of faith. As we see when we plot it on the integral map, it doesn’t engage much with the right side of the grid at all and therefore leaves out important perspectives:

Even if we accept that stories can legitimately be read in different ways, does that mean that all readings are equally legitimate? Few people who care about the text would want to argue this. But, on its own, narrative criticism lacks an internal mechanism for discerning among readings. Moreover, there are times when the narrative reading is made more meaningful — not less — by reference to external criteria. One example that comes to mind is how, while on its own Genesis 1 is a powerful text, understanding the ways it intentionally plays with Babylonian creation mythology renders it much more potent in terms of understanding what it is saying about who God is and who God is not.

And so, once again, I’m left with the common refrain from this series: Narrative criticism, for all its important benefits, is not sufficient on its own for a full, holistic interpretation of Scripture. It needs support from other methodologies.

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