On narrative theology

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September 23, 2012
Susie Guenther Loewen |

What does it mean to think of the Bible as our story, or to think of faith as entering into God’s story? In Adult Ed. at my church, we’re currently looking at the Bible studies from last July’s Mennonite Church Canada Assembly, so I’ve been thinking more about the implications of what I heard there. The story that’s been on my mind is from 2 Kings 22 and 23, which I led at my church, and which was led by Canadian Mennonite University Professor Sheila Klassen-Wiebe at Assembly (to hear or read her talk, you can go here). It’s the story of the righteous King Josiah, at a time when the Book of the Law (Scriptures) had been lost and neglected for some time. During renovations on the Temple, the Book is found, and when Josiah hears it read, he tears his clothes in a dramatic act of repentance, recognizing that the nation has not been faithful to the covenant. After consulting a prophetess named Huldah to make sure he understands the Scriptures, he brings all the people together in a ceremony to renew the covenant, destroys the idols throughout the land, and institutes a national Passover celebration, which has not occurred for some time.

Sheila talked about this story as one of “literally” dusting off the Bible (the theme of Assembly), and compared it to dusting off a grandparent’s old diary. In the way that we think of family history as a story we’re part of, even though it happened before we were born, we can think of the Bible as a type of faith-family history, our story from long, long, long before we were born, Sheila said. This is the type of connection that the people in the story make themselves: here is an old book, pulled out of the rubble of the neglected Temple. There’s nothing forcing Josiah to take ownership of the story, to interpret it as speaking to him and to the whole nation. Yet the people come together and renew their commitment to the covenant, something Sheila called “a corporate meaning-making activity that reminded them of who they were and how they were to live.” They also celebrate the Passover, a festival recounting the Exodus from Egypt, “an embodied reminder of who they were and whose they were” (i.e., God’s people).

I was struck by the richness of this imagery on several levels. On a theological level, like much contemporary Anabaptist-Mennonite theology, it fits into what’s called post-liberal or narrative theology, which involves seeing the Christian faith as a whole, including the Bible, as an on-going narrative in which we are called by God to participate. Instead of starting with our experience and trying to make faith relevant to our society’s norms and values, narrative theology sees faith as something we enter into which then shapes how we view the world and our experiences, as well as how we live. In this way, while the narratives of the Bible can’t be translated into general, universal values (though they can be brought into conversation with those values), they can be translated into our very lives. In the words of narrative theologian George Lindbeck, “For those who are steeped in [the Scriptures], no world is more real than the ones they create. A scriptural world is thus able to absorb the universe.” I see this notion in the image above, found here.

Back in Adult Ed. at my church, a question came up: isn’t this an exclusive way of viewing the world? Who’s to say that our story is “right” while other stories are “wrong”? But such a question, I think, misunderstands what we’re talking about. It’s not that the biblical narratives are right and others wrong, not about exclusivity and inclusivity, but about particularity. Just as a family history is not exclusive just because it’s unique and particular to one family, so the view that the biblical narratives comprise our guiding story and worldview is not exclusive, but rather, particular to the church. This isn’t to say we can’t compare our faith-family history with that of others, especially those who belong to other Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Islam – our faith-cousins, perhaps?), but this doesn’t undermine the uniqueness of our story. It also doesn’t mean that we’re doomed to repeat biblical history in some kind of literalistic way, since the repetition which tradition involves mixes novelty and history into what’s called analogical or “non-identical repetition” (a term used by Catherine Pickstock and other theologians of the Radical Orthodoxy movement).

There are, of course, two important differences between a faith-family history and a regular family history. First, as Anabaptist-Mennonites who practice adult baptism, participation in the church is a choice, so entering into the story of faith, making the narrative of what God is doing in the world our narrative, is something undertaken voluntarily. Thinking back to 2 Kings, this resonates with the decision of the people to commit themselves to the covenant. Secondly, it’s a story that’s constantly challenging us, and in that sense, paradoxically, it’s constantly “other” than us while simultaneously being our defining story. This is why, in 2 Kings, the people find it necessary to remember and recommit themselves to the covenant and to the defining narrative of the Exodus, practices which parallel the Christian ceremony of renewing our baptismal covenants – namely, Communion. These narratives, especially the enactment of the narrative of Communion (the Last Supper), thus remind us of who we are and whose we are, a reminder we often need.

So that was my train of thought when reflecting further on the passage from 2 Kings: a look at narrative theology with its imagery of faith as a story we enter and participate in, which changes how we view ourselves, each other, the world, our lives, and, of course, God. This story isn’t an exclusive one, but it is particular to those who find the Book, dust it off, and choose to make its story their own.

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