Learning from history (III)

11 Mar

BVD_Stories_8-1100x722Let’s take a final look at the Bible’s historical books. There is one more key characteristic that can help us get the most from this set of “theological treatises rooted in an understanding of the God who is at work in and through history”.

Narrative theology. 40% of the Bible, including the historical books almost in their entirety, are written as narratives. We are used to reading narrative – from Harry Potter to the Lord of the Rings – and understand the concept of “historical novel”, that is, fiction based round real events. But surely, we say, that’s not what we have in the Bible? The leap from historical narrative to inspired Word of God is just too great for our concept of biblical inerrancy.

But the biblical narratives must be read as such, and not as New Testament epistles or any other biblical genre. To not do so inevitably means we not only miss their intended message but also read much into the text that is not there and create an unnecessary rod for our own theological backs. The existence of “conflicting” versions or accounts must surely help us to avoid an overly simplistic view or to treat them (as if that were possible) as “history”.

Narrative is not allegory nor indirect teaching but rather contains examples of God’s dealings with his people over a period of time. Despite this, it is not the story of those individuals, but the story of God, through people. The narratives are not history, but story, collectively the story of God’s work in and through his people, or Heilsgeschichte as theologians like to call this concept. To not do so inevitably means we not only miss their intended message but also read much into the text that is not there and create an unnecessary rod for our own theological backs.

Lights, camera, action!

priceofegyotBiblical narratives are action-based – not necessarily action-packed, Bourne Trilogy style, but their main focus is the action involved. There is zero pyschological introspection – that we love these days, and which is perhaps why, if we are honest, we can be prone to find the Bible boring – and any feelings involved are only mentioned inasmuch as they fuel the action. Long descriptive passages that create a backdrop to the action are notable by their absence. Again, details only make an appearance as needed to explain the action and the “set” is built with only what is necessary to situate the central action.

Characters are limited to those involved, usually two with an occasional third. A main character, an antagonist, and the odd sidekick, like Lot with Abraham, is the usual quota, with occasional extras to connect the scenes. Even these few characters are generally “flat” in the sense that we only really see one side of them, that which illustrates the behaviour the narrator wants us to see. So Esau is stupid, Absalom is wicked, Esther is noble. Only a very few such as David or Joseph are worthy of any deeper treatment. Dialogues between protagonists reveal their character and support the main thrust of the action.

So, these few key players act out their roles against a sparse backdrop that provides just enough to know what is going on. In this idealised world, social distance is telescoped, so we find midwives talking to Pharaoh, and language is never a problem. There are no interwoven currents as the action flows in short, often disconnected scenes, from the presentation of a character through their experience to sharp conclusions. Together with the protagonists we experience what their action meant in terms of relationship with God and others. Whether humble peasants or imperial rulers, their stories combine to portray the truth of human existence and how we live our lives before God.

first+finally+next+after+then+lastThe action is often presented as stories of intrigue and suspense, where the repetition of key words and themes lead us to towards the inevitable climax. Pay attention, though, or you might miss it – we are used to a build up of tension that focuses on the characters’ inner world, but with their impoverished interest in feelings and motives, biblical narrative develops through action and can reach its resolution in what for us appears to be merely setting the scene. You will also struggle to find the kind of details that we like to see; the narratives are short and sharp, constantly seeking to bring the reader back to the actions and reactions of the central character. “How” questions are often left unanswered. Flashbacks and “missing years” are common, so be careful also to not always expect everything to be neatly arrayed in chronological order.

All these narratives have a narrator, who may or may not be the author themselves. Usually anonymous, often omnipresent as well as omniscient, and always totally reliable (in their own estimation at least!) they strive to portray to the reader just how God sees the events in question. Whilst they can – and do – emit their own moral judgements, narrative is normally presented “as is”, and the reader is brought into the process of evaluation, having to provide for ourselves the assumed motives and inner workings of the action portrayed. (That’s actually part of the fun of reading these stories – we are not told what to think but are left to draw our own conclusions.)

The narrator is writing for someone – us, the readers. They assume that the reader knows how to interpret their narrative and is capable of drawing out inferences and the implicit elements of the story. The process of communication from the narrator to the reader is a complex one, relying much like any other communication on shared understanding. So, awareness of the cultural background of the Scriptural narratives is vital, second-to-none really, for correct understanding. Anything we can do to better understand that background will be hugely helpful in finding out what is really going on in the text.

So, narrative theology. There is so much in there, if we can only learn how to draw it out. Do read these books as literature, which is what they are, as well as revelation. Identify what the narrator is wanting to communicate. Recognize and enjoy the literary techniques used and understand how they contribute to the picture of God at work in and through his people. You won’t regret it.

4 Responses to “Learning from history (III)”

  1. afruitinseason March 11, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    “The leap from historical narrative to inspired Word of God is just too great for our concept of biblical inerrancy.” So what do we do about all our evangelical statements of faith that underline the infallible nature of every word of Scripture?

  2. eatingwithsinners March 11, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    I think we get into deep water when we use terms to try and define how we see Scripture that go beyond what the Bible says about itself. Of course we have to try – that is our nature – but we must hold truth with an open hand.

    So when we try to define “verbal plenary inerrancy” as the way we understand inspiration, we can find ourselves pushed into rather tight corners and set ourselves up for easy attack by people whose aim it is to discredit Scripture.

    My own understanding of inspiration is one that works within the cultural sphere within which Scripture was revealed, at all levels. In this way, an understanding of literary genre is vital to not fall flat on our interpretative faces. Psalms must be read as poetry – we do not demand scientific precision of poems. Mountains skipping like rams can hardly be said to be “real”, by any stretch of the imagination, yet we can accept such texts as inspired, infallible even. We need to extend the same genre based understanding to the “historical” books. Once we accept them as historical narrative, rather than pure history (though, as we have seen, that is a non-starter in itself), we can find God’s word in them and defend their inspiration without getting into real conundrums over the evident internal and external contradictions they contain.

    The only alternative to this is to continually refer to “the original manuscripts” as the inspired version – any “contradiction” is explained by claiming that it is the process of bad copying, etc., and that the original would have been perfect. Trouble is, no one has any clue what that might have been and it becomes a self-serving argument, utterly invincible, a Deux ex machina that leaves us open to justified criticism and ridicule. If anything we have now is but a shadow of that unknowable original, poor us.

  3. Vic March 11, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    True. Champions of the doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’ are often dismissive of the need for tradition or other sources to understand what is written. If SS is true than would not scripture itself contain that thought?
    There are many things that would remain a mystery in the history if other documents did not shed light on them and the very process of the Canon, translations and certainly interpretations have elements of tradition behind them, just like…. sola scriptura.
    Surely the value of the historical narratives is that they faithfully record the interaction of God with men in history and not just in us having the writings in themselves. The benefit of an exodus or a David and Goliath is the reality of the events and what they could mean rather than the fact they have been recorded for us (with whatever doctrine of the mechanics of inspiration). They are windows to the way God has worked.
    History did not become important to the community of faith because it was written down, it was written down precisely because it had importance and significance to the community of faith and the authors were then inspired in the way they recorded and interpreted events.
    I think many evangelicals miss this basic point.

  4. Jonathan Morgan April 18, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

    Neil, I love you!

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