Narrative Theology: An Old Story Read Anew in the Postmodern Age
In Gerard Loughlin’s book Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church, and Narrative Theology, he explains the principles that make up narrative theology as well as the reasons for their importance in a postmodern context. This essay will summarize Loughlin’s work and present some of the problems and assets of his narrative theology.
Loughlin describes the societal shifts in recent decades from religion to modernism to postmodernism. When religious narratives lost their credibility, modernism told a master story that society would be better under the narration of science and politics. Now that the modernist ideals of human progress have also lost their credibility, postmodern society is left with two possible narratives: nihilstic textualism, or orthodox narrativism. In his review, William Placher concisely summarizes the differences: textualists “see just a rich plurality of texts and stories among which we can play, however, the narrativists believe that one text and the story it tells define the world and can shape our lives.”
In textualism, there is nothing beyond an endless system of signs and signifiers that make up language; Loughlin notes that for textualists “even God is wholly inside language.” This master story is inevitably a form of disorientation and death since there is no reference of self within the world, and the narrative is formless. The ultimate meaninglessness of the narrative is accompanied by the meaninglessness of the themes most prevalent in postmodern society: success, endless accumulation, and delusion, including the delusion that each individual is her own author.
In contrast, the belief that everything is a story which produces reality, desire, time, and self gives life a narrative trajectory. God is not simply another meaningless sign within language, but is outside of the system of language. Because God is outside language, scripture is forever interpreted and never fully understood. Narrative theology demonstrates relationship between the story and its teller as well as understanding the world in biblical terms. Within the story of God’s Christ, the world is freed from the need to write itself by allowing scripture to overcome reality. All other stories are inscribed into the biblical story; the world is ordered, experienced, and understandable through following it. We must resist the temptation of reversing this, of reading scripture in order to make it fit our world views. From this premise, Loughlin sets out to differentiate between story and narrative. There is only one story: that of life, death, and resurrection, as found in the story of Jesus Christ. Narrative, on the other hand, can tell this one story in an endless variety of ways through constructs such as time, mood, and voice.
What keeps the Jesus story relevant in all ages age is that the Jesus story is true to human experience. The gospel is a “realistic narrative” in which character, circumstance and theme are nothing without each other and become most themselves through their interaction. Jesus is the unity of what he did, the way he did it, and what was done to him; such identity “cannot be explained, but only described.” As with all individuals, experience relies on the narration of the past and future. Characters throughout the Hebrew texts are similarly realistic: it is the carried past and expectations of the future that make both tragedy and transformation possible.
In orthodox narrativism, the role of the Church is crucial. The Church is the community in which individuals learn to embody the story of Christ, to envision the world as scripture does, and to destroy the stories of our own making. In telling the story, we are challenged to learn to identify with all the characters in the biblical stories. In a narrative understanding, the defining characteristic of the Church is its adherence to the scriptural story. Loughlin states that Christian ethics are precisely that: for the Christian community. The Church’s dedication to the story sets us apart, and we serve the world by living differently than the world does. It is no use to attempt to convince that our ethics are universal; they are for those who are in the storied community. And there is no pressure within the story to make ourselves sound reasonable to the world. God Herself is not understandable nor reasonable in the way everything else is; the same questions just don’t apply.
Just as the same questions applied to everything in the universe cannot be applied to God, the Bible cannot be read as any other book. To begin Part Two: Reading and Writing, Loughlin acknowledges “the Bible is like any other book in that it is the product of particular circumstances, written by particular people for specific communities, historically situated.” However, he continues, it is unlike any other book in that it has been used as “the textual matrix of a tradition,” as a word of both promise to us and judgment upon us. The Church not only helped shape the texts, but is also shaped by them. Similarly, God is both author and interpreter. Christ “performed the primary action and gave the primary interpretation,” providing the Church with their rule for reading scripture. The text itself is dead until performed by the Church in an interanimative communal reading. The way the text is read is vital to the well-being of the Church. Loughlin argues that the correct approach is not literal, but “letteral … literal-as-written.” Letteral readings acknowledge that metaphorical and figural language, in their context, is a disposition of the literal.
The image Loughlin repeatedly visits is John consuming the scroll in revelation. “Scripture,” states Loughlin, “is a text to consume,” to be inside us in order to render experience meaningful. It is “through story [that] we learn about possibilities of human action”; each one is a possible world and way of living. Loughlin effectively nullifies debates of historical accuracy, arguing that scriptures can be both history and poetic possibility, true in historical recognition as well as fictional possibility. Truth in theology is a matter of judging how good a story is, or how well it is told and performed.
In response to the desire to turn Christianity into a feel-good movement, Loughlin points out that tragedy in the Christian story is necessary: there is no resurrection without, first, death. However, Christ is not a tragic hero: his suffering is far from meaningless. Tragedy continues in the story of the Church as it struggles between that which is performed (the biblical story) and its performance (the life of the Church). The Church must retain its tragic character by remaining open to the possibility of judgment and damnation, lest we become the new Pharisees.
In Part Three: Linkages, Loughlin presents the idea of God as an event, rather than a being. In short, God is an incomprehensible event that “dislodges our stories.” The event of God is manifest in the narrative phrase of Jesus Christ, who links himself to other phrases through scripture. Jesus is both constituted by and constitutive of God’s story, both narrator and narratee.
The story of God is told in multiple ways, all of which are intertwined, and even interconstituted. The first way is the story of Israel, God and the Hebrews, which foretells the story of Christ, and through him, the Church. The second story is that of God and Christ, which presents and retells Israel’s story and foretells the story of the Church. The third way to tell God’s story is that of God and the Church, which retells the first two stories, and makes possible their telling by relating them. However, the telling comes with a burden, which is that the telling is not judged in terms of descriptive fidelity, but in “fidelity of performance,” which can only be done well through incorporation into the story. It is through incorporation that we find our way into the salvation the story narrates; resurrection and incorporation are part of one salvation. Loughlin points out that such a leap requires trust in the gospel story, for reason cannot believe the resurrection, only love can. “Whereas the crucifixion narratives focus on what Jesus did and was done to him but leave his identity ambiguous; the resurrection narratives focus on his identity but leave ambiguous God’s action in and for Jesus.” The gospel stories center around the resurrection event, and because such an event cannot be described nor reasoned, it is narrated. Loughlin is essentially arguing against historicism: it is not only unimportant to be able to describe exactly what happened, it is impossible. Whereas the historian desires to name the mystery, the storyteller knows it to be unnamable. The gospels “cannot be said, only believed in love,” and the Church gathers to tell and hear that story. Loughlin’s words against attempts to describe the event are strong: “if you know who Jesus is then you know that he is risen; if you don’t know that he is risen you don’t know who he is.”
How individuals are incorporated into the story is discussed through “narrative soteriology:” salvation is not only illustrated by the story of Jesus, but the story establishes the relation between Jesus and those who are saved. In entering the story through baptism, the person refigures their own story to that of Christ, for the first time living with a telos other than one of extinction. The Church becomes the narrative space in which Christians learn to sacrifice their selves to a community’s narrative texts and language, which they do through being interrogated by the scriptural texts. There is no arrival; the learning is always in process.
Loughlin concludes his work with an understanding of Eucharist through the lens of narrative theology. The event brings Christ and Church together in a performance of the scriptural story, recognizing both the historical event and the continuing acknowledgment of fictive possibility conjured by communion. At the table, creation, gift, and eucharist are all the same thing under different names, and unity is formed through relationship between giver, gift, and given; teller, story, and listener; host, meal, and guest.
Loughlin’s work is a thorough explanation of the principles of his narrative theology. He uses an understanding of story’s function in real life to balance a multitude of problems in approaching scripture literally while defending, as Sherri Chapin writes, “the inspiration, historicity, and truth of the biblical story.” The final chapter’s application of such principles to the practice of Eucharist shows what a satisfying truth can be reached through embodying the story while balancing history and fiction. Narrativism is an important addition to hermeneutics because it enables readers to approach Scripture with a natural storied lens in a new way, one that Cavanaugh notes to be an “alternative to liberal and deconstructionist or textualist theologies.”
The critiques that arise in reviews of Telling God’s Story are primarily questions of the principality of story. Cavanaugh notes that in Loughlin’s “zeal to emphasize the embodiment of the story of God in the church, the church’s story becomes the originary tale.” The story of the Church becomes primary, overshadowing creation. Also questioning what importance the world plays in narrative theology, Steven Shakespeare notes that if we are to accept narrative theology as our primary lens, the world ceases to be anything beyond “a blank screen on which to project one’s theological preconceptions.” Certainly, there must be some worth in creation itself that helps to shape our stories, something outside of text and narrative that is worth considering as part of reality.
Cavanaugh continues to note that the embodiment of the story “reads the Gospels not as the story of Jesus, but as the story of the church.” This is a similar concern to the one mentioned above: is the embodiment of God’s story above even Jesus? My suspicion is that Jesus would concede that it is. In such a Christ-centered Church, we forget that Jesus came as a sign to point the way to the Kingdom. In a common saying, we must look beyond the finger to see that it points at the moon. Cavanaugh states that putting primacy on embodiment above Jesus “leads back to Cupitt’s cave, where God is nothing other than the stories we tell.” He is correct only if we move backwards. The road could easily move away from the cave and beyond Christ-centered practices and more towards God and Spirit, to a place we approach Her full Trinity in relationship, rather than stopping when we get as far as the Son.
Cavanaugh, Wiliam T. Pro Ecclesia 8, no. 4 (Fall 1999): 496-498.
Chapin, Sherri Ayn. Lexington Theological Quarterly 32, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 189-90.
Loughlin, Gerard. Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Placher, William C. The Journal of Religion 78, no. 2 (1998): 285-287.
Shakespeare, Steven. Modern Believing 38, no. 1 (Jan 1997): 60-62.