The Emerging Relational Theology #2

Sunday, May 11, 2008

In my previous post I began talking about a movement in recent theology towards a relational perspective. That movement, which now spans many "schools" of thought, begins with narrative theology.

Narrative theology has become quite a buzz word in theological circles lately. So the question arises: what exactly is it? There are many flavors of narrative theology out there, and indeed it seems that just about anyone can claim the moniker for whatever. So what I would like to do is be clear about the particular form of narrative theology I see as leading towards this emerging relational theology, looking at it from my own evangelical perspective.

One of the biggest names in narrative theology is Hans Frei. Frei (along with the likes of George Lindbeck and David Kelsey) belongs to a group in Yale that became known as "postliberal" (Lindbeck's term). That means that Frei's critiques are primarily directed towards his own liberal background. In many ways Frei's narrative theology can be said to be a furtherance of Karl Barth's "neo-orthodoxy" which was also a reaction against the liberal education and heritage that Barth had. Barth bases his entire theology in his Church Dogmatics on how the event of Jesus Christ changes human history. In that sense, though not explicitly stated, Barth can be seen as beginning narrative theology, and Frei cites him as a major influence.

Another big influence for Frei was Jewish literary scholar Erich Auerbach. Frei's narrative theology is neatly summed up in this wonderfully provocative quote from Auerbach's Mimesis:
"The Bible seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history... The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be historically true reality – it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it." (p. 15)
In other words, while liberal theology focuses on trying to make Scripture relevant for our modern world by reading it as myth, narrative theology comes at it the other way saying that we need to look at what it really says and fit ourselves into what the Bible says about who we are and what life is about rather than fitting the Bible into our world. The Bible's narrative does not only claim to be true, but to trump all other perspectives, to narrate God's world, the world (or if you prefer, the kingdom) that we are to fit our lives and self-understanding into.

Frei's focus was on biblical hermeneutics, which means his version of narrative theology focused on how we should read the Bible as a realistic narrative, similar to a novel, as opposed to reading to reading it as a myth à la Joseph Campbell. That means that the stories in the Bible are not written like mythical fables of super-human giants, but of real people with believable flaws and complex stories that feel like our own. Frei does not deny here the factuality of these stories. For example in a reply to Evangelical pillar Carl F. H. Henry's lecture at Trinity which expressed some Evangelical concerns with narrative theology, Frei stated that,
"If I am asked to speak in the language of factuality, then I would say, yes... I have to speak of an empty tomb. In those terms I have to speak of a literal resurrection" (Theology & Narrative p. 211)
But while he acknowledges the "factuality" of the Bible when forced to speak in those terms, he thinks that this focus on facts has caused both modernist liberals and conservatives to have the wring focus. On the one hand, liberals who reject the factuality of the biblical claims try to re-write it as myth detached from fact. The resurrection becomes a powerful story that did not actually happen and the "Christ of faith" is separated from the "Jesus of history". On the other hand, conservatives spend all their time with apologetics and finding "evidence that demands a verdict" rather than on proclaiming and embodying the actual message and consequence of the resurrection. What Frei wants us not to miss here is that narratives - even ones that are rooted in factual accounts - go deeper into what makes a person tick than an objective history does. The Bible expresses itself in terms of complex narratives (like the Gospels) and pastoral letters (like the Epistles) and in so doing gives a much more interactive and complex theology than any ordered systematic treatment ever could. It gives us the messy and complex picture of real life and shows us how God incarnate meets us there.

The bottom line here is to look at what the message of the Bible really is, even when that steps on our toes, and to allow God's story to become our story. That is where Frei's narrative theology of biblical interpretation meets Stanley Hauerwas' narrative theology of Christian virtue ethics. but I'll leave that for the next post....

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At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the information.


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