Friday, October 12, 2007

Leaving Narrative Behind

Reading around the web, I have detected some discomfort among Christians on this topic of abandoning the idea of narrative. I think the worry is misplaced. Belief in a more random-looking, chaotic, and unpredictable world does not undermine God's sovereignty - indeed, it may be more compatible in some ways - but it certainly undermines our mental picture of what that sovereignty is supposed to look like.

From a long cultural line, extending at least back to Plato and gathering force during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, we have come to picture life in a more patterned way that it necessarily is. We see God turning the pages of a book already written, or weaving a pattern which is obscure to us but set beforehand. We see His intervention as a tweaking of some great clockwork or deflection of a river in a bed.

Yet a chaotic view, in which God ropes in, or attracts in various bits to send them on their way makes as much sense. We assign an enormous importance to our own history, as if one of the main points of getting to heaven will be to look back over it all and see what it really was. What if the journey is quite inessential and only the destination matters, however we got there? How if there is no longer any need, or even any point, in reading the pages of the book or listening to the symphony when our lives and all this world are complete? Perhaps they are just typing practice or the tuning of instruments, signifying nothing.

We like the idea of living within a story, even if we have little idea where it is going. It seems to give a point and a structure to all that happens here, especially the unpleasant parts. We want our sufferings to not only mean something but to have meaning in just the way we direct. We tell God what we believe will give it all meaning.

There is a chain of story in the Bible, but the past-present-future aspect of it seems to relate entirely to Jesus and/or the Messianic chapters of Israel. There are prophecies to the Jews of what will happen to them in a year or a century, but these come and go with not much reference to each other. The point of them seems to be the type of tribe and people that the Jews will be made into - what they should learn - rather than some destination requiring that they direct their efforts toward.

The events connect in retrospect, with ample evidence that Yahweh ties events of the past and present together, but I think we overvalue the continuity. The Passover is celebrated to remember an ancient event as if it were somehow happening in the present as well, but it is remembering that first Passover, not the long succession of Passovers, that is the point. As humans living in history we like the continuity that tells us that this Christmas is connected to the Christmas of our grandmothers, and their grandmothers before that; that this Passover was celebrated by people who bore our name two centuries ago or ten. But these are incidental; embellishments allowed like favorite foods to help knit us to the events but not the events themselves.

I am somewhat astray from where I began this. There are many passages in Christian writings which liken the procession of the world to something already patterned, which we must conform ourselves to before the end. It was one great contact point with the northern European concept of fate or destiny which allowed them to apprehend the Gospel. But we may have only one destiny, which is heaven - a destination. There may be a dozen possible destinies (or a thousand) on the way there.


Dubbahdee said...

So why is it that story is such a compelling device for us? You seem to suggest that it's just a comfort thing. It certainly is, but we must be careful of the word "just." (I know, I inferred it here, but only because you implied it).
Let me posit the converse. We really are in a story. An enormously unbelievably complex story that only one who is both linear and non-linear at the same time could possibly manage. Someone like...YHWH for instance. Being eternal seems to mean that he exists right now at all times, filling all moments in this moment. If this is so, perhaps that might account for some of the reasons why his telling of it seems to telescope events, plot points, themes and characters in various ways. Perhaps there will be a crisis, climax and denoument and then perhaps it will begin a new story.
And maybe we like it because we are part of it and it is therefore built into us.

Unknown said...

The Blind Watchmaker in Control of "Nature's God" does not consider himself to be interested in the human story.

He's blind but not deaf; he does not want to hear any more self-centered silly stuff.

he wants those bibles and korans re-cycled.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Oh, you've heard from Him?

terri said...

Your post reminds me somewhat of Open Theology.

Have you heard of this movement and do you have any thoughts about it in relation to narrative?

Unknown said...

When you pray, look north to Goddi.
Say: "Gotti please to send me a hottie."
Or "Goddi-gimme ten million bucks-
Only you, Gotti, can change all my luck."

So live it up bigly--break all the rules.
Be an American greed-me, don't be a fool.
Good pals are Goddi and Mr. John Gotti-
Drinking light beer and eating dark broddy.

They have never hurt nobody.
They are old-time fuddy-duddies.

On your deathbed you can be 'saved'.
Say "Goddi, forgive me 'cause I misbehaved."
You don't have to mean it, Gotti won't know.
He's way too busy counting his dough.

Some say "I do NOT believe in Goddi."
That's okay because Goddy's not snotty.

This was written by the Blind Watchmaker of Nature 6/11/05

Assistant Village Idiot said...

terri - I had heard of open theology but knew nothing. I just did some googling and reading pro and con, and find the debate interesting in the extreme. Thank you.