Is Paul a Storyteller?

For once the answer seems obvious, of course not, Paul is a letter writer. But leave it to a scholar to cloudy up a clear sky, and in this case the scholar has a name, Richard B. Hays. His book The Faith of Jesus Christ (1983 and 2002), the publication of his dissertation,* brought the narrative approaches common in Gospels studies into Pauline studies.

I am not going to review the book in this post, but have attached a precis of the book on writings page if interested. Here it is suffice to say that Hays argues that the story of Jesus the Messiah generates and sustains Paul’s gospel. Underlying all of Paul’s letters is a fundamental narrative which Paul uses to speak into the contexts of his readers. This way of reading Paul has gained wide acceptance, not unanimous mind you, in the field of Pauline studies. For example, N.T. Wright, probably the most well known outside of the academy, also sees Paul’s thought as rooted in a a fundamental narrative, he just focuses on a different story, the story of Israel.

But we have to ask the all important question, “So what? What does it matter if Paul is narratively grounded?” As far as I am concerned, it matters a lot.

Paul’s letters, yes I think we can all agree he does write letters not stories, are full of commands or propositions. If one reads him as propositionally grounded then his letters can become a long list of rules and regulations for us to follow. The basic premise is I (Paul) have figured it out and now let me tell you (those who have not figured it out) what to do. In reading Paul this way we can fall into a trap harmful to our lives as Christians and harmful to the way we teach and preach Paul. Paul’s gospel starts with a list of rules and regulations for us to follow and impose on others; follow the rules and you will experience salvation. Paul’s gospel as however does not start with rules and regulations but freedom, deliverance, righteousness, and being “in Christ.” There is much to learn from him and yes we should seek his advice. But how ironic that Paul, who is fighting against those trying to impose rules and regulations upon those who have become “new creations” through the saving power of the gospel, is the one now imposing rules on us.

But when Paul is read as narratively grounded then the primacy turns from his propositions and commands to his gospel. All things flow out of and into the story of Jesus Christ, salvation is entering into (being folded into) the story of Christ. Being “in Christ” is not only the entry point into salvation but the story which we are called to constantly live into; being “in Christ” is the power to save and transform.

Hays and others like Wright, have done a tremendous service by returning the focus to the story, and for the most part I agree with them (more with Hays than Wright, will talk about that in another post). Paul is narratively minded, he writes out of a story and calls others into a story.

But being narratively minded is not the same thing as being a storyteller, that is distinction I will tackle later.

*Both encouraging and discouraging for those of us writing a dissertation. Encouraging because I cannot think of any other modern dissertation that has so impacted NT studies. Am I missing one? Can you think of another? So just go ahead and get this thing done, over with because it will most likely not change the world! Discouraging to think I will work for 3+ years to research and write this thing and it will be read from cover to cover by less than 5 people – counting family and friends!

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6 thoughts on “Is Paul a Storyteller?

  1. A lot of people won’t read a dissertation but they will read articles (which happen to have been your chapters from your dissertation). Plenty of people have done that. what’s your dissertation topic?

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    1. Making into articles is a good thing, but can also be tricky. Always asking how much of it can you publish elsewhere, even if in modified forms, and still hope to publish the dissertation as a whole. We can argue over if the system itself is outdated (which in many ways I agree that it is), but it is still the system!

      The short summary on dissertation – working with conceptual metaphor theory to understand Paul’s use of familial metaphors in Galatians (especially slavery and adoption in Gal. 4). I am very interested in narrative interpretations and their relationship to metaphor. Can see some of it here:

      http://wp.me/pyF1e-4B

      See from your blog you did PhD, what was your topic?

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      1. I completely dig your topic. I’m an exegete at heart who lives in an Asian context. I looked at the excerpt from your paper and find it resonates with my own thinking, including my overall approach or argumentation within my own dissertation. One way of describing my dissertation is that it attempts to show what happens when one does exegesis and theology from a Chinese perspective, applying particular attention to soteriology (atonement and justification). Using missiological terms, I propose an approach to contextualization as interpretation, not merely application or communication. Speaking of metaphors, I explore how honor-shame frames salvation in Scripture.
        I just posted a link to my dissertation abstract at: http://jacksonwu.wordpress.com/about/. http://wp.me/P2Qx3W-2. I’m jealous you get to go to SBL. Will you go to ETS as well? I just returned from the States and can’t afford to fly back again to the meetings.

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  2. Contextualization as interpretation sounds fascinating. To see contact with other cultures not just as chance to share the gospel through new images, but to reframe the gospel by those images would change the way we engage in missions. But guess it would also make missions a lot more messy. We don’t like messy missions, we like mission “trips”!

    I find the Honor-Shame dynamic one of the most misunderstood parts of scripture. We are so conditioned to read everything through legal system we have no real means to incorporate any other systems. Rather than try we just use a shoehorn to squeeze passages into a legal mold. Would be very interested in seeing how you see it framing scripture, especially for a western audience. Have to admit took me a minute to read the abstract because every time I saw “HS”, I thought Holy Spirit.

    I am excited for SBL. Not attending ETS, however, there is a session on slavery and freedom on Tuesday at SBL I really want to attend and just couldn’t go early and stay late.

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    1. Yes, someone warned me about the HS abbreviation but as much as I use “honor-shame,” “honor and shame,” and those sorts of phrases, it was the most efficient way to shorten it. To compensate, I reminded readers of the meaning of HS at the beginning of each chapter that used it.

      On another note, my dissertation is being reviewed right now for publication. I’m hoping and praying. One of my greater ambitions is to help bridge the chasm that exists presently between missiology and theology. I laughed with a friend today that many missiologists will struggle with the latter part of my dissertation, while some theologians/exegetes may be tempted to skip the first part (the “missiological” stuff).

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      1. Good luck with the publication and hopefully it will come without having to do to much reformatting!

        The whole skipping is part of being in the academy. We are so specialized we find it hard to engage with other fields. We know one thing very well and almost nothing about everything else!

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