Crippling the Imagination of Scripture

Back to studying narrative as part of my thesis…

All stories have a vantage point, the lens from which the viewer/reader/hearer experience the action. The vantage point dictates the reality presented in the story by determining what is seen and what is not seen. Drama, or if you will the viewers attachment perhaps even entrance into the story, is often found in what is just out of sight.

This is obvious when watching something on a screen, the frame defines what can be seen. Certainty only reaches as far as the eye can see and everything else is left to the imagination. A director has the power of manipulating the view, and thus the viewer, by simply (un)zooming the lens. Instantly the vantage point, and thus the reality, of the story is altered.

Storytelling (and writing) works the same way. The storyteller gets to decide from what vantage point the story will be told; will it be a close-up with all the minutiae, a wide angle providing only panoramic views, or something in between? A storyteller does not have as much power to instantly change a story’s vantage point, but good storytellers still alter the reality of a story by changing views.

Nevertheless, regardless of the vantage point, the goal of a good story is always the same – to have the reader enter the story. Good stories even after the last page is turned, leave the reader unable to escape their reality and really good stories leave the reader unwilling to escape! Thus, the best stories are often not those where everything is explained but where everything, even more than what is on the page, is experienced.

This is one area that those of us who tell the Story of scripture often bog down. I know from my own failings, that I tend to give only two points of view. My initial point of view is so close-up that no stone is left unturned. In my zeal to fight against misunderstanding, I leave nothing to the imagination. I then jump immediately to the widest angle. I want all the territory visible so that nothing is left unseen. Ultimately, my two vantage points have the same goal, explain everything thus leaving the imagination crippled because there is nothing left out of view. In the end it might make a nice picture, but does it make a good story?

The answer, however, is not as easy as compromising and finding a middle angle that gives just enough detail without losing the big picture (as if that happy medium could even be found!)…no the answer is messy. It means leaving room for the imagination to take the story into places I have never even considered, allowing the reader to enter the story and give it a whole new vantage point. Yet, I am afraid I do not trust the Story I am telling enough to give it room to live. Sadly, in my attempt to protect the Story it often ceases to be a story at all.

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!