In recent years appeals to "narrative" and to "story" have been increasingly prominent in scholarly circles, to the delight of some, the consternation of others, and the bewilderment of many. Such appeals have caused delight in that narrative and story appear to provide a cure, if not a panacea, to a variety of Enlightenment illnesses: rationalism, monism, decisionism, objectivism, and other "isms." Or so some defenders of narrative claim. The appeals have caused consternation in that the focus on narrative and story often appear to bear all the markings of an intellectual fad: something short-lived, about which many articles are written, but which quickly meets its demise as people return to more substantive matters. Or so some critics of narrative claim. The appeals have caused bewilderment to those who are outside of the battle between proponents and opponents, a bewilderment increased by the fear that nobody is quite sure precisely what is being proposed or opposed.
It is in such a context that we thought it might be useful to put together this book. While we are convinced that "narrative" raises many important issues and is central to theological and ethical reflection, we are equally convinced that too often it has been put to uncritical "faddish" uses and/or has been the focus of confusion caused by a lack of conceptual clarity. Hence the title Why Narrative? has a double mean ing: on the one hand, the essays have been chosen because of the ways in which we are convinced they illumine the significance of narrative for theology and ethics (thus providing an answer to the question "why narrative?"); and on the other hand, the tensions and divergences among the essays reveal the continuing importance of asking whether appeals to "narrative" are so diverse that the notion has outlived its usefulness (thus the skeptic continuing to ask "why narrative?'').
After all it is not readily obvious what, if anything, the varieties of appeals to narrative have in common. The category of narrative has been used, among other purposes, to explain human action, to articulate the structures of human consciousness, to depict the identity of agents (whether human or divine), to explain strategies of reading (whether specifically for biblical texts or as a more general hermeneutic), to justify a view of the importance of "story-telling" (often in religious studies through the language of "fables" and "myths"), to account for the historical development of traditions, to provide an alternative to foundational^ and/or other scientific epistemologies, and to develop a means for imposing order on what is otherwise chaos.
Proponents of one or more of these uses of narrative are not necessarily proponents of all of them. Indeed some of the uses conflict with each other, as for example the views that the structures of human consciousness are narrative in form and that narrative is a means for imposing order on what is otherwise chaos. Moreover, proponents of a version of one or more of the uses of narrative may not accept a different version of that use, as for example has been the case in Hans Frei's attempt to distance himself from Paul Ricoeur's narrative her-meneutics.
Even so, summaries of views about narrative often oversimplify the wide varietv of wavs in which the cate^orv of narrative has been and can be used. In so doing, a misleading and distorted picture can emerge of what is at stake in appeals to narrative. For example, in a recent lecture on "Varieties of Moral Discourse," James Gustafson identifies narrative as one of four kinds of moral discourse (the others are prophetic, ethical, and policy). He proposes that the central thesis of narrative theology and narrative ethics can be stated fairly, if too simply, in the following terms:
Narratives function to sustain the particular moral identity of a religious (or secular) community by rehearsing its history and traditional meanings, as these are portrayed in Scripture and other sources. Narratives shape and sustain the ethos of the community. Through our participation in such a community, the narratives also function to give shape to our moral characters, which in turn deeply affect the way we interpret or construe the world and events and thus afreet what we determine to be appropriate action as members of the community. Narratives function to sustain and confirm the religious and moral identity of the Christian community, and evoke and sustain the faithfulness of its members to Jesus Christ.1
Gustafson intends this description to reflect his appreciation for the role narrative plays in theological and ethical discourse. But, it needs to be noted, it is a limited role. As Gusiafson concludes his discussion, he notes that narratives can be prophetic, but even so:
Narrative ethics is not sufficient. Symbolic prophetic indictments need to be checked against facts and figures and political analysis. Perceptive intuitions informed by parables need to be checked against more rational analysis. And we all belong to several communities. To live by the stop/ of only one might impede our capacities to communicate with those with whom we share moral responsibilities who are informed by different stories and different communities. And our individual moral integrity is shaped in relation to more than the story of the Christian community; it is shaped by our social backgrounds, our roles in society, ana other things. And, just as there is often a gap between prophetic discourses and particular choices made in the midst of medical, political, economic, and other situations, so narrative also leaves that gap.:
Gustafson's description is not prima facie wrong. People have made appeals to narrative within theology and ethics that arc similar to, though not identical with, the kind of description that Gustafson provides.
Bui Gustafson's description does oversimplify, and thereby distort, the debates about the piace or places of narrative in theology and ethics. While very few people, if any, would claim against Gustafson that narrative is sufficient in and of itself, Gustafson's assumptions about what else is needed are closely tied to his understanding of narrative. It is an understanding that is derived in part from H. Richard Niebuhr's important chapter "The Story of Our Life" in Vie Meaning of Revelation, and it is an understanding probably shared by many of those who write about "stories" and their relation to theology and ethics.
But it is an understanding which does not consider the uses of narrative centered on epistemological issues. According to some propo
1. James M. Guswtson, "Varieties of Moral Discourse: Prophetic. Narrative, Eihi-Cdl and Policy/' Calvin College. The Stob Lectures, 1988, pp. 19-20.
2. Ibid., pp. 26-27. The concern for some kind of "universal" ethic that transcends narrative is evident also in Paul Nelson's Narrative and Morality: A Tncological Inquiry (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1987). We think Nelson's proposal is problematic as we know of no unproblematic "universality/' but he usefully sketches some of the options and issues involved sn appeals to narrative.
nents of narrative in theology and ethics, the crucial appeal to narrative is not because of the significance of "stories/ though that may be part of it; rather what is significant is the recognition that rationality, methods of argument and historical explanation have, at least to some extent, a fundamentally narrative form. This is an issue to which we will return below, but it is important to note that // there is a close connection between epistemologv and narrative, then the issues Gustafson raises about the status of narrative in relation to other types of discourse (e.g., prophetic, ethical, and policy) and the problems of belonging to multiple communities take on very different shapes from those Gustafson suggests.
Moreover, Gustafson's understanding does not adequately cover issues surrounding personal identity. If personal identity is fundamentally narrative in form, as some of narrative's proponents contend, then the issues are framed somewhat differently than the assumption that moral integrity is something shaped by the story of a community, be it Christian or non-Christian. Such a view, if correct, alters Gustafson s claim that "individual moral integrity is shaped in relation to more than the story of the Christian community" by showing how narrative is crucial both in articulating the narrative of a community and/or tradition and in depicting the problems of what it means to have personal identity. But in this view, rather than showing the limitations of narrative, the claim reveals the importance of attending to the diverse ways in which narrative is crucial for understanding human life.
We suspect that Gustafson is concerned with how appeals to narrative, especially in a theological context, can be used to provide an uncritical apologetic for "the Christian story." There is no question that appeals to narrative have had this unhappy result by failing to note the complexities of "the Christian story" or by trying to avoid the epis-temological issues of how it might be possible to ask how we might know if such a story is true and/or truthful.3 It is our belief, however, that attention to the narrative display of Christian convictions can and should help to avoid these uncritical apologetic moves that ultimately result in a vulgar relativism.
We have identified Gustafson's argument in part because the questions and issues he raises are significant, but more importantly be
3. James W. McClcndon's work, both Ethics: Systematic Urology, vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986) and his earlier book (coauthored with James M. Smith) Understand* ing Religious Convictions (Noire Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), represent important attempts to confront these issues. We were interested in including a selection from McCIendon as his work over the years has been quite important to the development of narrative, particularly his emphasis on the place of biography and autobiography, but no one selection stood out as a clear choice.
cause his discussion reveals the dangers of oversimplifying what appeals to narrative involve. Too much of the contemporary discussion about narrative, particularly within theology and ethics, has been beset by a poor understanding of what is at stake; proponents and opponents talk past each other, with those on the sidelines perplexed and bemused bv these intellectual exercises.
We are convinced that there is a great deal at stake ill the discussions about narrative, and the essays we have collected arc ones which we think are important in discerning where the issues He. There are, to be sure, debates about narrative that we have not covered here. For example, we have not included discussions of the important and relevant debates on such matters as narrative and historical explanation, narrative and literary theory, or narrative and biblical scholarship. To be sure these debates have an impact on the issues discussed and arguments advanced by the authors of the essays in this book, but to attempt to include materials from these other areas would have required a much different, and much larger, book than we have provided.
We are concerned with suggesting that narrative is neither just an account of genre criticism nor a faddish appeal to the importance of telling stories; rather it is a crucial conceptual category for such matters as understanding issues of epistemologv and methods of argument, depicting personal identity, and displaying the content of Christian convictions. Toward that end, we have brought together several essays that address these topics. The essays do not form any single coherent perspective, nor do the authors all share similar religious convictions. The essays do provide a glimpse into the debates about narrative's significance that we hope will help to clarify what is at stake and hence elevate the debates about narrative to a higher level.
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