There are 8 thoughts on “A Plea for Narrative Theology: Living In and By Stories”.

  1. I have not, as I desire to do, been able to respond to those who have commented on this essay. I regret not having been able to do so. What has prevented me from responding was the sudden death of my wife from unexpected complications following what those treating her at the Huntsman Cancer Hospital described as a cure for her cancer. I mention this not as an excuse or an explanation for whatever flaws there might be in the arguments I set for in “living In and By Stories,” but as a prelude to a brief and hopefully plain explanation at what I was getting at.

    A friend who knows the Midgley well phoned me from half way around the world and said that he thought that my wife had passed her probation. (That is not to say, however, that I have.) Now for a moment try to set out what exactly that statement entails. Clearly a whole bundle of stories both concerning my wife but also the entire plan of salvation (aka happiness, redemption), which is shared in one degree or another by Latter-day Saints everywhere. And this plan fits snugly into the core doctrine set out by the resurrected Jesus (see 3 Nephi 11), and with parallels with the meaning of the gospel, which is the story of the victory of God over death in all its ugly forms, both of the body and the soul. And all of this is packed into historical texts, including especially the Book of Mormon, and the story of its recovery and place in the faith of the Saints.

    We are, of course, tempted especially by dogmatic theologies. But when the chips are down, we find we live in and by stories. Put another way, our faith is profoundly historical both in form and content. And all of this includes the notion that God and his associates, which includes all of us, each have a history. And God has a truly wonderful plan that can and hopefully will embrace each of us, if we genuinely desire to be included–that is, if we are genuinely true and faithful.

    When one of the Brethren sent me a kind note calling special attention to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, through which event he won a decisive victory over death for all of us, and a profound blessing for those who genuinely seek as well as we can to live faithfully, my friend was was calling my attention to the profound consolation that the gospel, understood as the good news, provides each of us as we face training, trials, temptations and a host of real evils in this wonderful but also otherwise profoundly disconsolate world.

    What I regret, now that I have been able to read what I drafted, and others had to edit, is that I did not begin by calling attention to our own stories, and their little or big deceits, and then the absolute necessity of our own stories being both grounded in and conformed to the larger story found in our scriptures. As always, I deeply regret not being more at home in the English language and hence able to set out properly what I desire to say.

    It seems, however, that some have been able to grasp what I was getting at and hence understand how, despite many sometimes close similarities between the faith of the Saints and that of various other versions of Christian faith, there are some crucial, bedrock differences.

  2. Part of the attraction of theology based in the inherited philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and other systematic thinkers in Western civilization, is that it makes an argument that human reason can reach conclusions about the existence and nature of God, without requiring the exercise of faith in the narrative witnesses of prophets and apostles. Despite the rejection of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, Protestants seem to have clung even more tightly to these arguments, and the creeds that embody them, in order to bolster their argument that the authority of the Bible is based on objective reason and not merely subjective faith. For those Protestants, it helps to replace the authority of the Church as undergirding the Bible.

    Since Latter-day Saints believe in the identity of revelatory authority with the historical restoration of priesthood keys by divine messengers, we don’t need human reason to help us to conclude that God lives, and to know His character. For us, the most fundamental knowledge of God is not derived by careful philosophical constructs and arguments, but by direct experience and observation reported by witnesses. For us, faith consists of believing the many witnesses, not only the modern ones (for example) whose affidavits speak to us in the introduction to the Book of Mormon, but also the witnesses within the text, including Nephi, Mormon and Moroni.

    The Bible itself demonstrates how God works through prophets and witnesses and faith. People in the Old and New Testaments are not saved by precise philosophical dialogue, but by believing that God can be seen and heard and, eventually, touched by humans. It seems ironic to me that so much of theological Protestantism exalts the Bible, but does not enter into the narrative of the Bible, as if the world depicted there were in a snow globe, one that can be seen but not touched.

  3. I could not agree more that the basis of all theology is and should be the scriptures and narrative theology. The spirit of God speaks to us through the scriptural stories like nothing else, because these stories create a personal and spiritual involvement which is absent in “systematic theology”. In reflecting on these stories, inevitably a question will arise about what it means for these stories to be “true”, as we see even here, in the question Theodore raised. We must have an answer for what it means for a testimony to be “true”, if nothing else for an apologetic reasons, as you point out. I think that requires a philosophical answer to show how such stories and spiritual experiences can rationally be seen as “true”. I would agree that a full-fledged dogmatic systematic theology is impossible in a church which actively receives further light and knowledge, and which has an open canon, but certainly some type of working hypothesis or framework for answering questions about what constitutes “truth” is essential. As you also point out, the old sectarian answers no longer work. The question I would raise then, is where does one find this philosophical hypothesis about the nature of “truth”?

  4. I certainly agree with the power and preeminence of narrative. I also think that speculative theology is inherently dangerous. But it should be clear that more systematic theological sermons are ubiquitous in our sacred canon of texts. For example, the Book of Mormon contains frequent interruptions of the narrative and reports theological expounding which at times is preoccupied with the critical nuances of the “true points” of the doctrine of Christ (D&C 10:62).

    I worry that an approach which is too liberal in regards to doctrinal explication may have adverse affects on righteous living. The symbolic narrative only works when it is linked with a coherent theological system. The narrative without the theology is meaningless, and a theology without a narrative is insipid.

    I don’t think that systematizing or delineating our theology is the danger. It is infecting the system with speculative opinions based on unwarranted assumptions. That is the difference between a healthy, revealed theology and a creed or dogma based on the “precepts of men” (2 Nephi 28:31).

  5. When I first heard these notions from Lou on an email list decades ago, it caused a blessed paradigm shift in the way I viewed and defended the restored gospel. I am pleased that Interpreter is now introducing younger generations to this seminal way of thinking.

  6. Of course narrative theology is important and isn’t given its propers, and yes too many busybodies want to tie everything up in neat little correlated packages so as to leave no doubts about what is what, while true learning takes place in the crucible of strongly held and differing views frankly exchanged (there must needs be opposition). I see no reason why narrative theology cannot coexist with the sort of formal, descriptive theologizing which you yourself engage in here.

    The primeval history of Israel (found mainly in Genesis) is a series of narratives, and the pluralistic biblical theologies adduced from that and other parts of the Bible can be very discomfiting to some – until it is recognized that they are not written primarily as history, but rather as dramatic and symbolic ritual text, which narrative theologians use as such, e.g., since “not only do isolated narratives in the Primal History have corresponding Mesopotamian prototypes, but even the sequence and structure of the whole agrees with the Mesopotamian original” (G. Fohrer, Introduction to the Old Testament, 88). The reason for that is they serve the same function in diverse cultures. Thus, when Stephen Ricks analyzes King Benjamin’s Speech and finds the elements of a formal biblical covenant systematically present, this is merely one more example of the uses to which narrative theology can be put.

    So too, with the Sermons on the Plain & On the Mount along with the Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes, one can see them as temple texts (so John W. Welch), the loaves & fishes as a reenactment of Manna from Heaven during the Israelite Exodus (explained in detail by William R. Stegner, Narrative Theology in Early Jewish Christianity [1989]).

  7. It is therefore essential to the survival of Mormonism that the Book of Mormon is known to be a true story of real people in real places.

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