Friday, 21 November 2008

Does the Bible have a meta-narrative? - sabbatical (3)

I’ve been enjoying some dialogue with Jonathan Evens on the subject of how we understand and approach the Bible. If you want background to this post have a look at Jonathan’s posts here , here , here and here.

One of the key questions raised is whether the Bible has a meta-narrative. During my sabbatical I have been reading through The Acts of the Apostles and the only conclusion I can draw from my reading so far is that the Bible does have a meta-narrative which we are invited to share in and live in the light of. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a shock revelation but the simple truth is that one can get so caught up in the detail and close reading of scripture, particularly in sermon preparation, that one misses or forgets the big story.

Just to clarify my hermeneutical approach here; I am taking a canonical approach – looking at the text as we have received it. I am not trying to get behind the text to the historical Jesus as represented by the approaches of the Quest, New Quest and the Third Quest. Nor am I following the form critical approach attempting to look through the text to the early churches or the redaction critics looking through the text to the communities for which the text may have been written. I am not rejecting the insights of these various approaches but I think it is important to engage with the primary text handed down to us and allow it to speak to us. I also think we need to remember that many of these approaches give us working theories with their own strengths and weaknesses and often with massive historical/cultural/philosophical presuppositions. (Don’t get me started on Crossan and the Jesus Seminar).

Anyway, when I sit down and read Acts I have been particularly struck by the speeches and what has struck me is the core meta-narrative they contain. Take for example Peter’s speech in the Temple following the healing of the lame beggar at The Beautiful Gate in Acts 3. This is how Tom Wright comments on what Peter says:
Peter, you see, is claiming much more than simply a few random proof-texts which, if you shut one eye and just concentrate hard, can be made to sound a bit like things that had happened to Jesus. He is understanding the Old Testament as a single great story which was constantly pointing forwards to something that God was going to do through Abraham and his family, something that Moses, Samuel, Isaiah and the rest were pointing on towards as well. This great Something was the restoration of all things, the time when everything would be put right at last. And now, he says, it’s happened! It’s happened in Jesus! And you can be part of it. Acts for Everyone - Part 1: Tom Wright p.59.

Now if that is not a meta-narrative I don’t know what is. Here is scripture (New Testament) presenting a meta-narrative, a way of understanding the scriptures (Old Testament) as part of one great story finding its fulfilment in Jesus and inviting any who will respond to become part of the story. This does not mean that the scriptures are to be read simplistically, nor are we to try and smooth out or ignore all the difficult questions they raise. It doesn’t mean that we should ignore the richness and diversity of scripture reflected for example in the variety of genre. But it does mean that we are to engage with the Bible and the questions and challenges it brings to us in the light of the meta-narrative. I have yet to read a convincing argument that suggests that any part of the New Testament does not share in presenting this meta-narrative or at least assuming it.

This meta-narrative is closed in the sense that it is not open for debate, you either accept it or reject it; we are presented with Jesus as Lord and Messiah. However, this meta-narrative is also open. Open in the sense that as we are invited to share in this big story so we are invited to explore what it means to live as part of the story. This means engaging with the implications of living in the light of the story; struggling with how it applies to the everyday world we inhabit and in which we are called to be salt and light; confronting the difficult and painful issues raised by scripture and recognising that the story both affirms and challenges.

So my answer to the question ‘does the Bible have a meta-narrative?’ is yes!


Jonathan Evens said...

Thanks for this interesting post and for your responses to my posts on how we understand and approach the Bible.

I don't disagree with your statement that the Bible contains a meta-narrative but would want to nuance that by arguing that this narrative is embedded in an essentially conversational form and that this affects the way in which we can and should read it.

The story of Israel that Tom Wright sees being fulfilled in Jesus is told in the Hebrew scriptures by way of "miscellaneous writings" "laid alongside each other, the narrative being built up by slotting these together where necessary” (Josipovici). This form then affects the content because “events are laid out alongside each other, without comment, and we are never allowed to know whether the pattern we see emerging at one point is the true pattern”. The Hebrew Bible accepts, Josipovici suggests, that “we all have need of such patterns” but then places them in the larger context of reality “where there are many revelations, but they are, at best, only partial” and where “God appears, to order, guide, promise, and argue – but never to explain, to make everything clear”.

Josipovici argues that "... by and large the Hebrew Bible ... chose not to stay with the fulfilment of man’s desires but with the reality of what happens to us in life. We all long in our daily lives for an end to uncertainty, to the need for decisions and choices, with the concomitant feeling that the choices we have made may have been the wrong ones. Yet we also know that life will not provide such an end, that we will always be enmeshed in uncertainty. What is extraordinary is that a sacred book should dramatize this, rather than be the one place where we are given what we desire. But that is precisely what the Hebrew Bible does ..."

This approach is, I think, continued into the NT so that Acts, for example, while a fairly linear chronological account of the Early Church is laid alongside the Epistles which tell a much more fractured, fissured story of the Early Church, partly because their purpose is not the telling of the story of the Early Church and partly because we do not have a full set of the letters that were exchanged and therefore have gaps in our knowledge.

In saying this I accept that the form in which we have received the Bible - fragmented but with an embedded meta-narrative - is the form in which God wished us to receive it i.e. that the form and the content is inspired. What effect does such an understanding have then on our reading of scripture?

I think it means that means that we have to be in a constant debate with scripture about its open and closed elements (and that this debate is in itself a dialogue with God). The story told in Acts that finds its fulfilment in Jesus is a retelling of the story of Israel. It is a reinterpretation, certainly a reconstruction and possibily even a deconstruction of that story. Does that reinterpretation become definitive and closed or is God showing us how to retell the story of Israel as an open story in our culture and time?

However, we answer that question we must, it seems to me, hold together both the open and closed aspects of scripture. One example of that being done is Tom Wright’s suggestion that the Christian narrative is like a five act play with Act 1 being Creation, Act 2 the Fall, Act 3 Israel and Act 4 Jesus. The writing of the New Testament then becomes the first scene in Act 5 and also gives us hints of how the play will end principally through Revelation. This image combines an over-arching narrative with space for openness in that Christians are actors in Act 5 improvising our scenes on the basis of what has gone before and how we know the story will end.

Revd John P Richardson said...

The briefest example of 'metanarrative' in the Bible (and the conclusive demonstration that the Apostles read the Hebrew Scriptures with a 'metanarrative' approach) surely has to be Matthew 1:17.