Thursday, November 17, 2005

RP Part 2b - Biblical Faith and the 'Narrative Shape' of the Bible

Worldview, Story, and the Nature of Biblical Faith

In light of the narrative shape of the Bible we can see that biblical faith revolves around a story. As Goldingay notes, “This narrative form reflects the fundamental nature of Christian faith as a piece of news about what God has said and done in Israel and in Jesus.”[13] Due to the scope of this story and the universal significance it possess it amounts to it a comprehensive vision of reality, or a worldview.[14]

The essential concept is quite simple; a ‘worldview’ is a person’s interpretation of reality, their basic view of life.[15] They thus include ones basic assumptions about the world. They provide an interpretation of those parts of reality deemed to be the most fundamental, and hence provide the starting point for all other acts of interpretation. They form an interpretive grid or framework that we place upon reality in order to make sense of all aspects of our experience. They provide the criteria by which interpretations are weighed, and so what we accept as true,[16] and as basic assumptions, they are rarely brought into question or raised in discussion unless this is where disagreement lies. But what then do these basic assumptions specifically concern?

In their book, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview, Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton propose four fundamental questions that are at the heart of every worldview:
“(1) Who am I? Or, what is the nature of, task and purpose of human beings? (2) Where am I? Or, what is the nature of the world and universe I live in? (3) What is wrong? Or, what is the basic problem or obstacle that keeps me from attaining fulfillment? In other words, how do I understand evil? And (4) What is the remedy? Or, how is it possible to overcome this hindrance to my fulfillment? In other words, how do I find salvation?”[17]

All worldviews provide answers to these basic questions, and these answers then function as basic assumptions. But we must look closer at how these questions are answered, and must look further into the nature of human understanding to discover this.

The quest for understanding is the search for ‘order’. We assume that there is an inherent order in the world, that causal relationships exist and that human (and divine) actions embody intentions. We assume that the world is not constituted of utter randomness and chaos, and we seek to discover the order or ‘meaning’ inherent in states of affairs. The way we do this is by telling stories. Human experience has an irreducible “narrative quality”. That is, in making sense of experience we give it a narrative framework that involves “the organization of otherwise isolated ‘facts’ into a meaningful whole.”[18] This organization is what constitutes our understanding of the world and the events within it.

For this reason, stories, far from being mere child’s play, are “located, on the map of human knowing, at a more fundamental level than explicitly formulated beliefs, including theological beliefs.”[19] ‘Controlling stories’ are those most fundamental to worldviews and provide answers to the fundamental questions that worldviews ask. When answers to these questions are brought into question, it is by way of competing stories that vie to take the drivers seat. They possess “a kind of finality as the ultimate interpretation of all reality in all its multifaceted aspects.”[20] These stories are often considered ‘sacred’, and unite those who share them in a common way of life.

Stories then, are “a basic constituent of human life”,[21] and it is by ones controlling stories that the fundamental worldview questions are answered. Worldviews of course are not simply intellectual edifices, but direct ones life, and the common life of the society that holds them. The answers to the fundamental questions give way to praxis, “a way-of-being-in-the-world”[22] which is felt to be the appropriate response to reality.[23] By way of metaphor, if the world is a text, worldviews provide the grand hermeneutical strategy for all of life, the ‘what is’, the ‘what for’, and to a certain extent, the ‘how’.

We can now see that the ‘narrative shape’ of the Bible points to the nature of the faith as including a vision of reality (worldview) that is grounded in the over-arching story the Bible tells. But by nature worldviews are general in character, and we must therefore make a distinction between the biblical story and the Bible’s grand-narrative that is imbedded within it. The biblical story on the one hand is the over-arching narrative that runs throughout the Bible, the story of God and his people in all its details. The grand-narrative on the other is concerned with the big picture, the basic plotline that underlies this story.[24]

In terms of the biblical story, the crucial events within the story are those that set the scene, create the central problem, and bring this problem to a final resolution.[25] This three-fold structure constitutes the ‘plot’. Within the Biblical story, the plot runs from creation to re-creation and revolves around the outworking of God’s saving purposes for the world in solution to the central problem. The setting of the scene is God’s creation of the world and his privileging humankind to be its stewards. Human rebellion establishes the problem to which God’s choosing of Israel and the sending of Jesus are the solutions. Human disobedience to God’s rule resulted in an increasing relational separation between God and humankind, within humankind, and between humankind and the rest of the created world. God moved to solve this problem by defeating the Evil that then took grip of the world through Jesus death and resurrection, and the Sin that holds humankind from God by his outpouring of his Spirit. He then sent his people out into the world in order to spread this good news until the final resolution of the problem when Evil and Sin will finally be stamped out in a final act of salvation and judgment, and all creation will be brought to its original intended goal.[26]

As the ‘controlling story’, this grand-narrative provides answers to the four basic questions and gives way to a general praxis. This praxis is to respond to God’s call to participate in the outworking of his purposes for the world. But the biblical story provides more specifics than the grand-narrative encompasses. The particular history of God’s relations with his people not only records what he has done but what he has asked of his people along the way as the story has progressed. The historical movement inherent in the Biblical story has lead N. T. Wright to add a fifth question to Walsh and Middleton’s list, ‘what time is it?’[27] This highlights the important fact that at different stages in the outworking of his plan, God desired different things of his people. It further brings in the aspect of future hope that within the biblical worldview has encroached upon the present, but yet awaits fulfillment.

Biblical faith, then, is lived within a story. It is to see oneself as a character in a drama that has yet to end, and to act appropriately within the present. We now move to the prescriptive half of the paper where I take up these insights and outline the implications they have for reading the Bible.

Footnotes [continued]
[13] Goldingay, Models for Scripture, 108
[14] It has become popular as of late both among Evangelical academics and lay people to brandish the term ‘worldview’. I suspect however that because of its excess usage and the lack of clear definition that this has betrayed, the term has become somewhat unhelpful in popular discussion. Furthermore, I fear it has sometimes been used as a means of manipulation, of forcing Christians ‘into line’ by making issues that are not central to the faith (and which are often highly and justifiably debatable) appear to be so. However, if clearly defined the concept can be of great assistance. For a history of the concept and its usage, see Naugle Worldview: The History of a Concept.
[15] The metaphor of “lenses” has popularly been employed to illustrate how worldviews work. We always view the world through a set of lenses, the color of which affects how we perceive things. Thus, when wearing blue-tint lenses, what we look at takes on different shades of blue. If read lenses, then shades of red, and so on. Different colored lenses denote different worldviews. But one need not be aware of the effect that ones worldview has on how one perceives things. As with lenses, we do not usually consider them, nor do we even have to be aware that we are wearing any, we simply stare as if they don’t exist. Further, one who wears blue lenses does not doubt that the world is colored in shades of blue, as the lenses are believed to provide the most accurate, if not true perception. It is believed that without these particular lenses things would not be seen clearly, and with others things would be distorted.
It is both appropriate to speak of ‘perceiving’ and inappropriate to speak of simply ‘seeing’ because at a more fundamental level, worldviews are constitutive of the human person and hence human cognition. To extend the metaphor, we cannot use our eyes at all if we are not wearing lenses. Indeed, the lenses are our eyes. We might wish to speak of prescription lenses without which all is a blur, but when worn, things come into focus, and what was but a chaotic blur without them receives clarity and order.
[16] More strongly, they determine what we can accept as true when wishing to remain rational and logical.
[17] Walsh and Middleton, Transforming Vision, 35. N. T. Wright offers a useful corrective to the individualism within this scheme by replacing the ‘am I’ with ‘are we’ (The New Testament and the People of God, 123, n.6). This takes into account the recent emphasis on community in hermeneutics and the social sciences.
[18] Wright, T. R., Theology and Literature, 84
[19] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 38. They are infact logically prior to them, and for a belief to be challenged the story that under girds it must first be subverted and replaced with another. A belief may be may of course be challenged as not logically following from a story.
[20] Naugle, Worldview, 303
[21] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 40
[22] Ibid.
[23] Summarizing Alistair MacIntyre’s perspective, Naugle writes, “Human life is dominated by story. Narrative identity determines how one lives and conducts oneself in the world. One is oriented to life in the world by the power of stories to shape consciousness and direct behavior. The roles which people play, how they understand themselves and others, how the world itself is structured and operates are entirely a function of the narrative plots that reign in human lives and communities.” (‘Narrative and Life’, 6)
[24] It is not concerned with what might be termed the ‘sub-plots’ that arise and which find resolution within the story (e.g. exile).
[25] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 69-77
[26] This is only a very broad outline, and details from the narratives will need to be added (e.g. the goodness of creation). Bartholomew and Goheen outline the Biblical story in terms of the theme of ‘kingdom’. In creation God establishes his kingdom, there is then rebellion in the kingdom, the king then initiates redemption by choosing Israel and redemption is accomplished through the coming of the kingdom through Jesus, the Church then spreads the news of the kingdom, and finally redemption is completed with the return of the king (see The Drama of Scripture). This seems helpful, and may suggest that we broaden the scope of our grand-narrative to include all these elements. ‘Worldview’ is a descriptive concept after all, and if it is found that all these elements can form a controlling story, then it would be fallacious to rule them out. This is something that needs further exploration.
[27] Jesus and the Victory of God, 443

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