Story is a big deal to postmodernists. Whether they’re interested in postmodernity culturally or academically, the privileging of story and narrative over data, the cold, hard facts, is important. In many ways, it’s a rejection of the modern—not a return to the pre-modern, but a reclaiming of it. The pre-modern repurposed.
This is something I find myself agreeing with by and large. It’s sometimes troubling to me how Christian and non-Christian alike, as I’ve pointed out previously, have come to see scientific inquiry as paramount when it comes human knowing. As the only way of knowing. It certainly helps, but it’s not the only way. Narrative was used in the pre-modern to explain much of what science explains now. However, science does not explain everything that pre-modern narratives gave the people who took them in. Science can’t speculate about the why behind the how. That isn’t the task of science anyway. The postmodern repurposing of narrative finds its energy in this observation. Narrative opens up insights into the phenomena of human experience that science can’t. Science (or rather, scientific naturalists) may say that those insights are illusory, a hologram hiding the cold, mechanical reality of how things actually work. The problem is that many don’t recognize the how as the end all be all anymore. There’s a sense that there is some purpose. Why is it that we seem to have sprung out of conditions almost too perfect to believe the statistics of it happening? Why do physical laws seem to fit so perfectly together? Why are there physical laws? Why is there anything to begin with at all?
A friend pointed me recently to a blog called Pastoralia managed by Jason Coker, a Fuller grad, and specifically Coker’s response to an article published a year go in Harpers Magazine titled “Like I was Jesus: How to bring a nine-year old to Christ.” Rachel Aviv, author of the Harpers article, observes the Child Evangelism Fellowship, an organization whose focus is on bringing kids to Christ by approaching them, as strangers, on playgrounds and talking to them about who Jesus is. It’s a fascinating article. Aviv makes observations, very important ones in her mind, about how the Fellowship goes about their evangelism. Their primary mode is through emphasizing story and narrative as opposed to data. She sees this as returning to a more primitive way knowing—she actually uses the word primitive—but she doesn’t necessarily see this as negative. The Fellowship, in her view, is keeping alive a tradition that is still willing to believe in the impossible, in “magical explanations”—they’re capturing imaginations.
That makes sense. They’re talking to kids. Even though I’m not sure I agree with the ends the Fellowship is aiming at, their use of story was exciting to see. However, Coker’s response intrigued me. He writes regarding Aviv’s response to narrative:
But, Aviv’s remarks made me realize that it’s one thing to indulge in story (clearly we are a culture that is obsessed with narratives of alternative realities) – but it is another thing entirely to have faith in a story, especially a fantastical one.
(Seriously. We poke fun at people who organize their entire lives around fantastical stories, and for good reason. We recognize there is something juvenile about this. Think of “Trekkies.” More and more, the secular Western world looks at conservative Christianity as one giant version of Comicon. Yes, I know – these sorts of sub-cultural communities are hugely successful and lucrative. But is that really what we want to emulate? Is Christianity just another successful juvenile fantasy niche market?)
I had never thought of it this way. The reclaiming of story as a reaction against empiricism, fact, and data somehow, for me, overshadowed this glaring and obvious comparison that Coker draws here. If all we do is emphasize the story of Christ, how is our story better or more true than Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or any number of massive comic book universes? Those stories offer us the insights I described earlier. The biblical narrative offers us insights as well, some exactly the same as a few of the narratives mentioned above. Yet it has to be different, most obviously because it has to be encountered as true. I see this happening most prevalently in youth ministry. There are so many great stories to draw from. But what message are youth pastors sending–that there is a direct correlation between biblical narrative and Harry Potter? A distinction needs to be made.
I don’t have a detailed answer about how to do that. But perhaps rather than drawing direct comparisons between fiction and the story of the Bible, we need to be sure we are using story and narrative as a tool with which to examine the biblical text. In other words, we can use the analysis of narrative (literary studies) to explore the truth of Bible. You can read about how to do that in this post: And So On….
The danger of any new movement (and the postmodern is certainly new to the Church) is that we can get excited about it quickly and react [too] strongly against whatever it is we came from. I think that’s what happens far too often among Christians (and is in fact one of the critiques I level against the Emergent Church movement here. We need to slow down, pray, discern, and contemplate postmodernity and what it means for us personally and the Church as a whole.
Which is not easy.
But then again, should being a Christ follower ever be?
You can read Rachel Aviv’s article here.
You can read Jason Coker’s response here.
by Joel Harrison