Over at his blog, Matt Gallion raised some interesting questions, via a comment from Slavoj Žižek, about the role of narrative in our thinking. Long story short, the question seemed to me to be about effective and persuasive communication: Are we best served by prosaic and uber-clear communication, or is there something to be said for subtlety? Also, should we shy away from narrative, just sticking to the facts ma’am?
My take is that narrative and creative engagement with ideas are foundational aspects of human social life, and while we often have the tendency to like to make everything as reductionist as possible so we know easily who to hate, I think the world is often murkier than we can make it seem. There is only one white and one black, but an infinite number of grays.
One of the problems of course is that liking narrative for narrative’s sake, and believing in the transformative power of language can once again but you (singular and plural) on the slippery road to unhinged subjectivity. For example, while I like much of this sermon I found online, it contains the following, which I think can become problematic:
Some people are very concerned to know whether [the events in the Bible] actually happened, and they will either believe it or disbelieve it based on whether it actually happened to an actual person at a real time in a real place. Curiously enough, these people are sometimes found in the pews of fundamentalist Christian churches, and sometimes in the pews of humanist Unitarian Universalist churches. I respect their desire to know what really happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. But I am not personally interested in it, any more than I am interested in whether there was ever a real King Lear or a real Mary Lennox. That question seems rather beside the point. These people are real and Jesus is real insofar as their stories, the lies that were told about them, tell us some very important truths. The truth the story of Jesus tells, like the truths in all of these stories, is born of its lies, its beautifully, skillfully told lies.
While I think the power of story is such that it can transform regardless of its historical-critical veracity, I think that routing one’s faith in something that even the believer understands to be a lie is risky business to say the least.
Though I think that the power of theological inquiry is greatly supported by a creative and imaginative quality of thought, I don’t think that doing away with the whole notion of truth in text is the way I would want to go. I believe than we can simultaneously embrace transforming narrative and tradition.
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