OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.

The relation of "Cracks in the pavement" to the scriptures


You describe your Cracks in the Pavement post as ‘a narrative eschatology.’

The idea of narrative as a (better) way of approaching the scriptures frequently emerges on this site but, so far as I have been able to discover (using the search function), the concept itself has not been subject to examination. So, let me set down a few thoughts.

Fable, myth, novel could all be described as narrative and so (less certainly) can history. To label a piece of writing as a narrative leaves open the question of whether it describes what took place or whether it is, say, rumour or fiction or imaginative recreation. Hence, I do not think you could label the events described in evidence at a murder trial as a narrative because that would imply that you are not claiming that the events actually occurred, and that is essential to a court process.

Secondly, narrative comprehends a wide variety of literary forms. It could, at one extreme, be a PG Wodehouse novel in which the plot and the subplots all come together in a conclusion in which all the couples are happily united; or, at the other extreme, it could be a recital of events which have no overall direction or end point eg a diary or a picaresque novel.

Turning now to Cracks in the Pavement, in your response to Chris, you suggest that the OT text itself does not support the Chris’s notion that

A biblical narrative, then, should see what God planned and actually accomplished in Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Israel - not as imperfect plans that failed and were set aside, but as necessary steps leading to a single destination. and you go on to suggest that exegetical integrity is till demanded of us

What then do you see as the relation of your story to the scriptures? Is it just one of a number of stories that could be extracted; or do you consider that it is broadly true to the text.

If the latter, my feeling is that it leaves out some major parts of the story that, if included, would yield a very different conclusion . For example

1. there is no mention that God’s promises to restore Israel in the post exilic period were never fulfilled

2. you refer to violent humanity but not to a violent Jahweh.

3. the rewards and punishments promised by Jahweh were of this world. But Jesus shifts the goal posts: the real treasure for human beings is eternal life and death is the real enemy. Jahweh’s rewards of prosperity, posterity, power, prestige and good health are, for Jesus, either of no importance or seen as a temptation. This suggests that the OT is more friendly to a theology of the environment that the NT.

Secondly, by treating your retelling as a narrative you by-pass the question: did this actually happen? Is that your intention or would you assert that it is history? For my own part, I would regard some of the narrative as drawing on myth eg the creation narrative.

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Re: The relation of "Cracks in the pavement" to the scriptures

Paul, I find your initial assumption that to label a sequence of events as ‘narrative’ implies that they did not actually happen rather odd. If I told you what happened to me today, it would probably bore you silly - but surely it would be a narrative of some sort? I would argue that a ‘narrative theology’ (this is important - narrative is being used in a particular intellectual context) must engage fully with history: the narrative is told from within history and about history. So, whether or not creation happened as it is related in Genesis, a narrative theology takes into account the fact that the stories were told by a historical community and asks why and to what effect.

Narrative’, of course, is also an organizing category: it is a way of demonstrating connections between, and the coherence of, sets of events, ideas, experiences, pretty much anything that we choose to associate with action through time. It has been seized upon by postmoderns as a more flexible, realistic and contextually responsive organizing category than the analytical and rationalist structures that modernism preferred.

What then do you see as the relation of your story to the scriptures? Is it just one of a number of stories that could be extracted; or do you consider that it is broadly true to the text.

That is a difficult question. I think one probably has to say both, and one way to reconcile the two perspectives would be to say that particular readings emerge in response to particular shifts in historical context. We have to admit that we are banging on about new creation in part because the environment is a major public issue at the moment. But having said that, it still seems to me that there is a fundamental correction of theological perspective going on here that needs to claim for itself that it is ‘broadly true to the text’.

So I would address your omissions head on. I think they can be integrated into the sort of narrative told in ‘Cracks in the pavement’ - I just ran out of space.

1. The promise of restoration is always contingent on repentance. Second temple Judaism did not repent, at least not at a national level, and consequently was swept away. Otherwise, to use Paul’s expression in Romans, all Israel would have been saved. We’re obviously getting into deep water here. In some ways a more interesting approach would be to acknowledge Jesus’s creative prophetic role in re-reading the scriptures - in re-imagining how Israel might be restored and shaping his mission in the light of that.

2. Personally I think the violence of YHWH, as you put it, simply has to be told as it stands in the text, as part of the narrative. We can then discuss it, explain it, rationalize it, apologize for it - whatever. But we shouldn’t obscure it. These texts at least demonstrate a close narrative connection between Old Testament theology and the historic experience of the people of God.

3. Yes, Jesus shifts the goal posts, but in my view he does so for the eschatological community that would walk the same path of suffering and death that he had walked. Following the vindication of the Son of man community at the parousia, the eschatological lodestone is re-oriented towards the renewal of creation, and it is on that basis that we recover the full scope of the Old Testament vision. Your remark ‘This suggests that the OT is more friendly to a theology of the environment than the NT’ is astute. I think that’s right - and that our theology needs to take us beyond the vindication of the early church to embrace a self-understanding and sense of purpose that is creational in its breadth.

What should we do about the embarrassing bits?


You say

I find your initial assumption that to label a sequence of events as ‘narrative’ implies that they did not actually happen rather odd

This misdescribes my attempt to unpack the logical grammar of “narrative”. What I said was that “to label a piece of writing as a narrative leaves open the question of whether it describes what took place or whether it is, say, rumour or fiction or imaginative recreation”

My assumption is that the biblical theologian, in describing her task as being about narrative rather than, say, history, thereby acquires the freedom to concentrate on the story without continually stopping to ask: did this actually happen- which is the question that has predominated over the last 200 years.

This seems quite a sensible approach to me but I get the impression that you are unhappy with the idea that ‘narrative’ is consistent with what is being narrated being something other than history.

In the latter part of your comment you suggest that the themes of the OT that I find incompatible with your retelling of the story could be readily fitted in. I am not convinced.

Your retelling could be summarised thus. God’s initially good creation is constantly thwarted by the disobedience and wickedness of men but God never gives up on humanity, intervening with one saving initiative after another. His final and definitive intervention through Christ makes all things new.

It seems to me that this story (assuming I have accurately summarised it) sits uncomfortably with the events in the life of God to which I refer:

- the God who does not deliver on his post exilic promises (can they be convincingly explained away by saying Israel must have continued to be disobedient?);

- the God who in the pre-exilic phase is a divine warrior who deals in death and destruction, inciting Israel to genocide against the peoples of Canaan etc etc

You also see God as calling man to an authentic humanity. But the idea of authentic humanity that is articulated by Jesus is quite different to that found in the OT- conditioned in part by the fact that what was important for the Jews through most of their history was exclusively the things of this world. Is it not anachronistic to draw on this understanding as a description of what God was aiming at all along?

History v. narrative? God inconsistent and brutal?

OT & NT versions of history rest on narrative frameworks which provide an interpretation of that history. There are different interpretive versions of this narrative framework, but all use the same historical material. Paul’s objection seems to be that interpreting history according to narrative assumptions distorts the essential function of history which is to unearth the plain facts - or at least that narrative assumptions could lay themselves dangerously open to such a possibility.

I haven’t yet seen in Paul’s comments on this subject a distinction between history as fact-finding, and the equally important and necessary interpretation of facts. All historians attempt to understand whatever facts they can assemble on the basis of what the facts reveal about the meaning, motives, and tendencies of the historical players to whom the facts relate. All historians interpret facts to form a story of some sort - because human behaviour is essentially narratival. People live out their lives in a way that forms a story about themselves.

As an example of this narrative-forming tendency, burial procedures for the dead in different cultures suggest the stories entertained by the people of those cultures about their lives, as projected into the afterlife. Other examples abound: Gibbon’s interpretation that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was caused by its conversion to Christianity and abandonment of heroic virtues; Churchill’s mythological casting of the English-speaking peoples in his history of that name, and so on. Simon Schama’s popular television series casts the unity of the British Isles as simply a short phase in a wider framework of disunity and separateness. Each interpretation looks at simple facts, but attempts to relate these to wider issues of meaning - based on an interpretation of the facts. Each interpretation weaves its own story around the facts. The bare facts alone do not form in any meaningful sense a complete picture of history.

Ancient history was just as given to perceiving and presenting history as narrative as modern history - especially history which served the overtly propagandist purposes of the historians who wrote it. Yet few historians today, as far as I know, assert that ancient historians were careless or cavalier about the factual basis of their histories. It is in this light that we should be viewing the historical basis of the OT and NT records.

Paul then suggests that there are inconsistencies between the emphasis of the OT, God’s covenant with Israel in particular, and the emphasis of the NT. He adds that the nature and activities of God also change between OT and NT. Using narrative terminology, one might say he suggests that the OT narrative line is left unfinished in the light of a new narrative line which the NT brings.

This interpretation does not take into account some key factors.

The OT is a developing history, not a ‘flat’ account in which the historical underpinnings were the same in 1500 B.C. as 500 B.C. or beyond. A theme which emerges incrementally in the OT is of Israel’s disobedience to the covenant, YHWH’s response, and the longer term implications of such disobedience. YHWH’s responses varied according to the historical circumstances of each period of disobedience. For sure, promises were made concerning the return from exile and Israel’s future. The promises were not fully delivered in the actual OT turn of events. Israel was no more obedient to the covenant on her return from exile than she had been before. There is a tension between the requirements of the covenant, and the adherence of Israel to the covenant, which continued into the 1st century, forming the basis of the way in which different groups within Judaism responded: the Pharisee ‘enforcers’, the Sadducee compromisers, the Qumran exclusivists. Above all, an apocalyptic version of historical interpretation developed, arising out of Israel’s experience at the hands of the Greek empire and culture.

Whatever view one takes of Israel’s relationship to the covenant following the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, history bore out an interpretation of events which was commonly accepted - the exile had not been totally reversed, YHWH had not returned to the temple, the Davidic monarchy had not been restored, Israel’s enemies were not defeated, the Spirit had not been outpoured, in short - sins had not been forgiven. This interpretive grid provides a historical context which makes sense of the message and ministry of Jesus as presented in the gospels.

Paul also reverts to the picture he draws of an OT God who sanctions violence, warfare and genocide, who “deals in death and violence”, which he presents as quite different from the God found in the NT, and which, further, destroys the possibility of consistency between OT and NT. This raises issues explored at some length on the ‘N.T.Wright is seriously wrong’ thread. I think Paul has a point, but in making that point he avoids all the issues which were problematic to it, which were raised on the thread. Not least of these is the issue that Jesus and the NT authors saw no inconsistency between their message, their God and their narrative, and the OT versions of the same. On the contrary, they consistently placed themselves in the same tradition as the OT, and claimed that narrative to have been their narrative, that history to have been their history, and to have now been brought to a climactic conclusion. They may have been extremely devious; they may have been extremely deluded. If so, it would raise further issues concerning the integrity and historical basis of events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus on which their interpretations were based, which go beyond the immediate scope of this discussion.

In the end, people live out lives which form narratives. There are fictitious versions of these narratives and more historically based narratives. The narrative will always reflect a meaning which goes beyond the mere assembly of disparate facts about a person, because people are more than expressions of disparate facts. This is especially true of the OT and NT, and the personalities which form the basis of their histories.

More about narrative


You say

OT & NT versions of history rest on narrative frameworks which provide an interpretation of that history. There are different interpretive versions of this narrative framework, but all use the same historical material. Paul’s objection seems to be that interpreting history according to narrative assumptions distorts the essential function of history which is to unearth the plain facts - or at least that narrative assumptions could lay themselves dangerously open to such a possibility.

What I am trying to do is get a clear idea of the way in which the concept of narrative is being employed at OST. I have suggested that ‘narrative’ can be used to convey myth, (fable, novel etc) and also history so that the same narrative could be based on a variety of material, some of it historical some of it myth or some other genre. Andrew’s Cracks in the Pavement is an example of such a narrative- as indeed are the OT and the NT.

I have also suggested that (assuming my understanding of the concept of narrative is correct) in approaching the scriptures as narrative, we are allowed to concentrate on the OT/NT as a story, setting aside the question of historicity while we do so. I have no objection to this, in fact it seems to me to be a good idea.

Accordingly it seems to me that you are misdescribing the role of narrative when you say Paul’s objection seems to be that interpreting history according to narrative assumptions distorts the essential function of history which is to unearth the plain facts

If my argument is correct, narrative does not interpret history- rather, it tells a story without asking whether what is asserted in the story is historically based. My objection to Andrew’s Cracks in the Pavement is not that it’s narrative but that it retells the story of God’s dealings with humanity but, as it seems to me, leaves out several major themes: one is that God failed to restore Israel as he had promised; and the other is that God was a warrior God for much of Israel’s history.

My question is, what does Andrew’s retelling look like with these themes included?

Re: More about narrative


I understand, I think, what you are requesting of Andrew’s version of the biblical narrative. It does seem to me that he has elsewhere answered the first of your questions: Israel was restored in the reconstitution of the people of God around Jesus. The second of your questions is more general - and what happened to God’s warrior past with the coming of Jesus is a question to which there are many answers, not least of which is that he is still a warrior, though not quite in the way the OT might have led us to expect it.

I agree with you that narrative can be a carpet-bag term which includes many different kinds of genre, of which history might be only one. I’m arguing that history is also essentially narratival - and that if the OT & NT fail on the grounds of history, they have little to tell us about what they purport to tell us, namely - how God acted within history to form a people of God, and from the NT perspective, how God was acting not only to bring that particular history to a climactic conclusion, but also how that history was connected to a broader concern to address and resolve more ancient problems which underlie the history of the human race.

Having said this, my perception is that the terms of reference of modernism have been to couch this story in rather abstract and somewhat absolutist propositions - a tendency of modernism with its foundationalist assumptions. The increasingly attractive (to many) terms of reference of the current times are to use story to convey truth in a more personal way (my truth/your truth, my story/your story). Fortuitously, this chimes with the core material of the biblical writings, which are themselves arranged as a story, albeit long and winding.

However, I think there is a limit to the range of possibilities of interpreting how the biblical story is meant to be told. Also, I don’t think there is an OST ‘line’ on the significance of narrative. OST seems to be a place where people bring all kinds of ideas, many of which seem to be totally at variance with each other.

History is essentially narratival ?


You say

I’m arguing that history is also essentially narratival……. the increasingly attractive (to many) terms of reference of the current times are to use story to convey truth in a more personal way (my truth/your truth, my story/your story). Fortuitously, this chimes with the core material of the biblical writings, which are themselves arranged as a story, albeit long and winding.

This seems an odd position for you to adopt: in saying that history is essentially narratival you are saying that the question of what can be demonstrated to have happened is either not answerable or is not important. Your position seems to me (based on what you have said elsewhere) to be rather that history may with benefit be cast in narratival form but the history always remains history.

Re: History is essentially narratival ?

Yes to your last sentence, except that it’s not ‘with benefit’ that history ‘can be cast in narratival form’, but that history is inevitably cast in narratival form, once we see history as people talking about the lives of people.

Re: History v. narrative? God inconsistent and brutal?

peter wilkinson wrote:

Israel was no more obedient to the covenant on her return from exile than she had been before.

This is at least arguable, depending on what data one looks at for what time period. I just want to point out that there is much evidence from archeology and even from the New Testament itself that prior to the exile the worship of Baal and Asherah were quite common among Hebrews. I once saw a slide of an offering table that was inscribed with the name of YHWY and his wife ASHRH. In the Old Testament we read of times when the Law was not known and the Temple was a repository for the images of other gods.

By the time of Jesus, however, most Jews were strictly worshippers of YHWH in some form, the Temple was a thriving socio-religious center, and even hellenized political figures had to step carefully. While there were many in Judea and Galilee who worshipped hellenistic gods, this could not be described as normative for the Hebrew culture.

In my totalizing biblical narrative, this general monotheism and knowledge of the history of YHWH’s relationship with the Hebrews is one of the milestones God was working toward before sending the Messiah.

Re: History v. narrative? God inconsistent and brutal?

My understanding of Israel’s relationship to YHWH following her return from the exile comes mainly from two sources:

- biblical evidence: the ambiguity of the results achieved by Ezra and Nehemiah - which also seem to cast doubt on the covenant stipulations themselves concerning ethnic purity - or at least, how these were to be understood or enforced. Malachi too seems to reinforce a picture of continued disobedience, and even Haggai is not without uncertainty as to what had actually been accomplished in his own time concerning Israel’s heart obedience to YHWH.

- extra-biblical evidence, notwithstanding the evidence you cite, in which the circumstantial data concerning Israel’s predicament following the exile until the coming of Christ suggests that forgiveness of sins had not taken place, and would not take place under the terms of the covenant as it then stood.

I’m therefore wondering how you argue your line - which seems to be that Israel had indeed returned to obedience to the covenant in the years before the coming of Jesus, and that this was a necessary precursor or precondition (of the coming of Christ?).

I suppose a final problem here is that Jesus himself encountered a hostility which would not have arisen had there been a genuine turning of Israel as a whole to YHWH, and Paul reinforces this view with his assertion that Israel as a whole had zeal without knowledge. That this was more than a problem of incorrect understanding simply in need of correction is assumed in Jesus’s prediction of the coming destruction of Jerusalem with its temple, with the slaughter of its inhabitants. Israel’s problem was a heart commitment which brought her into direct opposition to YHWH, and what He wanted - under the guise of (false) covenant loyalty.

In this and previous posts, I argue that Israel’s cumulative disobedience to the covenant meant that covenant loyalty could no longer guarantee YHWH’s blessing, and that a greater forgiveness of sins was necessary, and a greater development of the covenant itself (hinted at in the major prophets). I also take this to be the crux of the apostle Paul’s argument in Romans concerning the role of the Law.

Re: History v. narrative? God inconsistent and brutal?

My position is less that Israel was in heartfelt obedience to the covenant and more that Israel was relatively more obedient to the covenant than before the exile, and I am thinking more of the time of Christ than the years immediately after the exile.

Much of the hostility towards Jesus could be viewed as jealousy on YHWH’s behalf, Paul perhaps being a model of this in claiming to be blameless in terms of the law and zealous for God’s sake (consider also the “rich young ruler” and Nathaniel). The Pharisees (many of whom became Christians) were Jesus’ primary opponents in the sense that two nearly-indistinguishable Evangelical groups might spend a lot of time opposing one another: each is the closest rival of the other. The Pharisees were covenantal nomists, accepted a full Hebrew canon, believed in resurrection, etc.

The religious movements of note in the New Testament are all monotheistic, YHWH-worshipping movements: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, etc. Jesus’ opponents were passionate Jews, not adherents of Baal or Asherah (or Zeus or Apollo).

Re: The relation of "Cracks in the pavement" to the scriptures

Now that I have emerged (I think that’s the word for it) and waved hello by offering a piece for conversation (The arts as new creation), I guess I should start behaving like a member of OST!

Hi guys.

I hope some thoughts on narrative process is not too far from the point of this thread. This probably at the level of theological finger-painting, but I’m really only thinking about narrative as a way of reading and thinking, and in particular about dramatic narrative.

In terms of our approaches to the texts I guess it is good to remind ourselves how stories can so deeply enrich and foster the application of ideas. Stories evoke meanings. But so much of theology intends to define, rather than evoke, and in this perhaps relativises the role of narrative alongside more analytical methods.

Personally I think we make life difficult for ourselves when we try to adopt narrative processes when our intention is to define things systematically. This is when narrative works like a rubber spanner. An example might help.

Most narrative writing, especially dramatic narrative, has a ‘point of view’. This point of view is part of the story; the point of view can even function almost as the main character in a story, its subject. In terms of applying this to our readings - we might read the stories of events in the texts and then say that we are reading ‘God’s dealings with Israel’. We might then take this conclusion further and attempt to stitch together these dealings into something we might call salvation history. My point is that by doing this, we as readers have switched points of view, twice, and we might presume that the text has also done this when it hasn’t.

In this respect I don’t think the contrast between, say, narrative and exegesis is in any way new. Preachers have been using both, often uncritically, for centuries. A preacher tells the story of Moses and to make it ‘real’ dives down to ground level to evoke Moses’ experience, character, situation. Then he leaps up into the air, as it were, changes his point of view, and speaks of the significance of Moses (which is the point at which, usually, point of view and theological predisposition merge without being admitted).

These are narrative tools and have always been used. Biblical writers do the same and I must admit, to some extent, I have found this helpful in my battles to deal with the ‘texts of terror’. Asking what point the writer is attempting to establish, the fact of the event or its significance. Where is the writer’s viewpoint and intention?

Of course this can only be part of our communal process of interpretation. And it can easily divert us to the questions that Wright has recently addressed on the authority of scripture and of God. So, to what extent, and in what ways can we presume that the point of view in the texts is always God’s point of view? This puts it rather crudely, but isn’t that what we are really after?

Another quality that narrative has and that analysis generally doesn’t (or shouldn’t) is a direction of view. For me, fascinating things happen when I try to restrict my reading to the narrative direction. For example, if we locate ourselves in Genesis 1 and read the story forwards, what effect can this have on our reading of the Christ event? If the story is established in the trees, interjected deliberately into the paradigm, apparently to create the possibility (but not the intention) of humanity’s free rejection of God, and if the narrative conjecture at the root of our action is as the dissent between the creator’s promise and the spin of the snake, so that the point at question is our very status in relation to the creator, what then is playing out on Calvary?

Several things, dramatically speaking, ensue from this. The evangelical story that says that we lost our relationship with God as the consequence of an act of disobedience (a forensic story applied to the text) can change to something that says that this loss of relationship, in itself, is the sin and is in some way prior to or evidenced through the disobedience.

And if this contested relationship were the core of the drama, what (again in purely dramatic terms) would be the culmination of that story? What is the dénouement of a story based upon contested status? “This town aint big enough for both of us”? Put another way, if the story in Genesis is the first step of sin, what would sin be when it becomes full-grown? Dramatically, perhaps, that the child has to kill the father, the creature has to kill the creator. And the same loving intent that recognised that first Adam had to be free to rebel if they were to be free to obey, intervenes again to let us kill him rather than destroy that intention. Sin, full grown, kills God. And in Jesus’ resurrection, God says to sin, ‘Right, you’ve done your worst, now let’s try this my way.’

Now this demands, naturally, that sin has to become an actor in the drama, a character. Which of course is precisely how it is described in Genesis. But this sort of defence would only be needed if I were trying to turn narrative conjecture into doctrine. Which, of course, leads us to the nature of doctrine in relation to story…

I guess one of the things I am trying to do with this is to avoid the gravity of modernism. Was it Auden who argued bitterly against the separation of the arts and the sciences? But we too, as has often been said here, are children of modernism, learning not to be. We too live with the unspoken judgement that says that the truth of the scientist is in some way truer than the truth of the poet. And I suspect that this colours our theological enquiry as much as anything else.

In terms of the role or place of narrative, I remain an artist not an analyst. I am intrigued by the tendency, even in the debates on OST, when someone makes a tentative narrative point, to see that challenged in terms of how that point meshes with masses of other points, usually seen as some form of system. Where, I wonder, does this compulsion come from? We seek integration, perhaps, because we seek integrity (that instinctive response to the righteousness and therefore the integrity of God). But perhaps we also seek that integration because of modernism’s compulsion to derive, or become, a theory of everything.

Now, I am content to say one thing, and am glad that I am not trying to say many things, let alone everything. And somewhere in this, I suspect, is what narrative means.

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