Why are the Gospels shaped as STORIES? The narrative logic of biblical theology

Bible Study
Liturgy
Deepening Spirituality
Jesus
Questioning Church
Person reading a book
Author
David Schlafer

The Revd Dr David Schlafer is a leading American homiletician; he is the author or editor of several books about preaching.

            “That’s just a STORY!” 

            When an observation like this arises in conversation, it sends a clear signal: the speaker is disregarding out of hand what has just been put forward as an escapist flight of fantasy, if not an outright prevarication.  The blunt assessment is sometimes followed up with an exasperated exhortation: “Get REAL!”

            Such cursory dismissals doesn’t necessarily mean that issuer has no use for stories whatsoever.  Stories, the protester might admit, are useful in helping children go to sleep at bedtime.  Stories can be entertaining—they can stimulate laughter; serve as springboards to anecdote swapping with friends and family. They can function as distractions from the drudgery of daily duties.  Stories can break the tension in difficult negotiations and unpleasant altercations.  More important, stories (it may be acknowledged) often provide points of common reference, thus fostering social cohesion.  People get acquainted with each other, and come to trust one another, as they exchange recounted incidents of significant events and turning points in their respective lives.

            That’s all very well, this line of reasoning continues; but in the end, these are all still “just stories.”  They aren’t substantial, useful “facts”—scientific or historical.  They aren’t important “concepts” or “ideas”—political, sociological, or theological.  In short, stories are often regarded as “dessert”—welcome at the table, indeed; but no substitute for the main course, the “meat and potatoes” of a meal.

            Which makes one wonder why Jesus told so many.  And why the Gospel writers employ “story writ large” as the underlying, all-pervading literary mode of choice in their attempts to portray the Good News of God as enfleshed in the One who told those stories. 

Would not a set of claims, backed by chunks of evidence, set forth in bullet points, have been more efficient and convincing?  If not that, a formal argument—cast, perhaps, as a dialogical interplay of theses and antitheses.  Why not transmit the gospel primarily as a comprehensive explanatory treatise?  In their attempts to share the truth of the gospel why didn’t Jesus and the Gospel writers just “Get REAL”?

Jesus was more than a storyteller, of course.  He frequently employed other genres.  Yet storytelling was a centering thrust in his teaching strategy.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John took their communication cues from the One whom they sought to proclaim.  They propagated salvation stories—stories of healing addressed to a world of the walking wounded, those living under the crushing weight of stories badly broken.

What implications does this have for those who seek to understand the Gospels (and those who try to help others toward such understandings)?  How do we deal with documents that, while amenable to expression in other genres (and, indeed, incorporating many of these genres themselves) still ultimately come down to being distinctive but complementary variations on “just a story”?         

A possible answer (not to my mind very satisfying) is that the stories in and of the Gospels are composed as such “to make a point.”  They are examples that encase and transmit Unchanging Truth in the form of attention-attracting action scenes.  They are “illustrations”—“spoonfuls of sugar” to “make the (Gospel) medicine go down—in the most delightful way” (borrowing the line from Mary Poppins).

That prospect kindles a concern from a different direction: treating and transmitting the Gospels as story can be done in ways that seem to compress life’s ambiguities, complexities, and open-endedness into a narrative trajectory that leads, inexorably but unrealistically, to a “happily ever after” conclusion.  (In some religious traditions which emphasize the necessity of a “born again” experience, the certifying “testimony” of individual “conversion” is expected to track in a tightly scripted, highly simplistic “salvation story” formula.)

Yet Jesus just does keep telling stories.  And his “Holy Ghost writers” do so as well.  So let’s reflect on why this literary genre might have been selected as their primary mode of expression.  What seems to be so critical, so essential, in the parables of Jesus, and the story-shaped form of the Gospels? 

A conventional definition of Jesus’s parables (informed by the “illustrations of a point” perspective cited above) asserts that they are “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning;” the religious equivalent of Aesop’s fables—interesting ways to make the “moral” go down.  New Testament scholar and preacher Fred Craddock, however, characterized this view of parables as tantamount to boiling the water from of a cup of tea in order to get down to the “real tea.”  The parables, Craddock insists, are not told by Jesus to MAKE a point; rather, the stories He tells, and the way He tells them ARE the point—the pulsing energy center, the dynamic fundamental matrix of his “meaning.”  If the parables HAVE a point—or an intention—they are told not to TIE meaning DOWN, but rather to OPEN meaning UP.  That is, the “short stories by Jesus” (to cite the title of a book by Orthodox Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine)— these are intended by their author to expand, even explode moral and spiritual imaginations; rather than to contain and tether them to a single unequivocal theological “fact” or “truth.”

This more expansive understanding of a parable accords well with the classic definition of C. H. Dodd: that it is a literary form “drawn from nature or from common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness, or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application so as to tease it into active thought.”   

Even the “simplest” parable (“a metaphor or simile,” according to Dodd) is an embryonic story—a narrative-in-waiting, a nugget of story possibilities, poised and pulsing, ready in a flash of insight to plunge into journeys that head in a variety of directions, all of which are potentially illuminating.  The operative element in Dodd’s definition, however, is that parables “leave the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application so as to tease it into active thought”.  The parables Jesus tells in the Gospels—and the Gospels themselves as wholes—are not nearly so much concerned with issuing definitive didactic edicts:  And so, therefore, this is what we should see! as they are continually offering evocative invitations:  And so, in light of this, WHAT is it that YOU see?  The parables and the Gospels “tease” the mind—not in the sense of “mocking, taunting, tormenting” it, but rather “tantalizing, arousing, encouraging” it.  (In this connection, Marcus Borg’s definition of “repent” is instructive: “to go beyond the mind that you have.”)

The narrative form, the story shape, of the parables and the Gospels, operates in a “logic” (a way of ordering words, images, intentions, interactions) very different from the kind of logic that drives an argument intended to bring the listener to a particular conclusion.  Narrative logic does not move in the direction of limiting and restricting the imagination, eliminating alternatives as it proceeds.  Narrative logic, rather, unfolds by way of kindling, stimulating, and enlarging the imagination.  It effects this orientation by leading listeners on an unfolding adventure marked by challenge, conflict, encounters with the unexpected, and resolutions that are not so much “closures,” as discoveries of still further possibilities.  A few brief cases in point:

Against a back story of religious leaders who, by virtue of their learning and their practices, think they have earned a privileged position in the eyes of God and fellow humans: why, in Luke’s Gospel would Jesus (rather than simply tell them they are wrong) tell three stories of “lost and found”?  These stories seem to invite, even beg a host of questions: what if God focuses privileged attention on those at the other end of the moral and intellectual status and achievement spectrum than that of these “grumbling” religious leaders?  What if God is less interested in social superiority than in community solidarity?  If God takes counterintuitive but calculated risks, what kind of risks might God want us to take?  What if, for God, righteousness is less important than rejoicing—what kind of world might THAT look like if enacted—made “real”?  Just imagine!  And all this imagination seeded by “just a story”!

On the other hand, in a story told by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, a servant (the third) who doesn’t do much better with resources made available to him than does the Prodigal Son—why is this servant not “given the fatted calf,” but called out and shamed?  Is there more in play here than simply the third servant’s fear of not being able to turn a profit?  Is he, unlike the shepherd, the coin-searching woman, and the forgiving father, constitutionally, resentfully risk-averse—projecting on his master a “hardness” that is actually his own?  Is the master not so much “shaming” as simply “naming” his Servant Number Three?

Allegorical readers of Jesus parables labor to fill in all their blank spaces, connecting every natural detail with its presumed spiritual “code.”  The spare, deft way in which Jesus plies his art form—employs his narrative logic—however, suggests that he intends for his listeners to read BETWEEN the lines, concluding not So we see . .  . but I wonder if . . .

Instead of approaching Jesus’ short stories with furrowed brow and fixed stare, intent on “getting the meaning right;” it can be not just instructive, but invigorating—enthralling, even—to approach them with wide-eyed open ended curiosity:  What do I see THIS time through the parable that I’ve never noticed before?  What if, when we come to Jesus stories, we (as homiletician Eugene Lowry suggests) “position ourselves to be surprised”?

When we consider the Gospels themselves, it is striking to observe that the “ministry which leads to death, which leads to resurrection” motif common to them all is ANYTHING but a simple “things got tough, but event-ually they all lived happily ever after” saga.  While the “endings” of each Gospel differ from each other, these endings are ANYTHING but “endings.”  Each Gospel pulls the life story of its readers into a story of life continually unfolding in ways not just surprising, but profoundly unsettling.

In Mark, the narrative breaks off with women fleeing from the empty tomb in a mixture of confusion, terror, and utter silence.  The question hangs: will they, will we, “go to Galilee” (where they and we seriously misunderstood what Jesus was up to)—will we meet him there, and see if we can make more sense of the gospel as we follow him the next time through?

In Luke, the Risen Lord leads the disciples out to watch him take tangible leave of them, and blesses them for the next stage of the story—a story in which they will be central characters, but cannot know its ending.  They can intuit enough, however, that they can reasonably (in narrative logic, if not in apodictic argument logic)  trust in his promise and offer him their praise.

Matthew has a similar “conclusion as transition” thrust—and with a realistically discordant note akin to that in Mark.  Gathering on one last mountain, one last time, after extensive teaching by Jesus in word and action, and even after death-defeating resurrection, “they worshipped him, but some doubted.”  Why did they doubt?  What were their doubts?  How many are the “some”?  Does Jesus ignore this doubting, issue his commission in spite of their doubts, because of their doubts, as a way of helping them to move through and beyond their doubts—perhaps to another level of doubting based on the very confidence that they gained from dealing with the initial interplay of doubting and being commissioned?  How might the promise, to them and to us, of “being with you always” serve as continuing conversation partner with doubts, both individual and corporate?

John graphically portrays analogous post-resurrection ambivalence and angst in a futile fishing trip followed by an amazing catch of fish, a catered breakfast followed by a forgiveness assurance walk, a personal commissioning followed by a matter of fact announcement that, for Peter, he will NOT live “happily ever after.”

It is, of course, possible (important, even) to formulate ideas, draw implications, even take positions on the short stories BY Jesus and the four longer stories OF Jesus.  If, however, they are to be effective in engaging us with our stories, personal and communal, these Biblical stories will need to remain and be encountered, again and again, as “just stories”—"teasing our minds into active thought.”

 

Suggested Resources for Further Reflection

Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority.  Revised Edition.  Chalice Press, 2001

C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom.  James Nesbit & Company, Ltd. 1953 (Reprint Edition)

Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.  HarperOne, 2015 (Reprint Edition)

Eugene Lowry, Doing Time in the Pulpit:  The Relationship Between Narrative and Preaching.  Abingdon Press, 1985                                              

Jon Russell, A Preacher’s Tale:  Explorations in Narrative Preaching.  SCM Press, 2018

David Schlafer, Playing with Fire:  Preaching Work as Kindling Art.  Cowley Publications, 2004

 

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