Power and Powerlessness of Stories

Beginning a couple of decades ago or so, a particular group of theologians bestirred themselves to recognize that an arid concentration on propositions and abstractions did much less to enhance our understanding of God than it desiccated people’s interest in the whole topic. They pressed the case for “narrative theology,” which takes manifold forms depending on whose understanding of “narrative” and “theology” we’re adopting — but which typically focuses on the extent to which our knowledge of God involves extension in time, in a way that narrative captures more adequately than propositions.

Around the same time, politicians showed increasing awareness that a well-publicized anecdote (however embellished and fictionalized) sways the polls more than a carefully-reasoned policy document. Legislative hearings and executive speeches piled up one heart-wrenching anecdote after another in support of initiatives that would have been much less popular had they been debated as matters of statistics, rights, and responsibilities.

Comparable patterns of debate have emerged in the Anglican Communion’s contortions over sexuality and its appropriate expression. The parties involved have done a certain amount of theological reasoning, and have buttressed their arguments by copious examples of how harshly their adversaries have treated kind, pious disciples, or of how wonderfully the church flourishes when their way prevails, or of their sides’ martyrs, orr the other side’s tyrants.

The Windsor Report took sides on this issue: it specifically indicated dissatisfaction with the paucity of theological reasoning that the Episcopal Church’s leadership had advanced in support of the changes in church life that it proposes. Not everyone agrees that the Episcopal leadership lacks theological backing, but it’s obvious that they haven’t satisfied the Communion outside North America. I haven’t seen the Episcopal Church’s spokespeople redoubling their efforts to address this explicit perceived lack, but the stories keep coming.

Everyone will continue to say a lot about most aspects of this situation, but I want to make a single point at this juncture: “Narrative theology” is not the same thing as “telling affecting stories.” The narrative dimension of theological truth may involve many different things, but it still involves questions of truth that engage more than simply the heart-rending experiences of the aggrieved. Whatever we say about theological truth, we need to connect those claims with the truth that the church has received over the centuries, with Scripture, in a way that constitutes a satisfactorily reasonable argument. Windsor says ECUSA has not done that. Telling more stories not only will not answer Windsor’s point, but will convey disrespect for the very specific point that the Report makes.

10 thoughts on “Power and Powerlessness of Stories

  1. If I am understanding your argument, then you are saying that one more example of a “nice, partnered, lesbian priest who has done xyz good things for the church” does no more to advance the debate than does the explanation that a death-row inmate is willing to donate his liver to his sister” does to advance the debate on whether or not the death penalty is right. I agree. (If you are saying something else, then I might still agree, but I can’t say for certain until I receive further clarification).

    On the other hand, I feel as though a different question needs to be addressed before we can even begin to discuss homosexuality and its impact (or lack of impact) on the core doctrine of the Anglican Communion: What are the ‘Core Doctrines’? – the Creeds? (which ones?), that which is contained in Scripture? (by whose interpretation?), the 39 Articles? Where are the boundaries to be drawn and who will be authorized to draw them? Perhaps we are really dealing with the question of authority and not with the issue of homosexuality at all.

    When I was called to the priesthood, God was not so kind as to offer me a business plan. I believed that call was to the Episcopal Church U.S.A. which, at the time of the call was part of the Anglican Communion. Today, this is becoming murkier. If we are not part of the Anglican Communion, are we still the Episcopal Church? If the Episcopal Church U.S.A. splits, which church is the “real” church – would the real church please stand up!?

  2. Debra, that’s what I meant — including though, “one more story of a devastated traditional believer who feels bereft of the church that once comforted him or her.”

    I absolutely agree, too, about the authority question. People cite various texts and decisions as though they carried an unambiguous authority marker, but the problem hinges to a great degree on the relative status of various sources of authority (and of course, on how they may be interpreted).

    Canadian Anglicans just defined sexuality as a matter of “doctrine,” which seems counterintuitive to me (it just seems, on the face of things, a lot more like “discipline,” but I’m not trying to start a fight; I’ll go along with “doctrine” till I encounter a compelling argument that obliges me to reassess), but not “core doctrine.” How do we deploy this (innovative) distinction between “core doctrine” and, what?, “marginal doctrine”?

  3. AKMA, I find the notion of “narrative theology” fascinating. I wonder if you could point us to an example of this sort of narrative. (It would probably be best if it dealt with a completely different issue, so that we could see it as an example of a type, rather than a proposition to be argued with.)

  4. I’m WAY out of my depth here, but “narrative theology” sounds to me very much like, um, parables?

  5. As I suggest in the first paragraph, there are a great range of perspectives on “narrative theology.” I suppose that my first recommendation would be the collection of readings that Stan Hauerwas and Greg Jones edited, entitled Why Narrative? (not a lite read, but replete with essays that make a robust case for construing theology in conjunction with narrative). Much of Hauerwas’s earlier work addresses this point as well, such as the essays in Truthfulness and Tragedy and A Community of Character. The middle section of Nicholas Lash’s Theology on the Way of Emmaus (criminally out of print, never easy to get on this side of the Atlantic Look at that, my friends at Wipf and Stock reprinted it!) contains several essays that just knock me out.

    Richard Hays’s dissertation (The Faith of Jesus Christ) argues that Paul’s theology depends on a narrative substructure; I think his premise must have been my introduction to this way of thinking, when I studied with him. His was originally published in the SBL Dissertation Series, but Eerdmans has published a slick new edition.

    For starters.

    There’s a lot (“a lot a lot,” as we say in our family) of work besides these titles, and some departs more or less markedly from the path these works suggest. For reasons that won’t fit into a comment field, and that I don’t have time to rehearse here, I find the titles I’ve recommended very much sounder and more illuminating than others.

    E, parables figure very strongly in one aspect of narrative theology; another facet though, is the extent to which knowledge in general, and especially knowledge of persons, relies on timefulness in a way that propositions flatten (and to that extent, falsify).

    Whoops, I should add that this approach to narrative theology reflects a strong conntribution from George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine. My dear friend Phil and I had an argument a long, long time ago over whether Lindbeck is the Babe Ruth of contemporary theology — but we agree that he’s undeniably a Hall of Famer.

  6. It seems to me at this point that telling our stories, even in terms of narrative theology, will do us little good.

    I’m encouraging fellow LGBTQ folk to work on fostering a sense holy indifference and holy silence enacted in forgiveness rooted in our baptismal vows and fostered by regular Eucharist.

    The rest of the Church seems to feed on our stories of suffering, liberal and conservative alike as we go about trying to decide how to include those people in our unity or how they disrupt our unity or are not a legitimate part of our unity.

    The Good News in Christ Jesus is we LGBTQ folk are included in G-d’s unity, and it is becoming clear that even within the Sign of G-d’s unity–the Church, we are fallen and striving to rest our unity on death of others. Regular Eucharist, in my opinion, is the primary way out as this resting of our unity is revealed as not- the-way-to-G-d or one another most strongly in the Death and Resurrection of Our Lord represent to us in the Bread and Wine at the Altar-Table.

    We need not make a defense. And Indifference and silence enacted in forgiveness rooted in our baptismal vows and fostered by regular Eucharist pulls the plug on that need to make a defense and the frenzy of our enthrallment with death and unity built upon death–at this point an enthrallment particularly with LGBTQ death, physical, emotional, spiritual, (for all of the death in the world, we’ve come to this) that keeps us unified no matter our position by our constant talking about and “inclusion” or not of the other on our terms and if we’ll schism or not, and so on.

    Again, we are not included on others’ terms, but G-d’s terms, and G-d has invited us into the ongoing work of co-creating and living the Reign, so we who are LGBTWQ need not look back and too become pillars of salt by trying to justify ourselves before others. We have our own enthrallments with death, including getting focused on how the rest of the Church is working this all out, and regardless of how that is going, we will do better to pour our energies and lives in directions of resting in our being forgiven so as to uproot how we find safety/comfort/unity in death by consumption, drugs, promiscuous sex, overuse of resources at others’ expense, and so on rather than remaining focused on how others are using us in the same way.

  7. Oh, Christopher, God bless you. You are entering into Paul’s voluntary self-denial, when he says, If it causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again. The very idea of such self-denial humbles me.

    I think there is, however, something to be said for telling affecting stories in light of Acts 10 – not on the question of authority (or maybe so!) but specifically about homosexuality. Peter is shown animals specifically called unclean in the Hebrew law – and God tells him, Do not call unclean what God has made clean. And the Jerusalem church, seeing the Spirit subsequently poured out unmistakeably upon the Gentiles, said, Clearly God has come to them too! Here: have these core doctrines: don’t eat food sacrificed to idols, don’t eat blood, don’t live promiscuously (porneia, I believe).

    So, another story of Sweet Partnered Lesbian Priest who has not only done xyz good things for the church BUT has in xyz specific ways furthered the gospel mission (in my life and/or in the life of the church – witness William Stringfellow) IS relevant, though perhaps not in a narrative-theology sense. The “Is the Spirit present?” test, if you will.

    Though that test (because you get great heresies through history, claiming the presence of the Spirit) has to be crossmatched against the teachings of Scripture. So we may be right back where we started.

    Unless the three things the Jerusalem Council told the Gentiles are the binding things, besides the ultimate litmus test of belief in the Lordship and resurrection of Christ, of course. And here, the crucial question would be: what is porneia? Can a same-sex relationship be lived in “decency and order,” in holiness and beauty?

    I submit that it can.

  8. Kate, I’m not sure if that’s quite what I was pointing to unless by self-denial, you mean the giving up of the pattern of forming our selves (and hence we deny this self) and our responses either in reaction of proaction in oppositional relating instead of being more rooted in G-d who forms us in love toward one another, especially in forgiveness which undoes such relating–that is what holy silence and holy indifference are all about.

    It’s about responding with all joy and thanks and praise through Jesus Christ’s once-for-all Holy Eucharist to G-d who continually gives us ourselves even when we would reject G-d and living from that place of G-d’s forgiveness and embrace rather than from a place of “do you include me?” or “how?” or whatnot that gets us trapped into the death cycle of oppositional relating and self-formation.

    It means I’m more concerned with sharing the Good News with my fellow LGBTQ folk that G-d loves them as LGBTQ folk, not as others would have us be–love that says be this way and then you’ll be welcome by G-d is not G-d’s love, the Resurrection makes this clear as far as I can tell, but coercion and violence of a most subtle kind, and its really about one shoring up one’s own (as Merton would call it) false self or as I would call it Original-sin-self defined against a threatening other needing to be put down, expelled, scapegoated, murdered in all manner of ways to keep one’s own identity intact. Does that mean we won’t change and grow. No. The more we sink into G-d’s love, G-d’s forgiveness toward us as LGBTQ folk, the more we will find ourselves loving and forgiving. It does mean though that we won’t look like what some folks seem to want us to be for their own sense and security of self.

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