I was taking Cultural Anthropology the semester a missionary to southeast Asia spoke to the student body at the college I was attending. My roommate found his messages—on the importance of narrative truth—to be a little odd. He argued that a propositional approach to witnessing only works in a thoroughly Christian culture. In southeast Asia, and even in America, that approach may not work. You’ve got to explain who God is and what sin is through the Biblical narrative, or people will not understand what you are saying.
Unlike my roommate, I had already encountered some of the ideas in Cultural Anthropology (by the end of his first message, my professor was one of his biggest fans). Narrative had come up in my philosophy class, too, in the context of free will and determinism. I loved the emphasis on life as a story. Who wouldn’t?
Quite a few people, actually. What I didn’t realize was that not all people consider their lives in a narrative context. Our own culture, in fact, may be losing that emphasis.
Consumerism is part of the problem. Thinking about ourselves as beings with a past and a future won’t help us engage in all of those short-term pleasures that make so much money for certain gigantic companies. Technology is another factor—we expect everything now. Or we click half of the links in an article, read them all, and only then get back to the text that was supposed to have been our focus in the first place. (Wikipedia, I love you, but you have made me terribly guilty of this.)
Rod Dreher recently wrote an interesting article about the problem. He argues that the fast pace of our lives prevents us from understanding our own lives in a narrative fashion–as “stories, with a beginning, middle, and end.” Another writer offered the counterargument that Americans clearly understand what narrative is, but that assertion is one with which I assume Dreher would agree. We know what stories are. For that matter, so do people in cultures with extremely cyclic views of history. People can understand the concept of narrative without viewing themselves in that context. If not, the missionary I heard would have been better off appealing to his southeast Asian hearers using propositional arguments.
I recently finished Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. The book covers a lot of territory, perhaps too quickly; but it emphasizes the importance of narrative in understanding our lives. MacIntyre, writing some thirty years ago, saw our practical grasp of narrative fading before anyone ever dreamed of Facebook. So is there a solution?
Some people might not consider our changing views of narrative to be a crisis. From many points of view, they aren’t. But Christianity does teach that history has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Without narrative, history lacks meaning. For a Christian, that’s a big deal. Why else would that missionary to southeast Asia emphasize narrative with people whose religion placed little value on narrative? It is no mistake that what we call “the Gospels” were composed as narratives, or that Paul’s exposition of the Gospel in I Corinthians 15 takes the form of a narrative. As Robert Jenson wrote in his 1993 article about the weakening of our narrative consciousness: “It is the church’s constitutive task to tell the biblical narrative to the world in proclamation and to God in worship, and to do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative.”
There is good news for those of us who are worried about weakening narrative consciousness. As C.S. Lewis noted in The Discarded Image, even cultures that hold to more cyclic views of history have some understanding of the more linear, narrative view. The Church has a story. Our task, as individuals, is to embody that story.