Enough With Narratives Already!

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You surely have noticed how “narrative” is all the craze. Therapists, politicians, consultants and screenwriters all say things like “changing the narrative” or “telling your story.” Some philosophers castigate “meta-narratives,” while others look for unifying deep narrative structures. Where did all this come from? And, equally importantly, what about us Christians, who gather each Sunday to read from a book with is, after all, structured as a vast story? We have skin, in the “narrative” game…

The place to start is with genealogy. The popularity of the terms is derived from a variety of sources. Let me list some of them. From the modern study of traditional cultures, their religions, and their epic poems came a sense of the importance of myth of the origin stories, which resemble one another throughout the world. From various philosophers came the observation that concepts can tell you things true in general about humanity, but only the telling of a particular personal story can you understand the uniqueness of a particular individual. From psychology has come the power of personal recounting for healing and coming to terms with our pasts, especially after trauma. Another modern foundational idea is that humans exist in order to express or realize themselves.

But we need to notice how a couple of questions are left open. On the one hand, narratives make us irreducibly unique, and on the other hand it would seem that there is something called “narrativity” which we all share. Furthermore our stories are as yet unfinished - stories want an ending, but lived ones don’t yet have this. And endings are not determined in the way algebra answers are.

All the sources I mentioned above are secularized, modern versions of what the critic Northrop Frye called “the great code,” the single, Alpha and Omega, narrative of the Bible. They depend on it, though they also rebel against it, offering either a competing “meta-narrative” or else contending that each must have his or her own narrative, a contemporary version of “each doing what is good in their own eyes” at the end of the Book of Judges.

Where does all this bring us? First, narrative is not a single answer, it is a question, an arena, one particularly suited to our generation, apparently. Secondly, we do well to distinguish both the modesty and the chutzpah of the Christian faith. We do not claim there is a decisive proof of our faith this side of the veil. Our hope is not a syllogism it is a story of a particular person, Jesus, in the context of the preceding and also particular story of Israel, set in the context of the story of creation. Those stories precede and set the terms for ours. That is a way of understanding, for example, saying the creed at baptism. My very personal conversion involves not retelling my particulars, but retelling His, in the same way you might say that “mission” is coming to integrate your own cultural story into the unifying story of the Bible.

Thirdly, an especially compelling version of this narrative - talk comes from an influential Scottish Catholic moral philosopher named Alisdair MacIntyre. If you are doubtful of his importance, note how often in Church parlance you hear talk of “practices,” a key term of his, or of the interest recently of a book like Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, which involves an allusion to the final sentence of MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. (I am reading now a book called How To Survive The Apocalypse by Joustra and Wilkinson, which claims MacIntyre had read the sci-fi classic Canticle for Leibowitz).  

MacIntyre’s use of narrative is especially compelling after hearing Bishop Chartres’ exposition of the importance of tradition. It describes not just the preferences of certain antiquarian types, but rather of all human thinking, no matter your school of thought. All reflection assumes a grand narrative, and also a community (he uses the Greek word “polis”) in which the thought takes place. Its practitioners also assume virtues whose exercise are required for the activity, as well as a goal for both the moral life and the story in which it is lodged. So the final point is this: “narrative” is best understood as one key term for how we humans understand ourselves and the world, but it is one among various terms that include virtue, goal, and community. Narratives are things groups have as they give an account of what humans are and where they are going. They are not solipsistic, nor do we fashion them as we wish. They do not immunize us from thought, dialogue, and debate with others, but are the place from which we engage in these. They co-exist with other meta-accounts of the world (e.g political, religious) and must make their way in the marketplace of ideas. Understood in this way, narrative talk is not only derived from the Christian world, but also naturally friendly to it.