The power of narrative

I’ve been reading Richard Swinburne’s Revelation, and it is a remarkable book. The first couple of chapters deal in great depth with analysing what the “meaning” of a sentence actually is, how (and if) it can be falsifiable, and how to discern exactly when such devices as metaphor, analogy and so on are being employed. (And yes, this really does need multiple chapters. Fortunately, Swinburne is an eminently readable philosopher and communicates so well that even this dry subject matter becomes fascinating in his hands).

Reading the book has gotten me thinking a lot about different literary genres: not just the reality of their existence, but rather the reasons that an author might choose to employ them.

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I think it is worth observing that certain messages are better suited to certain styles of communication. Let us consider the novel as an example. We are familiar with novels that simply tell an entertaining story: Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Tolkein’s The Hobbit are books that I would suggest are overwhelmingly story-driven. On the other extreme, we have books that are making deliberate and specific commentary by means of a story: Orwell’s Animal Farm, Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress are all obvious examples. And in between we have a broad range of novels which tell a story and also make philosophical/political/social commentary on the side: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Miserables and Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls all make important and incisive statements as well as telling great stories.

Which brings us to the question: if Hemmingway decided he had something important to say about death, suicide, Fascism and the nature of duty, why did he write For Whom the Bell Tolls instead of just expressing himself more clearly in an essay? Why resort to imagery and a great big framing narrative to communicate what you want to say?

An obvious reason is multitasking. Hemmingway wasn’t just trying to make socio-political commentary, he was also describing some of the history of the Spanish Civil War and trying to entertain his readers with interesting characters and a good story. Doing all of these things independently would be fragmented and weak. Perhaps more importantly, if he had just written a dry academic paper on Fascism, how many people would ever read it? Or having read it, remember it? Or having remembered it, care about it?

This is a vital function of the narrative-as-framing-device: it connects with us on a human level and gives the message much more impact. An abstract description of psychological tendencies which can manifest in people contemplating their own probably-impending death would lack any emotional impact and be difficult to absorb. Describing Robert Jordan’s last few days in the Spainish mountains is vivid and accessible, and at the same time it gives a much greater and more nuanced expression of the same subject.

In short, the narrative carries us along and holds our interest as we absorb the grand themes that the author is trying to express. A well-written novel also resonates with the reader: we recognise the characters and events as credible, and thus the message has greater authority.

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Biblical narrative

The Bible is not fiction, and does not contain anything which really corresponds to a conventional novel (understandably, since the novel as a literary style only dates from the 17th century). However, I believe that it is important to use what we have learnt from reading prose fiction in reading and interpreting the Bible.

It is hardly revolutionary to note that the Bible is neither an instruction manual nor a straightforward theological treatise. It is not, as Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart note, simply a collection of “Sayings from Chairman God”. Not only does its subject matter cover the full breadth of human experience, it does so in a confusing blend of genres and writing styles. Why make things so complicated? I won’t try to give a comprehensive answer here, but I will at least look at the use of narrative history in the Old Testament.

The “novel with a message” approach works because people respond more readily to messages framed in stories. Consider King David, whose story of “humble shepherd to mighty king of Israel” is recounted in 1 Samuel 16 – 1 Kings 2.  When we read the history of David’s reign, we see a tangible and powerful picture of a flawed human living with overwhelming dedication to God. Many of the key teachings of the story could be summarised in point form:

  • People are flawed. Even the greatest of us will fail to live up to our own standards, and will certainly never meet God’s.
  • The first step in dealing with our mistakes is to honestly admit them.
  • God loves us. He is faithful and ready to forgive our wrongdoing.
  • Our sin carries consequences in this life. Forgiveness does not remove these consequences.

…and that’s nice and neat. But which resonates more powerfully: the single line “People are all flawed and prone to sin”, or the story of David lusting after the married Bathsheba and arranging to have her husband killed (2 Samuel 11)? Which is more memorable? And is there not much greater authority and impact in the message when it comes in the context of an historical narrative?

There are dangers of framing a message in the context of a narrative, of course: it can be misinterpreted more easily than a set of bullet points. But there are strong safeguards against this in the Bible, as long as we actually read it in context. Let’s consider the same story: could we not say, “David was God’s chosen king and a really great guy, and he committed adultery, so it’s clearly ok!” But if we read the passage in context it is easy to see that David’s action was offensive to God. In the very next chapter, the prophet Nathan provides God’s perspective on the story and rebukes David for his actions. The Old Testament prophets often provide  a sort of commentary from God on the events which are taking place.

There are many other advantages to the use of historical narrative in the Old Testament, such as the multi-tasking mentioned earlier: recounting the history of the people of Israel is important in its own right. But this post is probably long enough already and I’m still working through a lot of these ideas, so I’ll unpack more thoughts on genre and hermeneutics in another post. To close, consider that some genres allow a writer to express things which are impossible (or at least difficult) to adequately convey in simple declarative statements. We have seen that the narrative form allows us to convey an over-arching message in a more compelling and accessible way; likewise, the poetic form allows an author much greater use of metaphorical imagery to convey emotions and ideas not easily captured in prose.

“Genre is not a restriction on an author. Rather, it provides him with a set of conventions, all ready to use, to express his message.” (Richard Swinburne, Revelation: From metaphor to analogy)

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Related posts:

Matters of interpretation

On reading both books

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8 thoughts on “The power of narrative

  1. Great stuff. There is such an overwhelming assumption out there, that the bible is just a set of rules, and I have to say that I think the blame for this assumption lies at the feet of Christians who too often don’t actually take the bible seriously. So often we just act as if it is a check-list or bunch of ‘sayings’ that one should follow. I’m sure you’ve heard the glib and erroneous acronym:
    Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
    And people do seem to ask why it’s so ‘complicated’ when you point out that it’s a meta-narrative encompassing various genres etc., but I suppose, as I’m somewhat of a professional story-teller, I quite like it!

    • One of the real challenges in this area, I feel, is the habit of quoting a single verse as a kind of talisman to fix a particular situation or offer encouragement.

      Quoted in isolation, only the most superficial reading of the sentence is possible and the meaning perceived may be very different to the meaning of the verse in its original context (Ephesians 5:22 comes to mind as a common example of this trend).

  2. Tonight I have had several conversations about the Bible as history, rulebook, and/or fairy story. Bible as multi-genre narrative works better for me. I also visited a regular blog – http://sacraconversazione.blogspot.com/ – from which this for the above 2 comments:

    “In the introduction by the editor of Paul Ricoeur’s collection of essays, Figuring the Sacred, Mark Wallace observes: “Everyone needs a story to live by in order to make sense of the pastiche of one’s life.”
    Ricoeur himself writes in this same collection: “it is within the structure of the narrative itself that we can best apprehend this intersection between the text and life that engenders the imagination according to the Bible.” (p.146)

    Keep telling stories

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