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N.T. Wright & the Centrality of "Story"

N.T. Wright & the Centrality of "Story"

As I continue to slowly work my way through N.T. Wright's book The New Testament & the People of God I am continually struck by his ability to perceive modern presuppositions and debunk them. One of the largest presuppositions held by many in the West is a belief that any person is able to construe thoughts objectively or in a detached manner. Another way of putting this would be to say: Westerners often believe that when we present an idea we are able to do so without that idea being affected by our personal & communal history (i.e. - the lens or narrative that we live out our lives in and make sense of the world through). Wright states it well:

Where I stand and the (metaphorical) lenses through which I look have a great deal to do with the communities to which I belong. Some things which I see in a particular way I see thus because I belong to a particular human community, a network of family and friends; some, because I belong to a profession; some, because I am an amateur musician; and so on. Every human community shares and cherishes certain assumptions, traditions, expectations, anxieties, and so forth, which encourage its members to construe reality in particular ways, and which create contexts within which certain kinds of statements are perceived as making sense. There is no such thing as the ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ observer; equally, there is no such thing as the detached observer. (pg. 36) [emphasis/emboldening mine]

Whether we like it or not, we are shaped by the our surroundings. The stories that we have been brought up with (Dads do this, moms to that, families do such & such, etc) shape us in such a way that they become integral to making sense of the world. In fact it is through this lens that we are (un)able incorporate new ideas into our pre-existing narratives.

Wright continues in this vein and builds upon it by incorporating the concept of story. Wright claims that stories are too often denigrated to a menial place in the modern man's mind. Stories are second class to "abstract concepts" or "timeless truths." In Wright's estimation this is unfortunate. For him these "metaphorical lenses" through which we view the world (worldview) are ultimately made up by the idea of "story." New ideas and concepts make sense (ultimately) if they can be incorporated into the story.

Stories are often wrongly regarded as a poor person’s substitute for the ‘real thing’, which is to be found either in some abstract truth or in statements about ‘bare facts’. An equally unsatisfactory alternative is to regard the story as a showcase for the rhetorical saying or set of such sayings. Stories are a basic constituent of human life; they are, in fact, one key element within the total construction of a worldview. (pg. 38)

In short, stories are integral to our ability to make sense of the world. Without pre-existing stories a "worldview" is simply not possible.

The reason this is the case is due to the fact that humans think (or live) in the concept of story-form. We perceive the world and our questions about it in terms of "conflict & resolution." The question we have about the world and the answers to them are placed within the pre-existing story-forms that shape our being in the world. Rather than taking in new ideas in a detached manner we actually incorporate them into the story/narrative that we already assume. Again, Wright:

When we examine how stories work in relations to other stories, we find that human beings tell stories because this is how we perceive, and indeed relate to, the world. What we see close up, in a multitude of little incidents whether isolated or (more likely) interrelated, we make sense of by drawing on story-forms already more of less known to us and placing the information within them. A story, with its pattern of problem and conflict, of aborted attempts at resolution, and final result, whether sad or glad, is, if we may infer from the common practice of the world, universally perceived as the best way of talking about the way the world actually is. Good stories assume that the world is a place of conflict and resolution, whether comic or tragic. They select and arrange material accordingly. And, as we suggested before, stories can embody or reinforce, or perhaps modify, the worldview to which they relate. (pg. 40)

Stories come into contact with neighboring (and sometimes conflicting) stories and make sense of them by their ability to offer solutions to the "problems" in the currently held story-form. Good stories (according to Wright [an I agree]) are those stories with see the world as a place of conflict and resolution.

In conclusion, Wright shows that it is stories (not abstractions) that do the real lifting in the area of "worldview" and "ideas". Most of our argumentation exists not in the form of didactic debate (although there certainly is a lot of that) but in the form of subversive stories. It is the power and persuasion of one story (not abstractions) that ultimately subvert another story and convert those who adhered to it.

Stories are, actually, peculiarly good at modifying or subverting other stories and their worldview. Where head-on attack would certainly fail, the parable hides the wisdom of the serpent behind the innocence of the dove, gaining entrance and favor which can then be used to change assumptions which the hearer would otherwise keep hidden away for safety. Nathan tells David a story about a rich man, a poor man, and a little lamb; David is enraged; and Nathan springs the trap. Tell someone to do something, and you change their life—for a day; tell someone a story and you change their life. Satires, in having this effect, function as complex metaphors. (pg. 40)

This last quotation to me is quite astounding when taken in light of the Gospel of Jesus. Wisdom incarnate (Jesus), spoke in parables and hid the things of the kingdom of God from the wise and revealed them to innocent babes (Luke 10). Again, as the apostles went out into the kingdom of Rome armed with the story of the Gospel their ultimate aim was a subversive one. Everywhere they went they started a riot because of the story they were telling: "Jesus is Lord, not Ceasar." & "You are now citizens of Heaven, not Rome." To us these often serve as empty words on the pages of an ancient text. In the first century these words were telling the story of a conflicting narrative to the story so many inhabited. Moreover, these words were telling the story of the emergence of a new world (the world of the New Adam) and the decaying of an old one (the world of the Old Adam).

Our challenge today is to be presented with the story of the Gospel of Jesus and see how it might be subverting the stories we too are inhabiting!

Food for thought.


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