[Note: What is written here is an attempt to try to put into words my response to NT Wright’s method for making sense of the New Testament and Paul in particular. The concepts being used emerged from the blending of learning from various disciplines, so it will be disjointed in its
Stories are the glue that keeps our social worlds together. When I got together to visit with cousins who I had not seen in a while, we recemented our bonds by telling stories of when we were younger. My cousin Anna1 and I reminisced about the time when we were very young and were eating at local Arby’s. Conjured up in the magical brains of kids was the bright idea,
Of course, while this story
While such an analysis of this could ruin the whole fun of what took place yesterday. Narratives do not themselves have meanings for us outside of the way we appropriate those narratives. To use a metaphor from physics, narratives have potential energy stored within them to provide meaning, but narratives only take on kinetic energy to generate meaning when they are used. The way we use narratives determines the meaning generated by stories. Put more simply: narratives have various potential meanings, but it is how they get used that leads to actual meaning in the mind of a person.
I want to explore this notion of potential meanings more fully. What is it that gives narratives the possibility of conveying meaning? Narratives can convey meaning because there is some similarity and correspondence between our cognitive understanding of the narrative and our cognitive understanding of what we apply our narratives to. We use narratives to understand those persons, things, events, etc. that resemble the narrative. The resemblance may be concrete and specific (such as the involvement of the same people at two different points of time) or more abstract (such as the similarity of the idea between the generic narrative of personal enslavement in Greco-Roman times and the story of moral transformation for Paul in Romans 6), but narratives work because of resemblance.
However, it is important to note this. The way we generate meaning is almost always unconscious; occasionally we might gener
In summary, narratives convey meaning only on the basis of other, more constituent elements that determine how narratives are used to create meaning. While the meaning generated from narratives
From this comes a specific implication as it pertains to the study of the Apostle Paul: worldview as a collection of narratives presents a useful but limited perspective to understanding Paul. It is here that places a potential tension with NT Wright’s interpretive work on the New Testament in general and Paul in
Human life, then, can be seen as grounded in and constituted by the implicit or explicit stories which humans tell themselves and one another. This runs contrary to the popular belief that a story is there to ‘illustrate’ some point or other which can in principle be stated without recourse to the clumsy vehicle of a narrative. 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 a 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. I shall argue in chapter 5 that all worldviews contain an irreducible narrative element, which stands alongside the other worldview elements (symbol, praxis, and basic questions and answers), none of which can be simply ‘reduced’ to terms of the others. As we shall see, worldviews, the grid through which humans perceive reality, emerge into explicit consciousness in terms of human beliefs and aims, which function as in principle debatable expressions of the worldviews. The stories which characterize the worldview itself are thus located, on the map of human
knowing, at a more fundamental level than explicitly formulated beliefs, including theological beliefs.2
While I certainly agree that narrative and worldview analysis provides tremendous benefit to Biblical interpretation, I think it is important to state that stories are not the “basic constituent of human life” and explore the implications of this. They are important, but are not basic.
For instance, how can an infant participate in human life when they have no real sense of narratives? Nevertheless, infants are able to make sense of the world, but it is not until around two years old when the foundation for higher cognitive thinking begins to develop. As these higher cognitive functions develop, it allows the child to make sense of how they were making sense of the world in pre-symbolic, pre-abstraction, pre-
Why is all this significant for understanding the Apostle Paul? If narratives are not basic to human life but rather make sense of the basic constituents of human life, then we are left with a distinct possibility: if there is a radical disruption in basic constituents of human life, then either a) the way narratives are used to convey meaning will be disrupted or b) narratives themselves will be irrupted and broken to make way new narratives. This is what I would contend happens for Paul on the Road to Damascus. Paul has an encounter with the risen Lord that not only challenges him personally but the way the Jewish narratives were employed in support of his persecution of Christians.
Some people might be inclined to refer to this as a paradigm shift, but I think this language is misleading. Firstly, paradigms are not the same as narratives. More importantly, paradigm shifts as developed by Thomas Kuhn was a shift from one cognitive structure to make sense of a field of science to another cognitive structure. This is a shift from one higher-level cognitive schema to another higher-level cognitive schema. A new paradigm may emerge within a person over a period of time, but it will emerge from our tacit, implicit, unconscious thinking before it becomes formalized into a relatively stable paradigm. But the lack of a clear, persistent paradigm doesn’t entail a lack of comprehension or knowledge. One can still make sense in the absence of a higher-order cognitive schema, but we become closer to infants in our understanding until the emergence of a new schema.
Also paradigms are not as flexible to use in meaning-making as narratives are; paradigms are used in relatively unambiguous, clear ways over a specific set of events and
So, instead of analyzing Paul in terms of a paradigm shift, it is better to suggest that there a) disruption in some narrative usage leading to reconstruction through the same narratives and b) irruption in other narratives leading to a destruction of those narratives for other narratives.
In the case of disruption, you would see elements of continuity and discontinuity. Continuity would be in continued usage of specific narratives, such as the Abrahamic and Mosaic narratives, but discontinuity would occur in what meaning is drawn from them. For instance, God is still going to be faithful to His promise to Abraham, but rather than the promise coming to all the people of genealogical Israel it comes to all the world through the descendant Jesus Christ. Or, rather than Torah being the means by which God creates a righteous, holy people, the Torah is
However, there are also narratives that may be irrupted. For instance, in Romans, Paul shows signs of an awareness of a Maccabean-like zeal fomenting among Roman Jews.3 Whereas the Maccabean narrative suggested God’s deliverance come in the midst of military conflict, either through military victory or faithfully facing persecution as a result of it, Paul’s narrative around Jesus suggests God’s deliverance comes through people being themselves conformed to the life of Christ through the power of the life-giving Spirit. Here, there is an narrative irruption, where the Maccabean narrative of deliverance is replaced with a Christ-o-centric narrative of deliverance.
Understanding Paul, then, entails not just knowing the narratives, but how he a) employed these narratives in dramatically different ways and b) rejected other narratives as not being true or useful. Whereas N.T. Wright suggests we understand these new meanings through analysis of the worldview, which contains the narratives,4 this suggests that narratives that
Giles Fauconnier’s conceptual blending necessitates at least different mental spaces or, in the terms used in this blog, cognitive schemas by which a third mental space/schema emerges. Trying to analyze the emergent schema in terms of only one part of the blend is to stand at the risk of missing a critical element. For Wright, his analysis priorities the narrative continuity, leading to an inclination to retain the harmonious, continuity between the Old Testament narrative(s) and Paul’s Christ-narrative. This form of exegetical analysis works if Paul does not experience any significant disruption or irruption. But the revelation of the risen Lord to Paul has all the hallmarks of being the type of event to create a dramatic disruption in how Paul employs the OT narratives. It would be an overstatement to suggest Paul goes through a conversion experience that leads to a new identity and religion; this would be the case of narrative irruption. Aside from a few select instances like the Maccabean narrative, Paul does not undergo a narrative irruption. However, the best fit to me appears to be that Paul does undergo a narrative disruption, dramatically changing how narratives of God’s relationship to the Patriarchs and to Israel are employed and used in relation to Jesus Christ.
Thus, I would suggest that the best way to make sense of this is to recognize that the basic constituents of Paul’s life and sense-making were disrupted that influences how Paul employs the Jewish narratives around the person of Jesus Christ, even if we can not clearly reconstruct how this all occurs. While narrative and worldview analysis can bear much fruit, there needs to be a recognition that such a method can predispose one towards a greater sense of continuity between the OT and Paul that may not be warranted.
- names are changed to protect the innocent!
- Wright, N. T.. New Testament People God V1: Christian Origins And The Question Of God (p. 38). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
- Firstly, compare Romans 4.1 to 1 Maccabees 2.52 and the speech of Mattathias. Secondly, Paul uses the rare word ἱλαστήριον to describe the significance of Jesus’ death in Romans 3.25, which is also used in 4 Maccabees 17.22 to describe how the death of faithful martyrs preserved Israel from the cruel oppression of Antiochus.
- Wright, N. T.. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two book set (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Locations 834-849). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.