A (Qualified) Defense of Narrative

This is a follow-up to a recent piece titled The World Is Not a Story […]

Charis Hamiltonius / 5.25.18

This is a follow-up to a recent piece titled The World Is Not a Story (According to Paul)—offering the other side of the coin.

Paul wasn’t much of a storyteller. For him, the advent of Christ was principally a revelation of something unforeseen at a human level. It was an invasion of liberation into an enslaved cosmos ruled by the powers of sin and death. This controlling metaphor of revelation colors his thought such that Scripture itself becomes not antecedent, horizontal events that set into motion a story, but prophetic testimony of God’s unconditioned, vertical intervention into the world.

This distinction between the Old Testament as witness, rather than causal effect, was ingenious, but proved to be unsustainable. If Jesus is the manifestation of the same God revealed in the Scriptures, then further inquiry beyond the category of testimony was inevitable, if not necessary. Further, as Paul’s enthusiastic expectation of the imminent end of the world abated, new questions arose about how Christianity related to time and history itself. Christians began to stare at their watches, wondering how the now unfolding of human history might relate to what seemed more like a plan for the redemption of the world, rather than its decisive enactment. History no longer seemed to end with Jesus, but began anew, awakening a fresh appreciation of the movement of time from within Pauline theology itself.

Taking up this challenge most successfully was Paul’s travel companion, the evangelist Luke. Luke does not offer so much a corrective of his mentor as a further extrapolation of his thought under different constraints. But however consistent Luke’s thought may be with Paul’s Gospel, its narration yields both loss and gain. More than any other writer in the New Testament, Luke places the advent of Christ within the grand story of humanity as its climactic midpoint. In his view, God had a plan for redemption from the very beginning of creation and the course of history proceeds toward, not through, the causal chain of events wrought by humanity, but through God’s own faithful, persistent action.

Characteristically, Luke begins his narrative of the life of Jesus with precise dating of where it all began. John the Baptist is born “In the days of King Herod” (Lk. 1:5) and Jesus is born during a census of Caesar Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria (2:1-2). Jesus’ public ministry begins when he is “about(!) 30 years old” (3:23). The stage is set for the action to begin, yet Luke digresses to recount Jesus’ genealogy. While Matthew’s genealogy is neatly divided around significant events in Israel’s history (14 generations between Jesus, the exile, David, and Abraham), Luke’s own family tree has no such exit signs. He instead races through the list of 77 men without pausing to consider their individual significance. They do not “beget” their offspring (as Matthew records), but are a continual string of never-ending names, “Jesus…the son of Joseph, of Heli, of Matthat, of Levi…” (3:23-24). Rather than exit signs, each individual serves as mile-markers counting down toward the true origin of the story of humanity.

It is often said that Luke’s genealogy ends with Adam, thereby furnishing Luke’s Gospel with the necessary genetics to claim that this Jewish Messiah is also a savior of Gentiles. But this is patently not the primary point of his list, which ends not with Adam, but with Adam’s father—God. Each name marks the passage of time, pointing to God as the origin of time and human history. By interjecting this genealogy before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Luke places this ministry within the wider course of human history. But even this history owes its existence to God, who set it all into motion. The unbroken list of names form links on a causal, temporal chain, the end of which is held by God alone. Jesus didn’t start the fire…it was always burning since the world’s been turning (yep). Israel’s history comprises a significant proportion of this unbroken chain, representing the selected path chosen by God to redeem the world. As with any historical phenomenon, its precise meaning is only comprehensible after the fact, as vividly illustrated by the Road to Emmaus scene (24:24-35). Whatever hopes, anticipations, and messianic expectations had culminated from Adam to Joseph, Jesus was not what was expected. He did not “restore the Kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:7), at least not in the ways imagined by his contemporaries.

Set alongside this seemingly endless list of names, Jesus holds no inherently special significance; as one who is human, he is but one name among the many. But then again, Jesus is not just another human destined to die. Jesus, the one who holds the other end of the temporal chain, is also the beloved Son of God, whose death conquers death once for all. In other words, God stands at either end of the genealogy, bracketing its contents altogether. Jesus is the other divine node of the string of time to receive and transform its frequency into the sweet sound of the Gospel. This is the story of Jesus for Luke, one whose narration begins with God and culminates in the salvation of the world by God.

The movement of time forward from the ascension of Jesus are then the divine reverberations of the ministry of Jesus to the world through the giving of the Spirit. Jesus moves off stage so that the Spirit can descend and continue “fanning the flame” of what God began before time itself. The life of the church and our place in time stands within the never-ending story of God: after the death/resurrection of Jesus, within the present work of the Spirit, but before the end of the play at the resurrection of the dead.

What is lost and what is gained by Luke’s innovation? By firmly plotting the life, death, and resurrection within the course of human history, Luke provides the church a foundational orientation toward time and the activity of God within time. If apocalyptic approaches to time leave the believers ambivalent to the meaning of the present, wandering aimlessly in history as an eschatological community, salvation-historical narratives preclude such despondency.

Furnished with this new calendar, the Christian can now understand herself as a participant within history, acting according to God’s timeline and schedule. This imbues a significance to everyday action with a meaning beyond the circumstances of the present. Consequently, God does not act within life in through an unexpected, disruptive intervention of grace, but can be seen to direct all worldly events according to God’s providence. Life is not random, or chaotically meaningless, but held in the hand of a God who directs history toward its completion through the Spirit. Because God directs history, nothing happens by chance; everything has some purpose, however mysterious it may seem.

This divine clarity of everyday events is also true of the history of Israel itself, which was providentially guided by God toward the Christ-event. If Paul believed the unity of scripture was founded upon the consistency of God’s identity, Luke extends this unity to time itself, thereby enabling Christians to thoroughly scrutinize the Old Testament for its many precursors of Jesus.

Yet it could also be argued that Luke’s eternal plan of salvation-history, with its optimism regarding the course of history, generates two unforeseen difficulties for future Christians. (The potentially modalist Trinitarian theology of narrative is worth noting, but that’s another post altogether). The first is an overly enthusiastic confidence of God’s present activity in the world, whether it be the blessing of individual decisions as expressions of God’s will, or the more strident declaration that some political event is the part of God’s plan, as seen in both the world wars and so often today. The category of providence can create the expectation that the meaning of the present is almost transparently discernible in a way that can be exploited by sin to bless the worst of our endeavors.

Luke’s clairvoyant understanding of history can also create an equal and opposite despondency if one cannot perceive the divine meaning of one’s life. This is particularly true in personal tragedy, where the expected outcome supposedly blessed by God doesn’t happen. The mismatch between expectation and reality can be a brutal one, and the belief in God’s providence over time usually ricochets against us as an accusation of failure. If the primary metaphor used to speak of salvation is narrative/story, it becomes more or less inevitable that our own agency in this story will be emphasized, making our lives the product of our free will. To speak of God’s story almost irresistibly evokes the question of our place in that story, ultimately making the story about us. However much Luke avoids this, the categories he created leave a legacy to the church he could not foresee or control.

Apocalyptic and salvation-historical renderings of the Christ-event are often synthesized by theologians, but there is good reason to maintain the dichotomy provided by the New Testament in the works of Paul and Luke. Perhaps these aren’t meant to be harmonized or subsumed into a coherent picture, but placed side-by-side, correcting the dangers of each and offering the tools needed to address the infinite varieties of life itself.