Narrative Ethics/Theology

I have recently been having significant problems understanding how the narrative ethics and interpretive method that I have been studing falls in line with my interest in the historical Jesus studies of N.T. Wright. Finally James Wm. McClendon has helped me do that. As one of the main proponents of narrative theology, McClendon finds the need to explain what it means in the opening volume of his systematic theology, which is interestingly, “Ethics.” His illustration is that narrative requires three elements: character, social setting, circumstance. He explains this way. “The king died and then the queen died” does not give us the character of either of the participants (or for that matter, the social setting). “The king died and then the queen died of grief” begins to explain the character of the queen and the social setting that made her die. This properly explains our narrative of the queen’s situation: character, social setting, circumstance (Ethics, Rev. Ed., 329).

When we allign this with the thesis of his entire work on ethics, we see that the three “strands” of Christian ethics lines up with this narrative framework. (1)Christian Ethics is incarnational/embodied ethics. What we do with our bodies matters. What we do with sex matters. What we do with hungry people matters. (2) Christian Ethics is communal. We cannot understand who we are as Christians without understanding who we are as members of the body of Christ. Here he seems to depend on Hauerwas’ “Community of Character.” We are to be a body of Christ followers who live out our Christian faith in dialogue and interaction with other Christians. We are a member of a body politic, namely the church. This point would require more extensive work than what I will give it here considering our individualistic/capitalistic soceity. (If you are interested, See: McClendon’s ‘Ethics’ or Hauerwas’ ‘Community of Character.’) (3) Christian ethics is eschatalogical (McClendon calls is ‘resurrection ethics’). We are constantly to live as if the Kingdom of God (ie. ‘heaven’) has already started…because it has. 1. embodied (our character) 2. communal (our social setting) 3. eschatological (our circumstance)

With this in mind McClendon explains that the task of this narrative theology/ethics is to “discover, understand, and transformation of a shared and lived story, one whose focus is Jesus of Nazareth and kingdom he claims–a story that on its moral side requires such discovery, such understanding, such transformation as to be true to itself” (331).

This makes sense of where the historical Jesus work comes in. We must do the historical work because Jesus’ story is our story. His character should be our character. To understand his character, we must understand his social setting (ie. historical Jesus studies). To understand how to live that character, we must understand our social setting (the failure of many Christians) and our circumstance…that the Kingdom has already been inaugurated.

Thank you to McClendon (God rest his soul).

I have been wondering for some time how this historical Jesus work fit into the narrative theology. I have known that we need to understand our ethics in light of his situation, but what does that mean for someone who lives in this situation.

Primarily it means reading the Scripture from behind the text not in front of it. For this to make sense I will use a modern hermenuetic problem. Many feminists look back on the Bible with a “hermenuetic of suspicion” and see a document reflecting its patriarchal soceity. They call in to question the authority of the Scriptures based on the great revelation of our “enlightened” age that men and women are equal. However, when we look not back on the Bible from our present social setting, but instead forward to the Scripture from their social setting we get a different picture. When Paul proclaims that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free(see Gal. 3:28), he does so from a social setting that would not have affirmed any one of those statements. Paul makes a radical claim that all people are equal in the sight of God. His readers would have been somewhat shocked. Of course slaves aren’t equal, because they aren’t people, they are property (under Roman law).

When we look forward from the text to see it within its social setting, it gives us a vision to look forward from our social setting to witness to a Kingdom that has already been inaugurated.

Narrative ethics/theology. I am one step closer to being able to explain this.


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