I’d like to take a brief excursus here and discuss one of McLaren’s arguments in more detail. He hangs a great deal of weight on the idea that the bible is fundamentally a story, a statement which I would agree with. His big beef with how Christians today interface with Scripture is that they have modernistically reduced this story to a set of propositional truth-statements about the world. Again, a generally-true statement, although the devil is in the generality.
The problem I have is with the way McLaren uses “story” to justify what is in actuality a postmodern reader-response take on the Old Testament. I have neither the desire nor the space to discuss reader-response criticism as a whole, but I want to submit that this approach to story is fundamentally different than the one that existed in the ancient world – more on that after the break.
Stories were powerful tools for ancient cultures. They served as foundational elements to the formation of their self-identity by providing them with an overarching narrative to place themselves into. This narrative helped them understand what to make of the world.
An example might be helpful. Many scholars have commented on the way Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were foundational to the formation of the Greek identity emerging from its “Dark Ages.” These books, along with the histories, gave the inhabitants of the Greek peninsula a sense of united hellenistic identity. They did this by communicating three things:
- A shared identity: The Iliad in particular reinforces the idea of the Greek states as being somehow unified. They had a shared history which identified who they were as a people over against the nations around them.
- A shared set of values: This shared identity extends into a shared set of values. The Iliad is fundamentally about the values which allowed Greek city-states to exist. Central to its narrative is the desire for honor over shame. It also sets out the groundwork for a system of hospitality and debt which forms the backbone of ancient society. The Odyssey is about the Greek home and the disorder caused when a proper household structure, led by the male patriach/lord (Odysseus), is absent.
- A shared set of beliefs: These values are not grounded on thin air, but rather are justified by a set of beliefs about the world and how it works. In particular, it is the story itself which serves to point out these beliefs. Homer is using the stories of Agamemnon, Achilles and Odysseus to teach his readers about how the world works and, as a consequence, how they ought to live in it.
I realize that those accounts are grossly oversimplified. There are all sorts of details of the story which are also important, but not because they somehow contradict these overarching uses. Rather, they serve to reinforce them. Indeed, one of the best ways to understand how the stories fit together as a whole is to see how the details support the narrative rather than undermine it.
Now consider how most contemporary Americans (in high school classrooms and movies like Troy) retell these stories. The Iliad is about existentialist heroes being true men in the face of death and overwhelming odds, or about the incredible power of romantic love over human hearts and nations. The Odyssey becomes aroad trip of self-discovery, with Odysseus hopping on his motorcycle and having all sorts of hijinks before finally coming home to his happy ending.
The fundamental difference between Brian’s reading of the biblical story and the one I think is correct is that I believe we should still read it as pre-moderns did – as a narrative which provides us with identity, teaches us values, and shows us what the world is truly like. It isn’t a set of detached, decontextualized propositions about truth, but neither is it a hollow frame into which we can pour whatever values and beliefs our current generation holds dear.
Perhaps a concrete example might help. Brian sees the Egyptian plagues and God’s deliverance of Israel out of Egypt as a story about how “God sides with the oppressed.” It is about how God tries to convince tyrants that they shouldn’t be tyranical. The plagues, in particular, are “natural” occurrences (Brian rejects a natural/supernatural distinction – fair enough – and then proceeds to retell the plagues so they have “scientific” explanations, which sounds suspiciously like he’s just bringing the same dichotomy in through the back door). They show that even the natural world seems to dislike oppression.
This is clearly not what the story meant to ancient Israel. They saw the plagues as God’s divine judgments on Egypt (and particularly Egypt’s gods). They gave Israel an identity as God’s chosen, delivered people. They taught them to value God over Egypt’s Pharoah and dieties (who, as many commentators note, seem to be the specific targets of the different plagues). All of this was meant to teach Israel to believe that YHWH alone was God, and that He was mighty to save.
It’s worth noting that, in the name of “story,” McLaren ends up committing the very fallacy he is setting out to destroy. He is universalizing a narrative about Israel so that it is actually a detached, decontextualized statement about the world in general.
It’s also noteworthy that this retelling of the story can only work by ignoring the “thousand details” which Brian notes, and many of which he says are disturbing. I would suggest that they are disturbing precisely because they don’t conform well to this sort of revisionism.
This is because historical stories are by their nature inflexible. They don’t mean something new to each generation and every reader. Rather, they mean something concrete which is meant to transcend generations and differences and bring us into conformity with the narrative they are telling. This was why they were so powerful in the ancient world, and why they are today. We don’t retell them by changing what they’re about. We retell them so that they might change what we’re about.
Of course, this doesn’t in any way mean that they’re true. By the very nature of accepting Israel’s story, Jesus’s story, and the church’s story as my own, I am brought into conflict with Homer’s story. This is precisely why McLaren has to redefine story, why he has to rely on postmodern critical methods of reading. Because the alternative, which is to read the story as its original audience would have, cannot fit into his ultimate agenda.
But that ultimate agenda needs to wait for a further post. Suffice it to say simply this: the early followers of the Way would never have doubted that this Way was something exclusive. But contrary to McLaren’s insistence, this exclusivity didn’t lead to hatred or isolation or mass murder. Instead, it lead to a loving and fearless proclamation of the story of God in Jesus Christ and an invitation to its hearers to join with them in following.
McLaren’s story, sadly, lacks this power. Instead, it feels like a retelling of the Odyssey that lies somewhere between O Brother Where Art Thou and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.