“Theology in Narrative Form”

Biblical scholar M. Eugene Boring is reflecting on the cataclysmic events surrounding the death of Jesus. There are eclipses, earthquakes, the opening of tombs, the reappearance of saints long dead, the tearing of the curtain in the Temple. Boring’s comment in that context of spectacle seems almost wry:“That we have theology in narrative form, and not bare historical reporting, is clear.”

In several Bible study groups I get to meet with, I have begun using the pejorative expression “the journalistic fallacy.” I mean by that expression that reading the highly symbolic accounts of scripture as if you were reading a reliable newspaper. That’s why it is “journalism” and it is why I call it a fallacy. I think that is what Boring has in mind in the much more elegant expression “bare historical reporting.”

I was surprised to learn yesterday that the last time I taught an Adult Ed class at our church (pre-COVID) I gave the whole first session over to a scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie, The Terminal, in which an Indian janitor named Gupta Rajan, tells the story of an encounter which he himself had not seen. It is an ideal introduction to a study of biblical narratives because we, the viewers, have seen the encounter he is describing. We are thus in a position the Jesus Seminar would love to be in: knowing what happened and measuring the account we have against that knowledge.

I show the event, then I show Gupta’s account of the event. Then I try to peel the two layers apart. Is it “correct?” No. Is it “true?” I say it is, but that moves immediately into the question of what “true” means, apart from “factual,” or, we may translate it as “empirically verifiable.”

I want to ask these questions of the Birth Narrative according to Matthew, but let me give an instance of Gupta’s account first. “Immigration’s gun was drawn,” he says, referring to the event he has been told about. [1] We can go back and look at the scene; we can look at every holster and see that each gun is in its holster. The guns are therefore, not “drawn.”

We can ask then, what does “guns were drawn” imply. They imply a situation of imminent violence. What is actually about to happen, we learn from watching the scene, is that a Russian named Milodragovich is going to have his medicines taken away. He came to our part of the world to get these medicines, without which his father will die. The father will be as dead as he would be had one of the guns been drawn and fired into his chest. It is in the sense that violence is just about to be committed—which we know is true—that the expression “immigration’s gun was drawn” may be understood.

That brings us back to Boring’s phrasing about “bare historical reporting” and “theology in narrative form.’ Not real “theology” in the movie version, of course, but more abstract and symbolic truths. It is on those grounds that I hold the position that Gupta’s account is “true” even if it is not “correct.”

As a rule, I lose those arguments and we move on the the several accounts of the trial, conviction, and execution of Jesus all of which sound like “bare historical reporting,” and none of which are.

Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus

At this point, we have to go to the hard version of the dilemma. It is hard because, unlike the situation the movie gives us, we have not seen the event for ourselves. We have only Matthew’s account to go on. [2] Matthew relies on divine guidance in the form of dreams. Joseph has dreams and responds immediately by doing what the dream told him to do. Because of that, he takes Mary, his pregnant fiancee, [3] into his home, which he would otherwise not have done; he leaves his home in Bethlehem in the middle of the night, thus saving the life of Jesus, his little boy; he never goes home to Bethlehem, moving instead to Nazareth where the political situation is less hostile.

What do we know independently of these movements? Nothing. How shall we understand their meaning. It is clear what they mean to Matthew. God is overseeing these events in the conception, birth, and childhood of Jesus so as to allow him to survive into manhood. The means God uses, in Matthew’s account, is that “the angel of the Lord” appears in Joseph’s dreams and tells him what to do.

Christians don’t have any trouble believing in “providence” as a general matter. Whether a specific event was providential or not is always a discussion waiting to happen, the God’s oversight of human history as a general matter is likely to be accepted at least for discussion. So the point of Matthew’s account is simply God’s oversight of the early days of Jesus so as to ensure his survival. Following the Gupta Rule we may say that “Joseph had revelatory dreams” is only the specific version of “God’s providence protected the life of the boy, Jesus.”

Gupta’s “Immigration’s gun was drawn” is paralleled by Matthew’s “the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” The imminent violence that Gupta’s account points to is paralleled by the imminent violence directed at the little boy by King Herod.

So does it matter? For me, that is the challenge of Advent. The events of the Birth Narrative as Matthew makes them available may or may not serve as “theology in narrative form.” I can, if I come at it right, find my contact with the theology refreshed and made vivid without relying on the mechanism Matthew uses.

A number of sharp-eyed people read this blog and they will have noticed that I chose “coming at it right” as a method; achieving vividness and the refreshment is the hoped for outcome. They will also have noticed that I have said nothing at all about what “coming at it right” would involve for me.

Workin’ on it.

[1] The situation with the young Russian with the medicine has nothing at all to do with immigration, but the audience hearing Gupta’s account is very likely full of people who are in the U. S. without proper documentation and placing the agents as “immigration” catches their attention very quickly.
[2] Next year, we will have only Luke’s account.
[3] Using the word “fiancee” to describe a relationship the Israelites would have called “marriage” is only a convenience. On the other hand, it clearly derives from the French verb fiere, meaning “to trust” and I like that.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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