Category Archives: Literature

Narrative Theology

As I was reminded while reading Maggie Madly Writing, Aristotle makes the following claim in his Poetics:

The poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary. The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse–you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do. (Poetics, trans. I. Bywater, 1965)

Now we must understand that by poetry, Aristotle meant a thing that is made–a literary work of art. Today, the collective term would be literary writing, perhaps. We include prose fiction, stage plays, and our narrower definition of poetry in the category, among various written forms of art.

The problematic word is fiction. That can mean a work of art, but it can also be a lie. Consider the phrase, “telling a story.” Does that mean that the person speaking is creating literature or promulgating a falsehood? Also notice how films or books that claim to be “based on a true story” have an added appeal.

This takes us to the question of what is true. As we can see in Aristotle’s claim, there are different kinds of truth. A historical truth is a documented and verifiable event. A mathematical truth is a statement that is derived correctly from an accepted set of axioms. Science takes observed facts and makes testable hypotheses about them. A scientific theory–in other words, that kind of truth–is a hypothesis that has passed the tests and gives useful explanations of the facts.

Can we then view fiction as a kind of truth? What Aristotle said is that fiction deals with universals. Now his idea was that a universal is a category that finds its expression in specific events or cases, and a work of literary art allows the author to study a universal–justice, for example, or love–to see what might happen. Given a set of initial conditions (see chaos theory) and a precipitating action, what will be the result? That’s what literary fiction seeks to answer.

So are the characters of fiction real? Take Sherlock Holmes as an example. He operates according to his own guiding principle of reason, but at the same time, he has human weaknesses. He is a manic depressive who medicates his low periods with cocaine when he isn’t on a case or studying the coal-tar derivatives. Is he real?

Of course he is. In the sense of getting to know him, he’s as real as Augustus Caesar. Yes, I’m playing with the standards here, and deliberately so. If we’re discussing history, the documents that support our acceptance of Octavian as a real person are certainly different from those that supported Holmes. What separates the two is that one acknowledges itself as fiction, while the other makes the claim of reporting something and someone that actually happened.

But the subject of this article is narrative theology, not history. Many treat religious texts as though they were historical documents. The claim made is that the events and persons of the Bible or the Qur’an, for example, were real in the historical sense. Why must that be the case?

The argument that I’m making here and am in the process of developing is that we need to treat religious texts the same way that we treat literary ones. The fact that Shakespeare read about a historical Scottish king and was inspired to write Macbeth is an interesting piece of history or biography, but it doesn’t help us to understand the play, nor does it make the play meaningful. As Aristotle would observe, it is the universal statement about human nature (and other things) that makes Shakespeare’s works worth reading.

Can we create a narrative theology? Here’s one example from my own life. While wandering around Jackson Hole, Wyoming on a summer vacation, I found a lost dog. After leaving the animal with a hotel manager, I applied the methods of Sherlock Holmes and looked for someone who appeared to be on a search. After a while, I found the dog’s family and led them to their pet.

The job of theology is to understand the divine, and one way to interpret divine is as the realm of the universals. In that view, no religion need defend itself by claiming to come out of a historical event, and no enthusiast need feel ashamed of being guided by a work of literature. The quality of the interpretation and the derived moral directives is what matters.

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As this is a work in progress, I’m particularly interested in comments from my readers. If an event is a historical fact, does that make it more meaningful? What rules ought there be for interpreting a text and taking guidance from it? The discussion is open.