One of the chief themes of the narrative theology that came to prominence in the Anglo-American world in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the centrality of communal experience to the life of Christ’s Church. In the work of Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Hauerwas, Gerald Laughlin, and many others, the “Christian story” is a communal one: We Christians “tell God’s story,” or participate in God’s own telling, in and through the Church. The life of the individual Christian, on this account, makes sense and achieves meaning through participation in this communally recounted narrative. Even the various forms of theological activity can be redescribed in narrative terms, as when Newbigin writes of “the congregation as hermeneutic of the gospel”: interpretation of Scripture for Newbigin is not so much what a particular scholar writes as what a particular community of believers enacts.
These thinkers typically do not deny that the Christian faith makes propositional claims, but they tend to understand such propositions as having their proper force only within the context of the story God tells in history. “Jesus is Lord” is a proposition, but a proposition that compels assent only when Jesus’ earthly ministry, death, and resurrection are understood as (collectively) the pivotal and definitive moment in the long history of God’s covenantal love for His erring people.
This movement has been a tremendously important and salutary one; it has had the effect of reminding theologians of their ecclesiastical obligations, and has reminded believers more generally of the centrality of common worship to their Christian lives. In many cases it has energized the lives of congregations.
But something that has, I think, been neglected in the development of this narrative theology is the narrative dimension of individual Christian lives. This is somewhat surprising in light of the fact that one of the key texts prompting the renewal of narrative theology, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981), is seriously concerned with the narrative integrity of a given single life. The pivotal section of that book is Chapter 15, “The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life, and the Concept of a Tradition,” a chapter that MacIntyre describes as a “contemporary attempt to envisage each human life as a whole.” But despite MacIntyre’s eloquent exploration of what makes a human life coherent, theologians tended to find more compelling what he says about the narrative coherence (or incoherence) of whole traditions.
In this light it is significant that four years after the appearance of After Virtue came a landmark study in the sociology of religion, Habits of the Heart. In this book, Robert Bellah and his coauthors deployed a fascinating and compelling range of stories testifying to the damage American individualism has done to countless human lives and their communities. Taken together, After Virtue and Habits of the Heart seemed to be saying that the manifest incoherence of so many lives, including the lives of Christians, could not be addressed at the individual level, but rather could be ameliorated only by the careful reconstruction of communal bonds. Lives can be healed and integrated only within such communal contexts. As Bellah and his coauthors write near the end of their book, “We will need to remember that we did not create ourselves, that we owe what we are to the communities that formed us, and to what Paul Tillich called ‘the structure of grace in history’ that made such communities possible.” Which in turn means that the sustaining and strengthening of those communities—or, in MacIntyre’s terms, those “traditions of moral inquiry”—must be a major task for anyone who accepts these arguments.
Since the fundamental and indispensable unit of Christian community is the Church, these trends in general intellectual culture have in the last fifteen years stimulated a great deal of ecclesiological reflection: one can draw an interesting line of influence from MacIntyre and Habits of the Heart to Stanley Hauerwas and then to John Milbank and the other proponents of radical orthodoxy, all of whom tend to be pronouncedly ecclesiocentric in their thinking. (I owe the term “ecclesiocentrism” to my colleague Ashley Woodiwiss.) How much ecclesial communities, or any other communities, have been practically strengthened by these movements is a question open to debate. What is certainly true is that in serious Christian reflection, questions about the shape and fate of community have come to displace the language of personal conversion, transformation, and development from the central place such language held in Protestant Christian discourse in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. (And, let it be noted, such an emphasis on personal spirituality was shared by liberal, neo-orthodox, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christians—though often for different reasons.)
Now, if the “serious Christian reflection” just mentioned has de-emphasized personal narratives, that is scarcely true of Christian culture at large. Countless Christian writers have extended, and continue to extend, their invitation: “Tell us your story.” Each of us has a story, we are told, a wonderful story that belongs only to us; it is our task to discover what that story is. And in recent years a significant publishing subindustry has arisen for the purpose of helping us in such a “voyage of discovery”: I refer to the many books, tapes, videos, and workbooks on the topic of journal writing, or, as the less scrupulous stylists in the movement would have it, “journaling.”
It is fair to say that recent narrative theology has taken its characteristic forms precisely in order to counter this sort of thing. But it is also worth noting that, if one can pierce through the layers of narcissism and sentimentality that so often deface this talk of “journaling” as self-discovery, these popular writers are reminding us of something that many previous generations of very sober Christians, from Augustine of Hippo to the Puritans of seventeenth-century England and America, would have warmly endorsed: Each of us does indeed have a unique personal narrative, one whose essential shape is not always easily discerned. As we shall soon see, Augustine in his Confessions repeatedly wonders at the faculty of memory precisely because it allows us to revisit the events of our lives and discern the trajectory that they describe. Likewise, but in a more systematic way, the Puritans developed a comprehensive theory of personal spiritual record-keeping, with the journal as the key instrument. The great unacknowledged ancestor of today’s guides to journal-keeping is John Beadle’s Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian, first published in 1656, which gives comprehensive instructions for the would-be diarist. For Beadle, it is as important for a Christian to keep a journal as it is for a businessman to keep a ledger; indeed, it is far more important: after all, the “account” we will be called upon to make before God some day is more consequential than any businessman’s.
Beadle’s recommendations were widely heeded in the seventeenth century. As William Haller pointed out many years ago, the diary became an effectual Protestant substitute for the ancient Catholic practice of auricular confession; but it also enabled people committed to the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints to keep tabs on their own perseverance. Near the end of the sixteenth century, the English Puritan Richard Rogers wrote that studying his diary was necessary “that I may so observe my heart that I may see my life in frame from time to time.” This is an important concept; Rogers is describing the inevitably retrospective character of self-understanding—what Hegel meant when he wrote that the Owl of Minerva flies only at night. The “frame” that Rogers refers to is the narrative shape that can only be discerned after some development takes place. Discrete events by definition have no plot, and even several of them (like numbers in a sequence) may not seem to add up to anything, but as the events accumulate sufficiently, patterns become more and more evident. The passage of time provides the “frame” necessary to discern those patterns—but only if the events themselves are faithfully recorded, “plotted” as on a graph. Slowly, the picture (the story) emerges. For Richard Rogers and the other Puritans, the function of the journal was to plot the graph of God’s work in our lives.
A life story, in its full and complete form, can of course only be understood after that life is over—indeed, dying may be the experience that gives final clarification to a life, either by confirming or by countering the pattern that had seemed to rule the life up to that last point. In explaining the importance in Mexican culture of the Day of the Dead, Octavio Paz writes, “Tell me how you die and I will tell you who you are.” The desire for the perfectly clarified and clarifying view from beyond the end is particularly strong when we cannot discern a meaningful pattern in the events of the moment; no more sad and beautiful testimony to that lamentable situation can be found than the end of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, when Vanya and Sonia (the insulted and ignored, the poor relations who fill the servants’ roles in the family, the ones to whom nothing significant seems ever to happen) sit alone at a table, and Sonia muses:
We shall go on living, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through a long, long chain of days and endless evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials fate sends us; we’ll work for others, now and in our old age, without ever knowing rest, and when our time comes, we shall die submissively; and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered, that we have wept, that we have known bitterness, and God shall have pity on us; and you and I, Uncle, dear Uncle, shall behold a life that is bright, beautiful, and fine. We shall rejoice and look on our present troubles with tenderness, with a smile—and we shall rest . . . .
There can be something sweet and even radiant about Sonia’s hopefulness (as in Brooke Smith’s lovely performance in Louis Malle’s film Vanya on 42nd Street); but there is certainly something deeply sad about her resignation to incomprehension, to the failure of understanding, on this side of the grave. The Puritan use of the spiritual journal to “frame” life is a technique to prevent this incomprehension, to achieve some sense and articulation of a life’s shape even as it is being formed—to see, if only through a glass darkly, something recognizably meaningful.
The triviality, even fatuousness, of many current ways of talking about “our stories” has led many thoughtful Christians to abandon the traditions of personal narrative or testimony as tokens of misbegotten “individualism.” But such an abandonment is unfortunate. What we need is better and more responsible and more coherent personal stories, not the complete subsumption of all personal narrative into group narrative. In this context the work of Walter Benjamin—the great German-Jewish cultural critic who died while fleeing from the Nazis in 1940—is vital:
Every real story . . . contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story . . . . Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is dying out because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.
In the great essay (“The Storyteller”) from which this quotation is taken, Benjamin explains how the various forces of technological modernity have gradually reduced the power and value of experience—have made personal experience less “communicable.” Properly understood, Benjamin’s argument reveals that the proliferation of bland, solipsistic personal “stories” in our current cultural situation does not indicate a recovery of “communicable experience,” but just the opposite. We tell our stories, all right, but we don’t think of them as offering counsel in wisdom: I “journal” for myself, not for others; the only counsel I can offer them is to do their own “journaling.”
In this light it can be seen that the formulaic “testimonies” of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, while they may appear to some communally minded theologians as a manifestation of individualism, are in fact almost the only remaining cultural form of the kind of storytelling Benjamin praises. An impoverished form of it, to be sure—primarily because it is inflexible in shape and confined chiefly to testimonies of conversion rather than testimonies of imitation and vocation—but a valuable form nonetheless, because it preserves in some fashion the idea of storytelling as the passing along of wise counsel. Such a form of storytelling needs to be strengthened and enriched, not abandoned.
It is important that Benjamin says this of the true storyteller: “It is granted to him to reach back a whole lifetime (a life, incidentally, that comprises not only his own experience but no little of the experience of others; what the storyteller knows from hearsay is added to his own). His gift is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be able to tell his whole life.” Christians would do well to become storytellers in this sense. In short, what is currently needed, it seems to me, is a narrative theology that draws on the great resources provided by the thinkers I have mentioned—MacIntyre, Newbigin, Hauerwas, and so on—but which also understands what Augustine and the Puritans understood: the importance of thinking narratively about individual lives. If we are to achieve this goal, we must cultivate, as our primary resources, a faculty and a virtue: memory and hope.
Many readers of Augustine’s Confessions have noted a dramatic change at the beginning of the tenth of its thirteen books. Up through Book IX, Augustine has been relating in a pretty straightforward manner the key events of his life leading up to his conversion to Christianity and, following soon thereafter, the death of his mother Monica. Then, abruptly abandoning the autobiographical narrative, Augustine embarks on a series of theological and philosophical speculations about time, memory, and the opening chapters of Genesis.
Or so, at any rate, the common view goes, though especially attentive readers of the Confessions have asked whether the first nine books are really so straightforward, and the last four so completely disconnected from them and from each other. I will not enter that debate here, except to say that the reflections on memory that dominate Book X have everything to do with the story that Augustine has been telling to that point. Augustine is fascinated by the faculty of mind that has allowed him to relate the events of his early life: How is it, he wonders, that we are able to store events in our minds and retrieve them when we need or want to do so? Book X of the Confessions repeatedly professes wonder at the God who has made us with such a capacity:
The power of memory is great, very great [ magna ista vis est memoriae ], my God. It is a vast and infinite profundity. Who has plumbed its bottom? This power is that of my mind and is a natural endowment, but I myself cannot grasp the totality of what I am. Is the mind, then, too restricted to compass itself, so that we have to ask what is that element of itself which it fails to grasp? Surely that cannot be external to itself; it must be within the mind. How then can it fail to grasp it? This question moves me to great astonishment. Amazement grips me.
Yet even in this outburst of wonderment Augustine is pursuing a vital point: the relation of memory to self-understanding. At the beginning of Book IX, just before describing the decisive moment of conversion, Augustine had asked, “Who am I and what am I?” Now, at the beginning of the next book, he explores the faculty that enables him at least to attempt answers to those questions. Indeed, some chapters later than the passage I have just quoted, Augustine repeats his claim that “Great is the power of memory” and follows that claim with a renewal of the question of self-knowledge: “What then am I, my God?”
These reflections lead to a point that is of particular importance for our purposes. Augustine—being concerned with his “ascent” (a word used repeatedly in Book X) from sin to salvation—is preoccupied with the relationship between memory and sin: he makes a point of noting that we are able to remember our sins without committing them over again. For him, this is one of the most important of memory’s characteristics, and an indication that it is a special gift of God to those who would repent of their sins. Indeed, if the recollection of sin inevitably drew one back into that sin, memory would be a curse rather than a blessing: there would be no possibility of responding to one’s past experiences so that one could “ascend” to a higher and better life. (Augustine knows perfectly well that the memory of sin can lead one back into that sin, but it need not do so—for him, the miracle is that recollection of sin is not always a renewal or repetition of that sin.)
Therefore, Augustine is led to conclude that memory is not simply a passive function: it is not mere recollection. Memory allows one not only to recall but also to restructure, to reinterpret past events, to discern a pattern in them that was not visible when they occurred. (Thus Richard Rogers’ attempt to “see [his] life in frame from time to time.”) As James O’Donnell has written, “Memory has the power to supplant ‘reality,’ or at least what mortals know of reality: indeed, the whole argument of this half of Book X is that it is through memory that, after the fall, we encounter a more authentic reality.”
Through memory, Augustine explains at various points in Book X of the Confessions, we are able to review our past actions and discern a variety of important themes: we can see when we were moving towards God and (conversely) when we were moving away from Him; when we discerned the good rightly and sought it properly and (conversely) when we misidentified the good and sought experiences or possessions that were bad for us; when God was calling us towards Himself, whether we heard His voice or not; and so on. Indeed, we see Augustine employing this notion much earlier in the Confessions ; for instance, when he describes how his friend Alypius, as a young man come to Rome to study law, had been captivated by the crude and vicious spectacle of the gladiatorial games. Addressing God as always, Augustine writes, “You taught him to put his confidence not in himself but in You. But that was much later.” Nevertheless, “This experience . . . rested in his memory to provide a remedy in the future”—as did the next incident Augustine describes: Alypius’ arrest for theft when he was still living in Carthage and studying under Augustine.
Since the English word “memory” usually connotes merely the passive storage of information, let us use the Latin word memoria to indicate this more active, interpretive, constructive faculty that Augustine celebrates. It is memoria, in this sense, that enables us to think of our lives in meaningfully narrative terms: the whole project of identifying and pursuing a coherent life would be impossible without memoria.
But if memoria is the essential retrospective faculty for the believer seeking to make a coherent Christian life, it will only be exercised by those who think such retrospection potentially valuable—that is, for those who are hopeful. Hope is the virtue that prompts the exercise of memoria. The believer hopes that his life is making sense, hopes that the “frame” reveals a pattern that adds up to something recognizably Christian. Hope enables us—indeed, commands us—to turn from retrospection to prospection. Here it is good to recall a famous comment from Kierkegaard’s journal:
It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt the position: backwards.
In other words, it may be true that “the owl of Minerva flies only at night,” but Kierkegaard suspects that the metaphor hides a profoundly dubious claim: that it is possible to reach a stable end-point of reflection from which Minerva’s owl can take off, and to which it can later return. This can never happen, Kierkegaard says: whenever we look back, we’re still moving forward, and that movement not only makes our retrospective vision somewhat shaky and uncertain, it also increases the chance that while our heads are twisted around we’ll run into a tree or fall into a ditch.
Kierkegaard’s point is vital because it shows that the work of memoria is always influenced by the way our prospective imagination is throwing us forward into our future. Therefore the work of memoria is always imperfect, incomplete, and subject to revision. We will always be, as Hamlet puts it, “looking before and after”; it would be nice (or simpler, anyway) if we could do just one, or do them in a stable, unrepeatable sequence, but that’s not the way life works. We should never presume that our exercise of memoria is perfect, nor that the patterns it reveals predict our future with perfect accuracy.
The word “presume” is important here because presumption is, according to Aquinas and his followers, one of the two characteristic perversions of hope, the other being despair. As Jürgen Moltmann notes, “Both forms of hopelessness, by anticipating the fulfillment or by giving up hope, cancel the wayfaring character of hope.” In one of his sermons D. L. Moody proclaimed,
You ask me to explain regeneration. I cannot do it. But one thing I know—that I have been regenerated. All the infidels and skeptics could not make me feel differently. I feel a different man than I did twenty-one years ago last March, when God gave me a new heart. I have not sworn since that night, and I have no desire to swear. I delight to labor for God, and all the influences of the world cannot convince me that I am not a different man.
I have no doubt that God did indeed make Moody “a different man” than he had been before—indeed, gave him new life. But it is almost impossible for the even moderately critical reader not to be dubious about this account. Perhaps you no longer swear, Mr. Moody, but are you humble? Are you perfectly compassionate and loving? And anyway, if I were to drop this brick on your toe, might you not suddenly rediscover the “desire to swear”? I find myself suspecting, not Moody’s regeneration itself, but his belief in its completeness and his assumption that its moral effect is permanent and irreversible. He seems, for the moment at least, to have forgotten that he is but a pilgrim, a “wayfaring stranger” (as the old hymn puts it). He has “anticipated the fulfillment” which comes only to the blessed in heaven; his statement is presumptuous and therefore not truly hopeful.
It’s this kind of Christian “testimony”—the airbrushed past and the sugarcoated future—that causes Christian “testimonies” to set people’s teeth on edge. We may therefore find ourselves tempted to neglect or even abandon the practice of testimony, absorbing all individual differences of vocation and experience into the one great story of the Church—and to some degree that is just what recent narrative theology has done. Embarrassed by the presumption, the triumphalism, and the sentimental self-absorption of the testimonies that have arisen especially from the evangelical movement, narrative theologians have drawn our attention back to the great narrative arc of God’s work among His people in the world. Yet Christians are commanded to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), and unless one is determined to do no more than mutely wave people towards the nearest church, this can only be achieved by giving some account of the coherence (not perfection) and development (not fulfillment) one discerns in one’s own life.
Moreover, no healthy and mature Christian is simply a generic church member, but instead has some specific role to play in the life of the community:
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? (1 Corinthians 12:27-31)
For this reason Christian witness (both to unbelievers and to young Christians) must involve an account of the particular genre which one’s Christian life embodies. So the remedy to the problem of presumptuous or otherwise deficient testimony is not to stop bearing personal witness, but rather to refine and develop our understanding of what such witness should be. And here is where the Church’s great communal story offers its aid: for it is the responsibility of the “many members of the one body,” who collectively celebrate and enact that story, to guide each individual member into paths, into life genres, that harmonize with the great melody of God’s redeeming work in His creation. How can the Church bridge this gap between the Christian metanarrative and our own individual life stories, in such a way that all such accounts are faithful to each other and to God? That is the challenge facing anyone who would take narrative theology to the next level of critical and prophetic power.
Alan Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College. His most recent book is A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Westview, 2001). This essay is adapted from his book Life Genres: The Personal Dimension of Narrative Theology (forthcoming from Eerdmans).