Telling God's Story

Anthony Freeman contributed this review of Gerard Loughlin's book 'Telling God's Story' (Cambridge University Press, 1995) to the SoF UK Magazine.

Which came first—the Bible or the Church? Neither, says Gerard Loughlin in this excellent (though rather technical) book, since they evolve together as 'the scriptural story makes the Church by which it is made in the telling of the story'. It is the story which is crucial here. Loughlin tells us that narrative theology depends upon there being a single 'story of God' discernible through the many and diverse narratives in the Bible. In this he opposes theologians such as Frank Kermode, who says that to find any such story is in principle impossible, and Maurice Wiles, who holds that the choice of any particular story is bound to be arbitrary.

The narrativists insist that the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ provides the necessary and sufficient focus for the scriptural story of God. The technique used for bringing other narratives into this focus is scriptures own device, typology, by which the Old Testament tales are read as prefiguring the story of Jesus, and the Church's own story is told according to the Christ-pattern. The 'rules' for this 'disciplined reading' of the story are given by the Church's doctrine summarised in the ecumenical creeds.

It is precisely this subjecting of biblical interpretation to doctrinal control to which modernists like Wiles object, and this brings us to the great divide between modernists, who look for rational criteria by which to judge conflicting religious claims, and postmodernists, who deny the possibility of any such objective and overarching measure of Truth. For Loughlin, narrative theology offers a way to take full account of this postmodern critique without capitulating to the nihilistic views of Don Cupitt and his fellow 'textualists'.

Like them, Loughlin accepts the argument of Derrida and Ricoeur that we are narrative creatures whose self-understanding depends upon our ability to tell stories about ourselves. But he says that the textualists need to be more thorough-going. If they really take seriously the claim that 'there is nothing outside the text' then they should not say, as Cupitt does, 'Outside our stories there is nothing but formlessness,' but rather, 'There is no "outside" to our stories.' What Cupitt has done is to smuggle in a new and non-Christian story—'that there is, finally, only nothing'—whereas for an orthodox narrative theologian 'there is nothing whatsoever beyond God's story'. I fully agree with Loughlin here, which is why, despite my debt to Cupitt, I have never been able to accept his dogmatic nihilism.

Loughlin is conscious that narrative theology remains vulnerable to the charge of insularity. The Bible's story of God may be coherent and meaningful, but is it objectively true? Does it rightly correspond with the real world beyond its pages? He claims that it does, but still insists (calling on Karl Barth for support) that there is no external means by which this can be proved: 'Christian truth has never been a matter of matching stories against reality [but] of matching reality-stories against the truth: Jesus Christ . . . [His] life-story is what "truth" means in Christianity.'