Sunday, December 17, 2006

Dorothy Sayers Strikes Again

"Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is quite the opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama."

23 comments:

Nicholas Z. Cardot said...

This is a great post. Christian doctrine is exciting!

Kevin Winters said...

The "dogma" is not the drama. It's the narrative of God's condescension to man and the redemptive work that sets souls aflame. Don't give them theology; give them stories!

nancy said...

It's not just stories. Santa, the abominable snowman and all the rest are stories. And they make me feel warm an fuzzy inside. But they have no lasting transformative power as they are simply stories.

On the other hand Christianity is true and yes Christianity is told through narrative, law, creed, wisdom sayings, poetry, etc. In the Scripture I hear little tidbits, such as the fact that God is Holy,Holy,Holy. Yes, there is a bit of a story surrounding this...but it is not the story that cuts to my very core, but rather the reality of a God who is Holy,Holy Holy and the implications of that truth.

By all means the use of story is important, but devoid of doctrine (simply teachings about God), the story becomes empty and dull (BTW - other religions such as the New Spirituality have marvelous stories).

Sayers is on the mark when she says "The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama."

Brian said...

"It's the narrative of God's condescension to man and the redemptive work that sets souls aflame"

That sounds an awful lot like doctrine(dogma) to me.

Tim said...

Nancy,

Spot on. The whole point is that the story is not merely uplifting or heartwarming: it is true. And the fact that it is true is at the very heart of Christian dogma. What better time to be reminded of this than late in December?

Et verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis, et vidimus gloriam, eius gloriam quasi unigeniti a patre, plenum gratiae et veritatis.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Without theology, there is no Christianity. Truth claims are essential. Christianity is true to reality, to objective fact. Narrative is part of that factuality.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Tim:

John 1:14 in Latin, it is! I preached on John 1:1-5, 14 this past Sunday.

DG

Kevin Winters said...

I am not saying that truth or truth claims are non-essential. What I am saying is that narratives tell us 'more' about the gospel than any philosophically precise systematic theology. Don't just stand around and tell me that God is omnipotent, no that he is that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived, no immutable, no holy, etc. Tell me a story of what he has done for me or those who have come before me: that he showed mercy on the Israelites, that he preached to the poor, the sinful, the 'outcasts,' that he submitted to God in the garden, etc. Narratives are richer than any explicit theology can ever be.

Douglas Groothuis said...

It's both/and, Kevin.

nancy said...

No holy?...by golly that one is loud and clear in the text...(but perhaps I may have misunderstood the comment)

Douglas Groothuis said...

Needing a story for everything is the mark of intellectual immaturity. Much of Scripture is exposited in heavy abstractions. read Romans or Hebrews to find a deep level of abstract argument. No one story will capture justification by faith or the supremacy of Christ.

Kevin Winters said...

"Needing a story for everything is the mark of intellectual immaturity."

And diminishing the power of narrative is the mark of intellectual snobbery. What is the book of Hebrews but a history of Israel's relationship with God, including the new covenant? What is Romans but the story of man's fall and redemption, including Christ's place within that history? The so-called "heavy abstractions" are meaningful only against the context (the background) of the stories in which they are told. It is the attempt to take such meanings out of these natural contexts (which is the goal of systematic theology) that is problematic. Give me a "heavy metaphor" or "symbolically driven story" over dry theological abstractions any day. They are more true to the polysemy inherent in language, of the richness that our words have.

On this note, I find it interesting that Christ preached, not through "heavy abstraction," but through parrables, stories, anecdotes. I take it Christ was "intellectually immature" by depending so heavily on the narrative mode of teaching? Take any example. My favorite, personally, is the story of the Good Samaritan: inherent in it are many cultural and religious valuations that give the story much more richness than dryly saying, "Everyone is your neighbor, so love everyone."

I find your choice of examples to be rather interesting: justification by faith and the supremacy of Christ are only intelligible on the background of the history of man's fall, i.e. a narrative. The relation between the law and faith is understood only in a dialectical relationship, not in "heavy abstractions" devoid of narrative context. It is tied explicitly to man's fall, the giving of the law of Moses, and man's relation to it. While I admit that some "abstractions" are present, they are subordinated to narrative, not the other way around.

Douglas Groothuis said...

K:

Why do you keep saying "give me an X over a Y"? What do your desires have to do with anything we are discussing? We are dealing with biblical truth, not your (or my) preferences. It is declared through many genres, but since it is all propositionally true, it can be formulated into more systematic presentations: theologies or worldviews.

I am not saying that anything in the Bible is "devoid of narrative context," although some of the Proverbs are only minimally narritival. Remember my "both/and" remark earlier. To say otherwise is a straw man fallacy.

So, do you want to banish systematic theologies. It it wrong or impossible to take all the knowledge in Scripture and show how it interrelates? If not, we have little to offer perishing people, but a leap into narrative of "we know not what." In that case, why not leap into Islam or Satanism, or Mormonism (they have some wild stories!), or into a religion of our own creation: The First Church of the Transgalactic Taco Shell?

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tim said...

Doug,

I believe Kevin is a Mormon. Kevin, correct me if I'm wrong about that.

Yossman said...

The apostle Paul is an emminent example of someone extracting systematic thought from narrative and turning it into a message that contained both.
Take for instance his statements on Hagar and the law in Galatians. He refers to the OT story and labels the characters in that story with mental concepts. The metaphysical concepts are contained within the narrative but it takes a man like Paul to explicate them. And we are the better for it.
Turning to his preaching you find Paul refering to events both in OT and NT so as to arrive at the notions (dogmas if you will) of human moral depravation and the necessity of salvation through Christ.
Christian truth = revelation + salvation history + abstractions derived from those two. The narrative seems to have the primacy of temporal order and dogma seems to have the primacy of meaning and foundation.

Kevin Winters said...

Douglas,

I say what I do to try to give balance to the hardcore analytic and over-emphasis on systematic theology that most Christians adopt. Case in point is the quote you give in the original piece: that "dogma is the drama." No, dogma is only possible against the backdrop of narrative, which is the case in point. The focus on "propositions," which is a very modern development (see Charles Taylor's Philosophical Papers 1: Human Agency and Language, particularly the last chapter), is an inappropriate priority. Also, as it tends to be discussed, it is a faulty view of language: that language's primary focus is the transference of information (i.e. "communiation") from my mind to yours. Such propositional reductionism is inadequate, hence my problems are not solely a matter of "preference." Thus, my statements are attempting to compensate for your over-emphasis on the propositional attitude.

In relation to systematic theoloies, I do not think we should do away with them. As a matter of fact, I think they are inevitable and should not be shunned. I do, however, have doubts about the extent to which the propositional attitude inherent in that endeavor really 'connects' with reality. I think it is too one-dimensional to do justice to reality's richness or the depth of man's essence. Again, this is not an issue of mere "preference," but of our conceptions of reality. This, by the way, was exactly Heidegger's point in his entire treatment of ontology: traditional approaches that prioritize the analytic/propositional/theoretical articulations of reality are inadequate, incapable of giving justice to being-itself. But as you seem to be convinced that Heidegger, as a so-called postmodernist, rejects any notion of being or reality (which even a casual purusal of Being and Time would disabuse you of), I imagine you are not interested in actually discussing this futher. Should you ever want to discuss it, I'm more than willing.

Kevin Winters said...

Tim,

Yes, I am Mormon. I guess that means that I'm a double failure: not only am I duped by "postmodernist" philosophy, but I'm also duped by the apparently "wild stories" of my religious tradition. Of course, what could be more "wild" than raising someone from the dead, walking on water, telling someone of their dream, or making axe heads float, I don't know...

terryd said...

Kevin,

I wonder why you choose to argue for the importance of narrative rather than tell a story?

Kevin Winters said...

Terry,

That's a long story...but, admitted, my choice of 'argumentation' is likewise intelligible only within a certain context/narrative. It is exactly into that narrative that I invited Groothuis at the very end of my previous comment. So, no, I am not being inconsistent, but merely following one part of the narrative of my life, which part is intelligible only within its wider context that extends beyond 'argumentation' or 'abstraction.'

Douglas Groothuis said...

"Of course, what could be more "wild" than raising someone from the dead, walking on water, telling someone of their dream, or making axe heads float, I don't know... "

These are well-attested historically; the distinctive Mormon claims about Jesus coming to America, the supposedly supernatural origin of The Book or Mormon are not. Miracles are "wild" in the sense of unusual and supernatural, but not in the sense of absurd.

Kevin Winters said...

Ok, I'll go for the bait: what non-Christian historical documents attest to Christ's resurrection or his walking on water? What non-Jewish historical documents attest to floating axe heads or suns standing still? You are extending the veracity of the non-Jewish/Christian documents beyond what they attest to. Merely pointing to texts that say that Jesus did exist does nothing in demonstrating that he did what the Gospels say he did.

Tim said...

Kevin,

Your question is misdirected. Doug did not claim that the resurrection is attested by non-Christian sources; in fact, that's a pretty silly concept on the face of it. What Doug said is that the Christian and Jewish miracles are well-attested historically.

My own position would be that considered in isolation many of the OT miracles are not particularly strongly attested. In many of those cases we don't have reason to believe that the event was attested by multiple witnesses who gained nothing of worldly value and voluntarily endured hardships and sufferings in attestation of what they had seen. Their credibility is very much a function of the credibility of Christianity. The resurrection of Jesus is the hinge on which the matter turns.