“Christian convictions take the form of a story,” explains theologian Stanley Hauerwas in his book, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” from 1983; “or perhaps better, a set of stories that constitutes a tradition, which in turn … forms a community.”
Hauerwas has taught us that this “narrative” approach to Christian theology is consistent with the way our moral and spiritual lives are formed, regardless of the tradition that forms them. He explains that we come to know God, and thus our lives as persons ordered toward God, through the formative stories of Israel, Jesus and the Church. Nor are the stories incidental to our understanding of, and participation in, God’s love and grace. We cannot abstract God from them and still know the God of Christian faith. “There is no ‘point’ that can be separated from the story,” contends Hauerwas.
Even if some professional theologians take issue with Hauerwas’ emphasis on narrative as the primary way to know God, he is surely correct that this is the way that the average Christian comes to know God. Our knowledge of God is not primarily communicated by doctrines or dogmas, but rather by stories of the Bible and the great saints of the Church. And as our knowledge of God is learned this way, so too are our lives as disciples of Christ. “There is no more fundamental way to talk of God than in a story,” Hauerwas contends.
In his excellent new book, “The Great Story of Israel: Election, Freedom, Holiness,” Bishop Robert Barron never invokes Hauerwas by name but he clearly writes in the spirit of this “narrative” way of forming our Christian lives and understanding our Christian existence. As early as his 2007 book “The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism,” Bishop Barron’s scholarly work has been rooted soundly in this tradition. There, he explained that the better way of understanding Jesus was not through generalized hypotheses or “supposed universal truths,” but rather “with Jesus Christ in all his specificity.” He did not begin with “foundationalist assumptions,” but rather with “the dense particularity and spiritual complexity of the picture of Jesus as it emerges from the New Testament narratives.”
“The Great Story of Israel” applies this narrative methodology to examine the wonderful, complex, paradoxical and sometimes-contradictory story of the chosen people of God. Bishop Barron has the rare gift of writing accessible theological books on the foundation of his scholarly erudition. Whereas “The Priority of Christ” is written for other theologians, “The Great Story of Israel” is written for the curious layperson who wants better to understand the background of the stories that make up the Hebrew Bible. More importantly, Bishop Barron invites us to find our place in the story.
He demonstrates the narrative cohesion of the story of Israel, as it is ordered toward its purpose of leading to the full revelation of God in Christ. “The Bible is primarily the account of how God acted in history, precisely through the people of Israel,” he explains. “And the climax of the biblical narrative … is a very particular Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.” While drawing upon tools of biblical criticism, Bishop Barron does not allow the narrative to get lost in them, and while he calls the book a “commentary,” it is different from the typical biblical commentary. He proceeds book by book, but he does not treat the books as discrete objects of analysis. Rather, Bishop Barron weaves them together into the compelling story of an imperfect people moving toward perfection. “The Great Story of Israel,” the first of a projected two-volume project, will be a salutary addition to your theological library.
Kenneth Craycraft is associate professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology in Cincinnati.