Narrative and Normativity (1): Outlining a Particularist Approach

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Much of Scripture is narrative. It is an account of events that happened in history to real people. But it is not just an historical report. It is supposed to carry meaning. In fact, some of it is meant to produce a kind of normativeness. There are some things we ought to do because stories tell us to. Some stories of the New Testament, for instance, are meant to tell us “do this” or “live this way” by providing an example that we should follow. So, for instance, when Jesus forgives and fellowships with sinners, this has a meaning behind it: “Do this. Fellowship with sinners and those that society considers unclean, because God accepts and loves all”.

But how are we to decide when something is supposed to be normative in a narrative, and when it is just any ole’ event? Admittedly, this isn’t going to be immediately obvious. But perhaps we can start with some *PARTICULAR* examples of places in a story where an event generates some kind of “oughtness”. In this post I will begin to outline a particularist approach to narrative and normativity. For previous examination of the concept of particularism and its implications, see here. I will first list a narrative event of this kind, and then write an analysis of the implications I see. My appeal will be primarily intuitive: if we consider each example, then the content of the analysis just *seems* to obviously follow. So there will not be very much argument for these conclusions. I will not be starting with a method, but rather with the particular cases of what we should consider normative. Notice that I don’t draw the same conclusions about each event; some events indicate one kind of normativeness; others indicate a different kind.

Particular Case 1: Matthew 9:27-31

And when Jesus departed thence, two blind men followed him, crying, and saying, [Thou] Son of David, have mercy on us. And when he was come into the house, the blind men came to him: and Jesus saith unto them, Believe ye that I am able to do this? They said unto him, Yea, Lord. Then touched he their eyes, saying, According to your faith be it unto you. And their eyes were opened; and Jesus straitly charged them, saying, See [that] no man know [it]. But they, when they were departed, spread abroad his fame in all that country.

Analysis: from this event, we learn that we ought to seek the patronage of Christ with faith. We also learn an important fact: that God doesn’t always immediately deliver us, but sometimes expects us to endure in seeking him before He delivers. The way the blind men follow Christ even though He is not initially responsive makes this kind of exertion of effort and relentless pursuit of God normative. So faith and persistent seeking are normative, and we know this because Christ approved of what they did. This normativeness is “positive”: it shows us what we should do. It offers a method of how to attain grace, and this method can be contextualized for our situations.

We also learn that there are some situations in which spreading the word about Jesus is to be discouraged. This doesn’t offer us with an immediate way of understanding how to identify these situations; but because we have here one case of Jesus discouraging spreading news about him, we know it is at least possible that there will be other cases. Moving on to figure out what cases are inappropriate for sharing will be complicated, because it may require looking at the story of Matthew as a whole. However, explicit commands by Christ after his resurrection to go preach to the whole world may indicate that the reason for the stealth of Christ is strategic during his life on earth, and it isn’t part of how he works now. We know from background information about what happens post-resurrection that the normativeness of Jesus’ commands here to not speak about his work is “qualified”; it won’t always work this way.

Particular Case 2: Matthew 18:21-35

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took [him] by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

Analysis: When we consider this parable and the ending that is given to it, we come across a kind of normativeness that might be called “negative”. It is telling us something we shouldn’t do. It is discouraging a particular kind of activity–holding the debts of others against them and requiring payment in an ungracious, impatient manner. We shouldn’t treat others in the way the unmerciful servant does. But implicit in this negative is the positive side: we should treat others the way that the king initially treats the unmerciful servant.

This is also an example of explicitly-stated meaning. The narrative is interpreted by the storyteller, and thus the meaning is brought out a bit more clearly than it would have otherwise been. Hence we have an example of “explicit” normativity.

The above examples have been an attempt to begin a particularist approach to the normativeness of stories in the Bible. The analysis seems, to me at least, to intuitively follow from the data of the narratives considered above. Four kinds of normativity have been identified: positive, qualified, negative, and explicit. Next time, I will consider additional examples to illustrate the particularist approach further, isolating other kinds of normativity.

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