Day: August 5, 2009

on telling stories and making arguments

It’s probably a fair bet that if I said ‘narrative substructure’ you’d say ‘What?’ Most of us probably wouldn’t know a narrative substructure if it bit us! But narratives are so hot right now in biblical studies circles.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the way narratives function with respect to arguments. So I’ve been asking what can narratives do for arguments? And — on the flip side — what can arguments do with narratives?

Storytelling here

By Mike Grenville, on Flickr

As far as I can tell, in order to play a structuring role in an argument a story must satisfying these four criteria:

  1. The narrative must help the argument make sense (thus the argument makes less sense if the narrative’s absent — ie. by depriving it of important presuppositions, etc).
  2. The narrative must help the argument be more satisfying (this can sound impressionistic, but is really important when it comes to how plausible or compelling the argument is — something we’ve recognised, at least since Occam expounded his famous razor, takes us beyond the merely formal features of an argument’s logic).
  3. The argument should explain (rather than simply repeat or replace) the story in terms of its sequence (reflecting the ‘chronological’ dimension of the story, which selects and arranges certain events in this order).
  4. The argument should explain the story in terms of its pattern or shape (reflecting the ‘configurational’ dimension of the story, which — with varying degrees of explicitness — relates different events to each other in some sort of meaningful way).

Hence we can see that telling a story — itself already a meaningful, meaning-making activity — need not be pitted against making an argument — to attempt to articulate the meaning of the story, even if it isn’t explicitly mentioned in the argument.

One of the most exciting things about this is the way it enables us to break out of the bind in which the Gospels (basically a collection of stories about Jesus, who himself told a stack of stories, arranged as one meaningful story) are played off against Paul (who primarily wrote letters and made arguments).