Monday, February 02, 2009

Its the Narrative, stupid! Wright gets it Wrong

I am a great fan of Narrative Criticism as a tool for understanding the Scriptures. I am also rather keen on the results that the intelligent use of Rhetorical Criticism throws up. In fact, I guess you could say that Narrative Criticism and Rhetorical Criticism are the same thing for just two different sorts of genre: both work on the assumption that if you understand something about the kind of text you are reading and the rules that govern that genre, you will come closer to understanding the intention of the author and the meaning of the text.

We saw the film "Hotel for Dogs" with the kids on the weekend. Before we went into the cinema, and only with the barest idea of what the film was about, I told the kids what the story line would be. Orphaned kids save stray dogs, hide them in an old hotel, get chased by the police/city pound, catastrophe is followed by eucatastrophe (a little bit of Tolkien thrown in there) and everyone ends up living happily every after. As soon as the film started, it was clear that the orphans would be adopted by their social worker and his wife. Everything went according to script. Maddy said afterwards: "It had The Narrative." They teach primary school kids things like that here.

Anyway, it isn't only in fiction that there are arguments over narrative. History is a minefield for that. You think it is about "facts", but it is really about the way in which the facts are strung together. Thus we get the different narratives of Palestine and Israel driving the current conflict, Bishop Williamson's disagreement about the established narrative of the Shoah, etc.

Preparing for the new program of Reading Paul (see the previous blog), I was reading Tom Wright's short popular commentary on Acts "Acts for Everyone", and came across this clanger on page 74 of the second volume:
Just north of where I am writing this, and visible from not far away, is the small but famous island of Lindisfarne, commonly known as 'Holy Island'. It was the first beachhead of Christian faith in England, long before the Romans sent Augustine from Rome to the south of England to annexe the flourishing native movement on behalf of the increasingly powerful Roman see.
Well, I guess that's one narrative. Another would be that St Gregory was sending St Augustine on an Christian mission to preach the gospel.


At Monday, February 02, 2009 1:27:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

The interesting thing about these narratives, is that two or more of them can be simultaneously true. Augustine’s mission could be evangelistic, and also have the object of integrating the nascent English church more closely with Rome.

Very often, narratives are designed to oppose or correct a narrative which is in fact false. There’s a popular narrative in which Augustine is sent to commence the evangelisation of England; it’s false. (We Irish are a bit sensitive about this. And of course Tom Wright is the Bishop of Durham; he’s entitled to a certain sensitivity on this point too.) There’s also a popular narrative which presents the mission of Augustine without any reference to its Romanising aspect, and without any reference to its significance for the Celtic/Roman tension; it may not be false, but it’s certainly incomplete.

At Monday, February 02, 2009 1:36:00 pm , Anonymous matthias said...

Is this the same Bishop of Durham who made comments questioning the Deity of Christ?

At Monday, February 02, 2009 1:53:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

No, no, Matthias. Get with the times. The OLD bishop of Durham didn't believe in the Resurrection or divinity of Jesus, Virgin birth, etc. This one DOES and he has written huge numbers of fat books for scholars and skinny ones for lay folk telling you how you can PROVE it. I am generally a fan of Tom (N.T.) Wright - he just goes wobbly when Rome comes into the picture! (He recently attended as Anglican guest the Synod on the Word in Rome and by all accounts all the Bishops were very keen to meet him and get his autograph.)

You can download excellent podcasts by Tom Wright at

At Monday, February 02, 2009 2:05:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Perry, of course two narratives can be simultaneously justifiable - at the same time, as you point out, narratives are usually to make a point.

There certainly are versions of the narrative about Augustine's mission that see it as the start of Christianity in Britain. (eg. the opening line of this page from the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia: We know these to be false.

Dr Wright's point seems to be that the PURPOSE of Augustine's mission was to Romanise Christians who were already there. The more generally accepted narrative is that Gregory sent Augustine with the sole purpose of evangelisation - that he was in fact rather unaware of the work of the Irish monks and the Celtic Church. Afterall, the Celtic Church's influence had not in any way extended to the Kentish or other southern kingdoms at the time of Augustine's arrival. And of course the kind of Christianity that Augustine brought to England was Roman - he was, after all, a Roman.

As I understand it, the clash (which was inevitable) came later. You can't really read the sad results of the later clash into the Pope's or Augustine's intentions two generations earlier.

At Monday, February 02, 2009 2:44:00 pm , Anonymous matthias said...

Sorry Schutz I stand corrected. If i remember it was after Tom Wright's predecessor had made these statements that Durham Cathedral sustained some damage due toa lightning bolt striking the building on an otherwise clear sunny day??

At Monday, February 02, 2009 5:10:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

It was York Minster that sustained damage, not Durham Cathedral. Wrong diocese. And it wasn’t an “otherwise clear and sunny day”. It was as night, and it was during a major storm. Still, none of that prevented people of a certain cast of mind from seeing the weather damage to York Minster as God’s judgment on the (then) Bishop of Durham. God’s aim was a bit off, that’s all.

David, I think what you say about Augustine’s mission may be true. The Christian activity in the North of England may actually have been unknown in Rome at the time (though, to be honest, I doubt it). But, more to the point, the North of England was pretty much regarded as a separate country from Kent at the time; if Rome really had been trying to “annex” the Northumbrian church, Kent was not really the place to send the shock troops. It would be like trying to target Al Qaeda by invading Iraq.

Perhaps the point is, though, that when Augustine and his church encountered the northern Christians – which, from memory, happened fairly quickly – they were in no doubt about what they ought to do, and they put a lot of energy into doing it. It may be fair to see Augustine’s mission as a romanising one, then, even if they didn’t form the specific intention of romanising the Northumbrian church until they ran up against it. And, wearing both of his hats (or, rather, his mitre and his hat) as Bishop of Durham and as a noted evangelical Protestant theologian, we cannot be all that surprised if Tom Wright is sensitive on this point. Which, of course, highlights another point about evaluating narratives; always look at who is telling the story.

At Monday, February 02, 2009 6:32:00 pm , Blogger Past Elder said...

Bishop of Durham? The Church of England's Bishop of Durham or bishop of anything else ain't bishop of bupkis.

Narrative indeed. What you want things to have meant, IOW. Bedtime stories. You want yours to be: Once upon a time, Jesus founded a church; this church was led by the Apostles with Peter as the head; the Apostles carefully ordained successors after them, including Peter, and they in turn ordained successors after them; this church is led by the current successors, so when it finds church looking type stuff that isn't in communion with these successors with Peter's at the head, in its care for souls it will seek that communion.

Wright can't have that bedtime story, otherwise he doesn't get to be "Bishop" of Durham.

"History" is written by the winners. So far there are two here, Rome and Canterbury. So we have two "histories".

Or bedtime stories.

At Monday, February 02, 2009 9:09:00 pm , Anonymous matthias said...

Tbanks to our English friend for putting me right. You are right PE ,about Rome and canterbury being the winners as is evidenced by the outcome of the Synod of Whitby,when the Celtic Church was subsumed into the larger Western(Catholic) Church. Church historian Henry Chadwick had a bit to say about that in his book "The Story of the Church" or was it his brother Owen who wrote that?.
Northumberland being considered a different country to Kent,reminds me of the man from Norfolk who crossed over into the next county and turned around and called out ""Farewell England".

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 3:24:00 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bishop Wright is also a great proponent of "women's ordination," although he does treat opponents within his diocese with fairness and consideration.

William Tighe

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 6:22:00 am , Blogger Past Elder said...

Hell matthias, the guy from Norfolk was probably one of my ancestors and hell yes it's a different country!

Everybody knows those goofs North of the Umber are just nuts. You gotta watch out for the damn Mercians too, you know. Kent is south of Essex which is south of us.

Who's us? The right, true, and proper Kingdom of East Anglia, of course. The dude was saying good-bye! Although, he being one of the North Folk (Norfolk)and me being from South Folk (Suffolk) stock maybe we weren't related!

Yeah, they called it the United Kingdom for a reason, all right.

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 8:52:00 am , Anonymous matthias said...

hey my people were in Sussex
one lot being saxons but the others-my surnamed ancestors- came over on a tourist trip in 1066 ,and we had 'de" in front of our name for a couple of hundred years,although the farm they first lived in was known by the 'de" name up until the Napoleonic Wars.
had a distant relative who was a vicar and who painted nudes-very low Church that

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 12:47:00 pm , Blogger Past Elder said...

Sussex eh? Well let's hear it for the Heptarchy -- although I hear the narrative spinners don't like the term now.

Yeah, 1066 you're right in the line of fire for the bleeding Normans.

I like to stick to the Anglo-Saxon earthy Germanic side of English myself. If I want to go classic, skip the French and go right to Latin itself -- or the best crappy Latin there is, Spanish.

Not sure about any distinguished ancestors, let alone nude-painting vicars. Cool!

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 10:19:00 pm , Anonymous matthias said...

Ah the narrative,King Harold was not killed by a lucky shot but rather the archer was an existentialist seeking to make a statement by removing-he hoped the shackles of an imperialistic monarch in the name of archo-syndicalism .(Apologies to Monty Python's THE HOLY GRAIL)

At Wednesday, February 04, 2009 3:13:00 am , Blogger Past Elder said...

You rock, matthias! Now that's some narrative!

There were some reports a few years back that the Russian Orthodox Church had made Harold a saint.

Any word on if that's so, or why the ROC would care?

Maybe they can canonise one of our guys (East Anglia). We were fighting off the damn Vikings all the time.

At Wednesday, February 04, 2009 3:21:00 am , Blogger Past Elder said...

And btw, taking a break from pseudo-bishops in white sport coats and red clerical shirts (the real thing never dresses like that!), I saw "Hotel For Dogs" too with the boys. What's wrong with going according to narrative if it's a good narrative?

At Wednesday, February 04, 2009 10:50:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

As I explained to the kids, in the whole history of literature, there are really only seven different stories. All good ones.

At Thursday, February 05, 2009 3:17:00 am , Blogger Past Elder said...

The only thing that would have made "Hotel For Dogs" better is a Schnauzer in there, but as ours was not with us for the movie, she wasn't offended.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home