The Morality of the Story

Alasdair MacIntyre is widely credited with restoring the category of ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ to the forefront of the discussion in meta-ethics. In his influential work After Virtue (1981) he set out his argument for the bankruptcy of most modern ethical theories such as utilarianism and Rawlsian contractarianism and the necessity of recovering an Aristotelian-Thomistic virtue-ethics set within a narrative framework. Among other things, MacIntyre argues that the virtues, those moral practices and habits that characterize the just person, only make sense within a narrative framework because all human action is essentially historical in character–it is historically-enacted and historically-motivated. That is an inescapable feature of human life–whether pagan, post-Enlightenment liberal, or orthodox Christian, we live out of the stories and narratives we tell ourselves. Even the most postmodern among us, suspicious of the various master narratives told to us by modernity, are still living in the sort of story that includes moderns trying to control us through master narratives. Indeed, it is commonly suggested by philosophers and sociologists that instead of the idea of the “worldview”, a narrative-identity is a more useful conception for understanding the comprehensive perspective through which we approach moral action in the world.

Now, none of this is all that new. Why bring it up? Simply to introduce a few loosely-connected notes on the importance of narrative for Christian reflection on the moral life that ought to be kept in mind. One is cautionary, the other couple are complementary and, after thinking on them, can be classified under the rubric of Creation, Sin, and Redemption.

The Story is About Something (Creation) – First the caution. Oliver O’Donovan alerts us against the sort of historicisms which take this emphasis on narrative and history to the point of forgetting that the story is about something. These types of approaches take MacIntyre’s point and run with it to a degree that essentially denies the category of ‘nature’ or creation as a relevant one for moral reflection at all. One thinks either of Hegelian historicisms, or even the biblical theology movement with its emphasis on the history God’s mighty acts, as opposed to the pagan gods of nature. Of such schools O’Donovan writes:Resurrection and the Moral Order

We cannot object to the idea that history should be taken seriously. A Christian response to historicism will wish to make precisely the opposite point: when history is made the categorical matrix for all meaning and value, it cannot be then taken seriously as history. A story has to be a story about something; but when everything is a story there is nothing for the story to be about. -Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline For Evangelical Ethics, 2nd Ed.  pg. 60

O’Donovan points us to the reality that creation, as a whole and in human natures as created, is the necessary pre-requisite for history as the stage of moral action–it is the set-up. Unless the human being is a certain sort of thing before the action, and the world is a certain kind of place, the things that happen within it lose their meaning. Without creation as the “theater of God’s glory”, to use Calvin’s phrase, there can be no drama of redemption. In other words, protology matters for eschatological ethics. Observed from a different angle, we must not forget that part of the story that the Scripture tells begins with a good Creator God, whose first ‘mighty act’ was to sovereignly make the world, and those things in it, in a particular way, for good reasons. The defacing effects of sin aside, moral reflection needs to attend to that fact before running ahead to the second or third acts of the drama and drawing our ethics entirely from the NT. It also means we know enough to say something substantial about the moral nature of things before the final act is concluded.

You Are Not the Only, or Main, Author/Character (Sin) – Although it wasn’t likely his intention, in drawing attention to the narrative shape of our lives, MacIntyre begins to shed some light on the nature of sin. When we begin to reflect on the idea of the narrative shape of moral action, there comes the realization that, in some sense, we are not just agents but authors.  In a theological context this comes with a serious qualification, though–given the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and God’s sustaining providence we are sub-authors at best. MacIntyre reinforces the point by calling our attention to the fact that even at the merely human level my authorship is not total or complete. (After Virtue, 2nd. Ed. pg 213) I enter this life on a stage that has already been set, alongside fellow actors and authors within whose own narratives I am but a supporting star at best. Our dramas are constrained by the various storylines we multiply-inhabit. I am a sort of Mad-libber who inserts my responses at key points in the story that already has particular parameters beyond my control.

This begins to expose the narcissistic madness we engage in when we claim credit for the blessings in our lives. Most of the good that comes our way is not in any way attributable to our own wonderful moral character, at least not by comparison to others. The fact that you’re reading this blog on a computer right now has more to do with the fact that you were born into a society in which computers are easily-accessed and not in the 5th Century China, than your own stellar work ethic. The resulting story of my life is, yes, something I’m responsible for, but at the same time, not something I can claim credit for. Paul asks, “What do you have which you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7) And yet, that’s precisely what sin is: claiming credit for someone else’s work. It is our willfully blind, ungrateful denial of the Author of our existence, who determines the times and the places in which we will play our parts in his story. (Acts 17:26)

MacIntyre also begins to show us the way this false sense of authorship leads to conflict with our neighbors. At the end of the day, in our arrogance and pride we are convinced that we are both the author and the main character in the epic which everybody else plays a bit part or supporting role. Most conflict comes when you find out that the story doesn’t revolve around you, or when you clash with your neighbor because he’s trying to accomplish his own heroic ends at your expense, and not playing the bit role you’ve assigned him. What else should we expect when two sinners, who’ve rejected any acknowledgment of the true Author or story-line, begin to encounter the “constraints” imposed by the dramas of others?

Sin, in the end, is a culpable failure to participate rightly in the drama of God’s history by trying to wrest control of the story, which alienates us from both our Author and our fellow sub-authors.

The Power is in the Story (Redemption) – This one is for preachers and pastors. Nearly 60 years before MacIntyre wrote After Virtue, J. Gresham Machen was criticizing the Liberals of his day for, among other things, misunderstanding the nature of Christian moral exhortation. In denying or radically reducing the basic outlines of the gospel narrative into generalized moral principles, “a life”, they robbed it of its power to result in real moral change. New Testament historian that he was, Machen recalled the way that the old Stoic and Cynic philosophers of the apostles’ days similarly preached “a life”, through very strenuous, learned, rhetorically-appealing, and no doubt clear-eyed moral exhortation. Of course, as he pointed out, none of them ever exercised a great, culture-changing impact on society. Epictetus’ meditations on the moral life certainly command our respect, and yet, they don’t command the soul—at least not that of the masses. This is what set Christianity off from its competition:

The strange thing about Christianity was that it adopted an entirely different method. It transformed the lives of men not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event. – J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pg 42

The miracle of it all was that the simple story of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen again, had a moral force sufficient to convert and transfigure the empire in just a few centuries. Of course, it was “foolishness” to the wise of the day, and as Machen points out, it continued to be foolishness to the ‘wise’ liberal theologians of his own, and yet it was, and is in all ages, the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.

A truly Christian call to repentance is not simply a challenge to live differently or adopt some new moral principles. It is fundamentally a call to embrace the drama of redemption that God has authored in Christ as a new story to live by; a story where we are invited to participate in the reclamation and restoration of nature to its intended splendor and glory; a story where the self is dethroned, and a new authority (author) is acknowledged; a story where we have peace with God and our neighbor through the Cross. And yet, that only happens as the Holy Spirit enlightens our hearts through the preaching of the Gospel.

This is why pastors concerned with discipleship, sanctification, and the real moral transformation of their congregations cannot let their preaching degenerate into mere moral exhortation.  No matter how loud we yell it, or socially-hip we make it, or how sexed up we sell it, it inevitably will still fail to result in the changed lives which bring glory to the Father. At the end of the day, the real power is in the story of Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, where he wrangles college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog, and is a staff writer at Christ and Pop Culture. You can also follow him on Twitter.

 

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  • Robert F

    Although I think it is true that all narratives must have an eschatological dimension to have meaning, I do not think that this means they can all be comprehensively translated into other words or different kinds of words, say propositions or allegory. To a significant extent, the narrative of the New Testament, though it includes allegory and proposition, goes beyond them by pointing to an eschatological event found only in Jesus Christ as he is known, and gives himself, in faith, past, present and future. This event is not reducible to words of any kind. True art, say the stories of Flannery O’Connor, are not ultimately able to be translated into other words, but find their eschatological dimension by participating, to a limited degree, in the very eschatological realization they point toward. This means that they are not merely a stage for the drama of God’s salvation to be played out on; they participate in the eschatological event to which they point, just as creation itself does. To put it crudely, both O’Connor’s stories and creation have value in themselves, as long as we remember that when we say this we are not imagining them existing apart from God and his will and purposes. There is a dimension of playfulness in them that, though dimmed by original sin and the fall, has not been entirely extinguished; in fact, this element of play God has made inextinguishable, and it reflects his own nature: he is a God who creates in play, for the sheer pleasure of creating, apart from any other reason or purpose, So when we assess the morality of any work of art or entertainment, we must take into account both whether it is a true reflection of the fallen world as it is, and so can find its place in the drama of redemption and have an edifying effect, and whether it wholesomely points to and participates in the playful nature of God as creator, or whether it mars that reflection and participation by presenting as play what is merely destructive and negating.

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