The Pause and Storyline

I have been reading quite a lot lately about how the Bible is a story or narrative and not a book of propositions.   I have not found this a convincing reading of the situation.  It is, to put the matter bluntly, a false dilemma.  The Bible is both propositional and a story.  It is both factual and dramatic.  Let’s try a thought experiment.  Let’s ask ourselves two questions.  What is a proposition?  What is a narrative or story?  Here I’ll attempt to offer a non-scientific answer.

A proposition is a statement that refers to or points to a state of affairs beyond itself.  As such, propositions can be either true or false and can be formulated in different languages and in the same language in different ways.  The proposition “It is raining” in English can be expressed as “Es Regnet” in German.  It is the same proposition in different languages.  This proposition can also be expressed differently in English as “Drops of water are falling from the clouds.”  So a proposition takes note of a state of affairs (the way things are in God’s world).

A narrative or story is an account of an unfolding series of events.  The Bible undoubtedly contains narratives, like Genesis and Joshua in the Old Testament and the gospels and Acts in the New Testament.  And the Bible can also be said to be a grand (dare I say “meta”) narrative of the unfolding of God’s redemptive words and acts (and words) in history.  What in this definition pits narrative against propositions?

I would argue that a narrative or story is a series or chain of propositions tied together to form a cohesive whole (well, at least a well told or well written story!).  Of course a storyline will also contain commands, promises, and exclamations, and requests.  However, it needs to be noted that even these can be expressed as propositions.   Additionally, although arguably, poetry can also be expressed in the form of propositions (of course, I admit that when this is done the aesthetic or dramatic element can be lost).  My point is that narrative or story, as such, does not stand in opposition to propositions.

The technical language used to get at what I am talking about here are the terms “diachronic” and “synchronic.”  That is, diachronic means “through time” and synchronic means “with” or “in time.”  The diachronic is the story and synchronic is the single proposition.  Narrative or story is a series of propositions.  Perhaps an imperfect illustration would help at this point.  It may be that the distinction I am groping after is summed up in the difference between a single frame of a movie and the movie as a whole.  I know I am drawing upon experience many of you have never had with the advent of video and DVDs.  In the old days of film, the moving picture was actually a series of still shots placed one after another and when run through a projector appeared as a seamless whole (unless you had the misfortune of watching a broken film).  Actually, the analogy still holds for video and digital technology.  The difference between a proposition and a story is the difference between the DVD paused (synchrony or proposition) and the DVD playing (diachrony or narrative).

So propositions ought not to be pitted against narrative.  It is a false dilemma.  About the only reason I can think of for pitting these two against each other is a matter of referentiality.  That is, narrative is set off against propositions because someone denies that the story actually refers to something outside itself.  However, even fictional stories refer to what could be the case in the real world.  A story completely detached from God’s real world would make no sense to anyone at all whatsoever.

So let’s not pit propositions and stories against one another.  The narrative is the storyline and the proposition is the pause.  Every once in awhile it is good to stop and pause and meditate on the progress made in the storyline.  This is especially good as we read the grand narrative of God’s redemption of his people.  One could even say meditation on propositions within the story of salvation is the “pause that refreshes!”

1 Response

  1. I think this whole debate is a smoke-screen on the part of liberals who want to “explain away” problematic passages for them. In poetry AND narratives, even completely factual reporting can be exaggerated as widely as the culture allows (for example, Judges 4 vs Judges 5). Rather than do historical-critical studies, they jump on this chance to dismiss whatever wrinkle is deemed “unbelievable” in their own minds.

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