The Cross Punctures Our Stories to Make Us New

Crucifixion_by_Theophanes_the_CretanNarrative as a category or component of theology has been exercising so many scholars over the last forty years looking for ways to be faithful to the form of Scripture and to resist the temptation of a strong foundationalism of the modern type. As you all know it’s a crucial ingredient in how I understand theology is to be done, but maybe it’s time to ask, how is it important? And, how important is it? Our contemporary intellectual culture,  floating free in the weightlessness of identity politics, massively utilizes the narrative concept (critical theory creeps seem especially delighted in tossing off rhetorical Molotov cocktails lamenting “Constantinian narratives” and “white hetero reinforcement narratives,” etc. as deflecting strategies to avoid discursive reflection on principles) and how they fuel our action (and reactions) in the world, but what is their actual cash value, theologically? Are they foundational or normative? How do narratives relate to paradigms and principles? That they do isn’t in question; it’s the manner in which they interrelate I want more light to be shed upon.

In his essay “Paul’s Story: Theology as Testimony,” New Testament scholar John Barclay (author of last year’s Paul and the Gift) sees narrative as the mode in which God’s saving action in Christ comes to speech. [1] As he exegetes Galatians, though, Barclay contends that narratives flow out of the gospel rather than serving as its foundation. On this reading, the coherence of our stories comes about only through the disruption of the gospel. The apocalypse of the cross is, to Barclay, a singular point in time which becomes a paradigm for reshaping all of reality and thus all of our narratives. Because Paul “does not trace linear lines through historical processes or human continuities”, [2] it’s more a matter of a “common ‘syntax’ or pattern” (p. 155) that renders the world recognizable as what it really is. I think this is especially important for Christians to take to heart in our present ideological climate that stresses the uniqueness and importance of all our individual stories: the paradigm of Christ crucified is the fund from which our stories, both individually and as the church, gain their significance. The passage into life is cruciform and brands the believer’s existence as antithetical to the story the world is telling. The implicit warning here is that if your story finds continuity and coherence within the story of the world, then you stand in the same danger as that world (κοσμος) whose only destiny is death. The divine rescue mission is effected in the death of Christ, a death which disrupts the regularity of the world’s and our stories to bring them to a previously impossible resolution. So don’t waste your time seeking some organizing principle to smooth out the splintery gradient of your life; search instead for the radical interruption of the cross of Christ.

There is an evident structural symmetry between Paul’s story (as a Jew) and the story of his ‘people’ (fellow Jews), as outlined in this letter. In both cases there is a proleptic grace: Paul was set apart from his mother’s womb (1:15), and the gospel was pre-preached to Abraham (3:8). But this acquires meaning, or takes effect, in a specific revelatory ‘event’: the revelation to Paul, in one case (1:16), and the revelation of faith in the coming of Christ, in the other (3:23). Between these poles, the observance of the Mosaic law (keeping the traditions of the ancestors) was something of an interlude, which was not meaningless within a wider perspective but also not the bearer of grace. In each case, the decisive event is the revelation of Jesus Christ, by which the whole story is recast and the past reevaluated: just as Paul now recognizes his previous life as opposition to God, so Paul sees Israel’s past as slavery to the law and enclosure within sin (3:22-25). Now Israel is to recognize that her foundational charter, the covenant promises to Abraham, concerned the single seed, Christ (3:16), just as Paul now saw that his highest ambition, to live to God, was possible only through crucifixion with Christ (2:19). Thus the Christ event is the organizing centre of both stories, which are reconstituted around it. Neither the Israel of God (6:16) nor Paul can be the same again, for to put on Christ is so to refashion identity that to be a Jew (or a gentile) is no longer of constitutive significance (2:15-16; 3:28). In this way, Paul’s story is a microcosm of the story of his people: precisely because he was the paradigm Jew in observing the law (1:13-14), he is the paradigm of Jews who are reconstituted in Christ.

There is also a striking, though subtle, homology between Paul’s story and the narrative of the Galatian churches in 4:12-19. When Paul preached the gospel to them in weakness (4:13), they welcomed him, he says, ‘as Christ Jesus’ (4:14 NRSV). We would be tempted to dismiss this as hyperbole had Paul not talked earlier of Christ living in him (2:20). The enfeebled Paul was, for them, a representative, even a personification, of the crucified Christ whom he placarded (3:1). Here, then, was their ‘revelation of Jesus Christ’ (cf. 1:16). And the effect of this revelation was quite as dramatic. In this encounter with Christ in Paul, they did not despise or spit on this ‘trial’, as normal cultural conventions would dictate (4:14). Rather, their honour system was as revolutionized as their religious commitments (4:8-9); they were severed from the values embraced by their compatriots quite as radically as was Paul. They were, we might say, crucified with Christ in order to live to God, and their extreme generosity (they would have given their very eyes, 4:15) was a sign of their reconstruction by the one who loved and gave himself. This was their (paradoxical) ‘blessing’ (4:15): to be dishonoured in the world but refashioned by Christ. Their present change of policy suggests that they are rebuilding what they once destroyed (cf. 2:18), and Paul must therefore groan in longing that ‘Christ be formed’ in them (4:19; cf. 2:19). The truth they must encounter again (4:16) is the truth of the gospel that will transform them, as it transformed Paul, into the shape of Christ. The appeal that they become like Paul (4:12) is precisely to that end.

Thus both Paul’s story and the story of his churches are moulded by the event of Christ, and only so long as they are so moulded do they have significance before God. ‘Churches of Galatia’ they might be, but being the church will be of no value unless Christ crucified be formed within them. Paul’s brutal insistence on this point is emphasized one last time in 6:11-17, where his paradigmatic ‘I’ forces the Galatians to consider a stark alternative: one can boast in the flesh, or one can boast in the cross. The former will proceed as if the history of the world is unchanged and will secure one’s place within it; the latter will fracture every story, both the story of ‘me’ and the story of ‘the world in relation to me’. Without this caesura, the story of the new creation cannot be told at all; and the significance of any story will be measured by how much it turns precisely here.

Through its interconnections with other stories, Paul’s story of himself in Galatians reveals much about ‘Paul and narrative’ in general. In the first place, it has become clear that his own story is of significance only insofar as it is really the story of grace or the story of the gospel- that is, only insofar as it is moulded by the story of the crucified Christ. Neither Paul, nor Israel, nor the church have any stories of significance before God except those that are fractured by the cross of Christ. Inevitably, then, these will be stories where the common rules of agency, causation, continuity, and development will be broken, and not just in the occurrence of ‘freak’ events but in the framework and sense making of the story itself.

Second, because the connection and coherence between these stories is Christ crucified, they do not cohere by the normal criterion that the smaller plot fits within the larger, on a timescale congruent with human historiography. Although the crucifixion of Christ was indeed an event in history, it punctures other times and other stories not just as a past event recalled but as a present event that, in an important sense, happens anew for its hearers (Paul and the Galatian Christians) in ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’. In the preaching of the gospel, time becomes, as it were, concertinaed, and the past becomes existentially present. Without this constant present time, of gift and demand, the church becomes merely the bearer of a new tradition, playing out her part in a narrative whose turning point is long in the past. But for Paul the decisive event is always also now: Will Christ be formed in you (4:19)? 
(John M.G. Barclay, “Paul’s Story: Theology as Testimony,” in Bruce W. Longenecker, ed., Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002], pp. 144-146)

[1] Paul’s and our stories “embody ‘the truth of the gospel’. The grace of God is not, for Paul, and idea, or even primarily an attribute of God, but the action of God in history. God’s grace is always, and inevitably, ‘storied’, working in history (though often concealed within it) to bring life out of death, power out of weakness, salvation out of sin. Thus Paul’s stories convey the gospel inasmuch as they carry the pattern of grace, of justification of the ungodly, and of God’s critical judgment on human pretensions. Paul does not tell his stories and then transmit their meaning: the meaning is embodied in the shape of the stories themselves” (p. 154).

[2] “[I]ndeed, the justification of the ungodly is more likely to proceed through paradox, surprise, and the breaking of human connections. Just as Paul sees no humanly visible line of continuity through his own life, but rather an interruption, when the ‘I’ is overwhelmed by the agency of God (or Christ), he finds no line linking Abraham to the present except that of the faithfulness of GodPaul’s stories are neither plotted on a common time line, nor linked by some other ‘organic’ principle: they are connected only by the common thread of the grace of God, which weaves its own independent patterns in history“(p. 155).


2 thoughts on “The Cross Punctures Our Stories to Make Us New

  1. Pingback: Damascus Road Explodes Our Political Zeal | Glimpses Elsewhere

  2. Pingback: The Divine Act Beyond the Scope of Human Storytelling | Glimpses Elsewhere

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