Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fee>>What Biblical Narrative is Not


I  am pondering several things today.  The first is the German movie Das Leben der Anderen (“The Lives of Others”) which I watched last night.  I would call it one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.  It won best Foreign Picture Oscar in 2006 and was nominated for Golden Globe Best Picture of the Year in 2007. It won Best Film, Best Actor and Best Screenplay at the European Film Awards. It is (in a nutshell without a spoiler) the story of the East German Secret Police (Stasi) being assigned to spy on the most famous (and loyal) playwright in the DDR.  Part of what makes the film so powerful is what the the chief surveillance officer (played fabulously by the late Ulrich Mühe) discovers as he listens in and how his attitude toward the East German leadership, the playwright (played by German über-star Sebastian Koch) and his live-in girlfriend (played by Martina Gedeck-ranked #1 by Gala magazine as "the most important German actress of today") changes over the course of the film and changes all of their lives.

Have you seen it, and if so, what was your impression of it? (If you’re put off by having to use English subtitles, don’t watch it).

But the reason I mention that is because today I am reading in Gordon Fee’s “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth.”  Tonight I am teaching at the Genesis Training Center on Interpreting Old Testament genres.  And in reading Fee, he lists three things that Old Testament is NOT: 

He begins by saying that Old Testament narratives are NOT allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings. OK.

But his second thing that OT narratives are not says: 

imageIndividual stories are not intended to teach moral lessons. The purpose of the story is to tell what God did in the history of Israel, not to offer moral examples of moral right and wrong. Very often you will hear people say, “What we can learn from this story is that we are not to do [or say]…. Unless the author of the narrative makes a moral point from the story, on what grounds do we make it? We may rightly recognize the negative effects of parental favoritism, but that is not the reason for this narrative in Genesis. Rather, it tells us how Abraham’s family line was carried on through Jacob & not Esau; it is one more illustration of God’s not doing a “right” according to prevailing cultural norms, in not choosing the first born to carry on the family line. While the narrative illustrates the outcome of the parental rivalry, this has little to do with the reason for the narrative as such. (p. 92)

Now Fee does go on to say that OT narratives can serve as EXAMPLES of what is “taught explicitly and categorically elsewhere.”  He uses the example of David’s adultery with Bathsheba.  Unless we had explicit statements elsewhere (which we do) that adultery is wrong, we could not use the story of David & Bathsheba to teach that adultery is wrong.

I am (admittedly) struggling with that.  I get his point, and you don’t want to descend to the level of allegorizing the entire Old Testament. And it could be that Fee is talking priorities.  Don’t draw the lessons and ignore that the primary reason that story was told was to narrate the acts of God in human and Hebrew history.  But I still am uncomfortable with the categorical nature of what Fee says. I would think that even if we didn’t have the explicit statement that adultery was wrong elsewhere, we could legitimately take the consequences that came upon David (unintended pregnancy, misuse of power, murder, polygamy) to concluded that adultery is a wrong action.

It is kind of like Das Leben der Anderen.  It is a powerful story.  But if you only see it as a story, I think you miss out on so much.  What do we learn about human nature from the recurring theme of the “Sonata for a Good Man.”  What do we learn about guilt, or people being forced to do things against their will and then being held accountable for those actions?  How does secret-keeping or gathering (ala the chief surveillance officer) keep us from relationships with others.  Weisler, the Stasi officer, is the most lonely man in the film. Is that a necessary consequence of doing that type of work?  What about secrets that all of us keep?  How do they separate us?  What do we learn about personal/familial security vs.. doing what is right?  I guess I think so much is missing in the film if you are only allowed to see it as the story of the Stasi surveillance and cannot extrapolate from it principles of right and wrong? 

I know that if you haven’t seen the film, you are limited in understanding this post, but what do you think of the Fee quote?  Is it sufficient?  And if you have seen the film, what is your reaction to my questions about it.


daniel said...

Fee's comment rubs me the wrong way for a couple different reasons.

philosophically, i don't think one can know something to be right or wrong outside the context of a larger narrative.

historically, the little exposure i have had with the midrash and targums seems to indicate that rabbis throughout history have directly used individual stories to teach a moral ethic of some kind.

biblically, if the stories in the hebrew bible are categorically for the purpose of showing how God has worked through the history of Israel...what about Job? From the scholarship I've read concerning Job, its a parable critiquing the retribution theology found in Deuteronomy. I'm not sure how Job's narrative fits into the mold Fee has constructed.

If i were to restate what Fee had written I would probably write something along the lines of, "An ethic can be derived from individual stories in the Old Testament so long as there is a corollary to the Law." I think that would keep context intact and provide safeguard from making these individual stories deal with categories they were never intended to deal with.

dac said...

I love that book! It was that book as a new christian that helped me start to really understand the bible.

As for Fee's qoute, I think at it's core he is correct - Most of the bible is descriptive, not prescriptive - not that it has ever stopped Christians from ripping ideas out of context and applying them willy nilly to all sorts of areas.

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