Selections from Athanasius, Festal Letter 7

For Thursday of Lent Week 1

3 But the saints, and they who truly practise virtue, “mortify their members which are upon the earth, fornication, uncleanness passions, evil concupiscence;” and, as the result of this, are pure and without spot, confiding in the promise of our Saviour, who said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” These, having become dead to the world, and renounced the merchandise of the world, gain an honourable death; for, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” They are also able, preserving the Apostolic likeness, to say, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” For that is the true life, which a man lives in Christ; for although they are dead to the world, yet they dwell as it were in heaven, minding those things which are above, as he who was a lover of such a habitation said, “While we walk on earth, our dwelling is in heaven.” Now those who thus live, and are partakers in such virtue, are alone able to give glory to God, and this it is which essentially constitutes a feast and a holiday. For the feast does not consist in pleasant intercourse at meals, nor splendour of clothing, nor days of leisure, but in the acknowledgment of God, and the offering of thanksgiving and of praise to Him. Now this belongs to the saints alone, who live in Christ; for it is written, “The dead shall not praise You, O Lord, neither all those who go down into silence; but we who live will bless the Lord, from henceforth even forever.” . . .

4 . . . But the righteous man, although he appears dying to the world, uses boldness of speech, saying, ‘I shall not die, but live, and narrate all Your marvelous deeds.’ For even God is not ashamed to be called the God of those who truly mortify their members which are upon the earth, but live in Christ; for He is the God of the living, not of the dead. And He by His living Word quickens all men, and gives Him to be food and life to the saints; as the Lord declares, “I am the bread of life.” . . .

5 For sin has her own special bread, of her death, and calling to those who are lovers of pleasure and lack understanding, she says, “Touch with delight secret bread, and sweet waters which are stolen;” for he who merely touches them knows not that that which is born from the earth perishes with her. For even when the sinner thinks to find pleasure, the end of that food is not pleasant, as the Wisdom of God says again, “Bread of deceit is pleasant to a man; but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel.” . . . And the Wisdom of God which loves mankind forbids these things, crying, ‘But depart quickly, tarry not in the place, neither fix your eye upon it; for thus you shall pass over strange waters, and depart quickly from the strange river.’ She also calls them to herself, “For wisdom has built her house, and supported it on seven pillars; she has killed her sacrifices, and mingled her wine in the goblets, and prepared her table; she has sent forth her servants, inviting to the goblet with a loud proclamation, and saying, Whoever is foolish, let him turn in to me; and to them that lack understanding she says, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mingled for you.” And what hope is there instead of these things? “Forsake folly that you may live, and seek understanding that you may abide.” For the bread of Wisdom is living fruit, as the Lord said; “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever.” For when Israel ate of the manna, which was indeed pleasant and wonderful, yet he died, and he who ate it did not in consequence live for ever, but all that multitude died in the wilderness. The Lord teaches, saying, “I am the bread of life: your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which came down from heaven, that a man should eat thereof, and not die.”

6 . . . For he who partakes of divine bread always hungers with desire; and he who thus hungers has a never-failing gift, as Wisdom promises, saying, “The Lord will not slay the righteous soul with famine.” He promises too in the Psalms, “I will abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her poor with bread.” We may also hear our Saviour saying, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Well then do the saints and those who love the life which is in Christ raise themselves to a longing after this food. And one earnestly implores, saying, “As the hart pants after the fountains of waters, so pants my soul after You, O God! My soul thirsts for the living God, when shall I come and see the face of God.” And another; “My God, my God, I seek You early; my soul thirsts for You; often does my flesh, in a dry and pathless land, and without water. So did I appear before You in holiness to see Your power and Your glory.”

7 Since these things are so, my brethren, let us mortify our members which are on the earth, and be nourished with living bread, by faith and love to God, knowing that without faith it is impossible to be partakers of such bread as this. For our Saviour, when He called all men to him, and said, “If any man thirst, let him [come] to Me and drink,” immediately spoke of the faith without which a man cannot receive such food; “He that believes in Me, as the Scripture says, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” . . .

8 . . . And not only here, my brethren, is this bread the food of the righteous, neither are the saints on earth alone nourished by such bread and such blood; but we also eat them in heaven, for the Lord is the food even of the exalted spirits, and the angels, and He is the joy of all the heavenly host. And to all He is everything, and He has pity upon all according to His loving-kindness. Already has the Lord given us angels’ food, and He promises to those who continue with Him in His trials, saying, “And I promise to you a kingdom, as My Father has promised to Me; that you shall eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” O what a banquet is this, my brethren, and how great is the harmony and gladness of those who eat at this heavenly table! For they delight themselves not with that food which is cast out, but with that which produces life everlasting. Who then shall be deemed worthy of that assembly? Who is so blessed as to be called, and accounted worthy of that divine feast? Truly, “blessed is he who shall eat bread in Your kingdom.”

9 Now he who has been counted worthy of the heavenly calling, and by this calling has been sanctified, if he grow negligent in it, although washed becomes defiled: “counting the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a profane thing, and despising the Spirit of grace,” he hears the words, “Friend, how did you come in hither, not having wedding garments?” . . . But the disciples who continued with the Redeemer shared in the happiness of the feast. And that young man who went into a far country, and there wasted his substance, living in dissipation, if he receive a desire for this divine feast, and, coming to himself, shall say, “How many hired servants of my father have bread to spare, while I perish here with hunger!” and shall next arise and come to his father, and confess to him, saying, “I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am not worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired servants Luke;”— when he shall thus confess, then he shall be counted worthy of more than he prayed for. For the father does not receive him as a hired servant, neither does he look upon him as a stranger, but he kisses him as a son, he brings him back to life as from the dead, and counts him worthy of the divine feast, and gives him his former and precious robe. So that, on this account, there is singing and gladness in the paternal home.

10 For this is the work of the Father’s loving-kindness and goodness, that not only should He make him alive from the dead, but that He should render His grace illustrious through the Spirit. Therefore, instead of corruption, He clothes him with an incorruptible garment; instead of hunger, He kills the fatted calf; instead of far journeys, [the Father] watched for his return, providing shoes for his feet; and, what is most wonderful, placed a divine signet-ring upon his hand; while by all these things He begot him afresh in the image of the glory of Christ. These are the gracious gifts of the Father, by which the Lord honours and nourishes those who abide with Him, and also those who return to Him and repent. For He promises, saying, “I am the bread of life; he that comes unto Me shall not hunger, and he that believes in Me shall never thirst.” We too shall be counted worthy of these things, if at all times we cleave to our Saviour, and if we are pure, not only in these six days of Easter, but consider the whole course of our life as a feast, and continue near and do not go far off, saying to Him, “You have the words of eternal life, and whither shall we go?” Let those of us who are far off return, confessing our iniquities, and having nothing against any man, but by the spirit mortifying the deeds of the body. For thus, having first nourished the soul here, we shall partake with angels at that heavenly and spiritual table; not knocking and being repulsed like those five foolish virgins, but entering with the Lord, like those who were wise and loved the bridegroom; and showing the dying of Jesus in our bodies, we shall receive life and the kingdom from Him. . . .

Selections from Athanasius, Festal Letter 6

For Wednesday of Lent Week 1

1 Now again, my beloved, has God brought us to the season of the feast, and through His loving-kindness we have reached the period of assembly for it. For that God who brought Israel out of Egypt, even He at this time calls us to the feast, saying by Moses, ‘Observe the month of new fruits, and keep the Passover to the Lord your God Deuteronomy 16:1:’ and by the prophet, ‘Keep your feasts, O Judah; pay to the Lord your vows Nahum 1:15.’ If then God Himself loves the feast, and calls us to it, it is not right, my brethren, that it should be delayed, or observed carelessly; but with alacrity and zeal we should come to it, so that having begun joyfully here, we may also receive an earnest of that heavenly feast. . . . Now we eat it if, understanding the reason of the feast, and acknowledging the Deliverer, we conduct ourselves in accordance with His grace. . . . He who is not so disposed, abuses the days, and does not keep the feast, but like an unthankful person finds fault with the grace, and honours the days overmuch, while he does not supplicate the Lord who in those days redeemed him. Let him by all means hear, though fancying that he keeps the feast, the Apostolic voice reproving him; “You observe days, and months, and times, and years: I fear lest I have laboured among you in vain.” . . .

4 But in our commemoration of these things, my brethren, . . . let us become fools for Him who died for us, even as Paul said; ‘For if we are foolish, it is to God; or if we are sober-minded, it is to you; since because one died for all men, therefore all were dead to Him; and He died for all, that we who live should not henceforth live to ourselves, but to Him who died for us, and rose again.’ No longer then ought we to live to ourselves, but, as servants to the Lord. And not in vain should we receive the grace, as the time is especially an acceptable one, and the day of salvation has dawned, even the death of our Redeemer. For even for our sakes the Word came down, and being incorruptible, put on a corruptible body for the salvation of all of us. Of which Paul was confident, saying, “This corruptible must put on incorruption.” The Lord too was sacrificed, that by His blood He might abolish death. . . . .

7 But to us it came: there came too the solemn day, in which we ought to call to the feast with a trumpet , and separate ourselves to the Lord with thanksgiving, considering it as our own festival. For we are bound to celebrate it, not to ourselves but to the Lord; and to rejoice, not in ourselves but in the Lord, who bore our griefs and said, “My soul is sorrowful unto death.” For the heathen, and all those who are strangers to our faith, keep feasts according to their own wills, and have no peace, since they commit evil against God. But the saints, as they live to the Lord also keep the feast to Him, saying, “I will rejoice in Your salvation,” and, “my soul shall be joyful in the Lord.” The commandment is common to them, “Rejoice, you righteous, in the Lord”— so that they also may be gathered together, to sing that common and festal Psalm, “Come, let us rejoice,” not in ourselves, but, “in the Lord.” . . .

9 . . . For He raised up the falling, healed the sick, satisfied those who were hungry, and filled the poor, and, what is more wonderful, raised us all from the dead; having abolished death, He has brought us from affliction and sighing to the rest and gladness of this feast, a joy which reaches even to heaven. For not we alone are affected by this, but because of it, even the heavens rejoice with us, and the whole church of the firstborn, written in heaven, is made glad together, as the prophet proclaims, saying, “Rejoice, you heavens, for the Lord has had mercy upon Israel. Shout, you foundations of the earth. Cry out with joy, you mountains, you high places, and all the trees which are in them, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, and Israel has been glorified.” And again; “Rejoice, and be glad, you heavens; let the hills melt into gladness, for the Lord has had mercy on His people, and comforted the oppressed of the people.”

10 The whole creation keeps a feast, my brethren, and everything that has breath praises the Lord , as the Psalmist [says], on account of the destruction of the enemies, and our salvation. And justly indeed; for if there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents, what should there not be over the abolition of sin, and the resurrection of the dead? Oh what a feast and how great the gladness in heaven! How must all its hosts joy and exult, as they rejoice and watch in our assemblies, those that are held continually, and especially those at Easter? For they look on sinners while they repent; on those who have turned away their faces, when they become converted; on those who formerly persisted in lusts and excess, but who now humble themselves by fastings and temperance; and, finally, on the enemy who lies weakened, lifeless, bound hand and foot, so that we may mock at him; “Where is your victory, O Death? Where is your sting, O Grave ?” Let us then sing unto the Lord a song of victory. . . .

12 Wherefore let us not celebrate the feast after an earthly manner, but as keeping festival in heaven with the angels. Let us glorify the Lord, by chastity, by righteousness, and other virtues. And let us rejoice, not in ourselves, but in the Lord, that we may be inheritors with the saints. Let us keep the feast then, as Moses. Let us watch like David who rose seven times, and in the middle of the night gave thanks for the righteous judgments of God. Let us be early, as he said, ‘In the morning I will stand before You, and You will look upon me: in the morning You will hear my voice.’ Let us fast like Daniel; let us pray without ceasing, as Paul commanded; all of us recognising the season of prayer, but especially those who are honourably married; so that having borne witness to these things, and thus having kept the feast, we may be able to enter into the joy of Christ in the kingdom of heaven. But as Israel, when going up to Jerusalem, was first purified in the wilderness, being trained to forget the customs of Egypt, the Word by this typifying to us the holy fast of forty days, let us first be purified and freed from defilement , so that when we depart hence, having been careful of fasting, we may be able to ascend to the upper chamber with the Lord, to sup with Him; and may be partakers of the joy which is in heaven. In no other manner is it possible to go up to Jerusalem, and to eat the Passover, except by observing the fast of forty days. . . .

Selections from Athanasius, Festal Letter 5

For Tuesday of Lent Week 1

1 We duly proceed, my brethren, from feasts to feasts, duly from prayers to prayers, we advance from fasts to fasts, and join holy-days to holy-days. Again the time has arrived which brings to us a new beginning , even the announcement of the blessed Passover, in which the Lord was sacrificed. We eat, as it were, the food of life, and constantly thirsting we delight our souls at all times, as from a fountain, in His precious blood. For we continually and ardently desire; He stands ready for those who thirst; and for those who thirst there is the word of our Saviour, which, in His loving-kindness, He uttered on the day of the feast; ‘If any man thirst, let him come to Me and drink.’ Nor was it then alone when any one drew near to Him, that He cured his thirst; but whenever any one seeks, there is free access for him to the Saviour. For the grace of the feast is not limited to one time, nor does its splendid brilliancy decline; but it is always near, enlightening the minds of those who earnestly desire it. For therein is constant virtue, for those who are illuminated in their minds, and meditate on the divine Scriptures day and night, like the man to whom a blessing is given, as it is written in the sacred Psalms; ‘Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of corrupters. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law does he meditate day and night.’ For it is not the sun, or the moon, or the host of those other stars which illumines him, but he glitters with the high effulgence of God over all. . . .

3 . . . As we have ability, let us meet the occasion. For although nature is not able, with things unworthy of the Word, to return a recompense for such benefits, yet let us render Him thanks while we persevere in piety. And how can we more abide in piety than when we acknowledge God, Who in His love to mankind has bestowed on us such benefits? (For thus we shall obediently keep the law, and observe its commandments. And, further, we shall not, as unthankful persons, be accounted transgressors of the law, or do those things which ought to be hated, for the Lord loves the thankful); when too we offer ourselves to the Lord, like the saints, when we subscribe ourselves entirely [as] living henceforth not to ourselves, but to the Lord Who died for us, as also the blessed Paul did, when he said, “I am crucified with Christ, yet I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.”

4 Now our life, my brethren, truly consists in our denying all bodily things, and continuing steadfast in those only of our Saviour. Therefore the present season requires of us, that we should not only utter such words, but should also imitate the deeds of the saints. But we imitate them, when we acknowledge Him who died, and no longer live unto ourselves, but Christ henceforth lives in us; when we render a recompense to the Lord to the utmost of our power, though when we make a return we give nothing of our own, but those things which we have before received from Him, this being especially of His grace, that He should require, as from us, His own gifts. He bears witness to this when He says, “My offerings are My own gifts.” That is, those things which you give Me are yours, as having received them from Me, but they are the gifts of God. And let us offer to the Lord every virtue, and that true holiness which is in Him, and in piety let us keep the feast to Him with those things which He has hallowed for us. . . . Let us eat the Passover of the Lord, Who, by ordaining His holy laws, guided us towards virtue, and counselled the abstinence of this feast. For the Passover is indeed abstinence from evil for exercise of virtue, and a departure from death unto life. . . . We fast meditating on death, that we may be able to live; and we watch, not as mourners, but as they that wait for the Lord, when He shall have returned from the wedding, so that we may vie with each other in the triumph, hastening to announce the sign of victory over death.

5 Would therefore, O my beloved, that as the word requires, we might here so govern ourselves at all times and entirely, and so live, as never to forget the noble acts of God, nor to depart from the practice of virtue! As also the Apostolic voice exhorts; ‘Remember Jesus Christ, that He rose from the dead 2 Timothy 2:8.’ Not that any limited season of remembrance was appointed, for at all times He should be in our thoughts. But because of the slothfulness of many, we delay from day to day. Let us then begin in these days. To this end a time of remembrance is permitted, that it may show forth to the saints the reward of their calling, and may exhort the careless while reproving them. Therefore in all the remaining days, let us persevere in virtuous conduct, repenting as is our duty, of all that we have neglected, whatever it may be. . . .

Selections from Athanasius, Festal Letter 4

For Monday of Lent Week 1

2 It is well, my beloved, to proceed from feast to feast; again festal meetings, again holy vigils arouse our minds, and compel our intellect to keep vigil unto contemplation of good things. Let us not fulfil these days like those that mourn, but, by enjoying spiritual food, let us seek to silence our fleshly lusts. For by these means we shall have strength to overcome our adversaries, like blessed Judith, when having first exercised herself in fastings and prayers, she overcame the enemies, and killed Olophernes. And blessed Esther, when destruction was about to come on all her race, and the nation of Israel was ready to perish, defeated the fury of the tyrant by no other means than by fasting and prayer to God, and changed the ruin of her people into safety. Now as those days are considered feasts for Israel, so also in old time feasts were appointed when an enemy was slain, or a conspiracy against the people broken up, and Israel delivered. Therefore blessed Moses of old time ordained the great feast of the Passover, and our celebration of it, because, namely, Pharaoh was killed, and the people were delivered from bondage. For in those times it was especially, when those who tyrannized over the people had been slain, that temporal feasts and holidays were observed in Judæa.

3. Now, however, that the devil, that tyrant against the whole world, is slain, we do not approach a temporal feast, my beloved, but an eternal and heavenly. Not in shadows do we show it forth, but we come to it in truth. For they being filled with the flesh of a dumb lamb, accomplished the feast, and having anointed their door-posts with the blood, implored aid against the destroyer. But now we, eating of the Word of the Father, and having the lintels of our hearts sealed with the blood of the New Testament, acknowledge the grace given us from the Saviour, who said, “Behold, I have given unto you to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy.” For no more does death reign; but instead of death henceforth is life, since our Lord said, “I am the life;” so that everything is filled with joy and gladness; as it is written, “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice.” For when death reigned, “sitting down by the rivers of Babylon, we wept,” and mourned, because we felt the bitterness of captivity; but now that death and the kingdom of the devil is abolished, everything is entirely filled with joy and gladness. And God is no longer known only in Judæa, but in all the earth, “their voice has gone forth, and the knowledge of Him has filled all the earth.” What follows, my beloved, is obvious; that we should approach such a feast, not with filthy raiment, but having clothed our minds with pure garments. For we need in this to put on our Lord Jesus, that we may be able to celebrate the feast with Him. Now we are clothed with Him when we love virtue, and are enemies to wickedness, when we exercise ourselves in temperance and mortify lasciviousness, when we love righteousness before iniquity, when we honour sufficiency, and have strength of mind, when we do not forget the poor, but open our doors to all men, when we assist humble-mindedness, but hate pride.

Selections from Athanasius, Festal Letter 3

For Friday after Ash Wednesday

1 Again, my beloved brethren, the day of the feast draws near to us, which, above all others, should be devoted to prayer, which the law commands to be observed, and which it would be an unholy thing for us to pass over in silence. . . . And we do not keep the festival as observers of days, knowing that the Apostle reproves those who do so, in those words which he spoke; “You observe days, and months, and times, and years.” But rather do we consider the day solemn because of the feast; so that all of us, who serve God in every place, may together in our prayers be well-pleasing to God. For the blessed Paul, announcing the nearness of gladness like this, did not announce days, but the Lord, for whose sake we keep the feast, saying, “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed;” so that we all, contemplating the eternity of the Word, may draw near to do Him service.

2 For what else is the feast, but the service of the soul? And what is that service, but prolonged prayer to God, and unceasing thanksgiving? . . .

3 . . . Now, my beloved, our will ought to keep pace with the grace of God, and not fall short; lest while our will remains idle, the grace given us should begin to depart, and the enemy finding us empty and naked, should enter [into us], as was the case with him spoken of in the Gospel, from whom the devil went out; ‘for having gone through dry places, he took seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and returning and finding the house empty, he dwelt there, and the last state of that man was worse than the first.’ For the departure from virtue gives place for the entrance of the unclean spirit. There is, moreover, the apostolic injunction, that the grace given us should not be unprofitable; for those things which he wrote particularly to his disciple, he enforces on us through him , saying, ‘Neglect not the gift that is in you. . . .

4 . . . Therefore the blessed Paul, when desirous that the grace of the Spirit given to us should not grow cold, exhorts, saying, “Quench not the Spirit.” For so shall we remain partakers of Christ , if we hold fast to the end the Spirit given at the beginning. For he said, “Quench not;” not because the Spirit is placed in the power of men, and is able to suffer anything from them; but because bad and unthankful men are such as manifestly wish to quench it, since they, like the impure, persecute the Spirit with unholy deeds. “For the holy Spirit of discipline will flee deceit, nor dwell in a body that is subject unto sin; but will remove from thoughts that are without understanding.” Now they being without understanding, and deceitful, and lovers of sin, walk still as in darkness, not having that “Light which lights every man that comes into the world.” . . .

5 But the faithful and true servants of the Lord, knowing that the Lord loves the thankful, never cease to praise Him, ever giving thanks unto the Lord. And whether the time is one of ease or of affliction, they offer up praise to God with thanksgiving, not reckoning these things of time, but worshipping the Lord, the God of times. Thus of old time, Job, who possessed fortitude above all men, thought of these things when in prosperity; and when in adversity, he patiently endured, and when he suffered, gave thanks. As also the humble David, in the very time of affliction sang praises and said, “I will bless the Lord at all times.” And the blessed Paul, in all his Epistles, so to say, ceased not to thank God. In times of ease, he failed not, and in afflictions he gloried, knowing that ‘tribulation works patience, and patience experience, and experience hope, and that hope makes not ashamed.” Let us, being followers of such men, pass no season without thanksgiving, but especially now, when the time is one of tribulation, which the heretics excite against us, will we praise the Lord, uttering the words of the saints; “All these things have come upon us, yet have we not forgotten You.” For as the Jews at that time, although suffering an assault from the tabernacles of the Edomites, and oppressed by the enemies of Jerusalem, did not give themselves up, but all the more sang praises to God; so we, my beloved brethren, though hindered from speaking the word of the Lord, will the more proclaim it, and being afflicted, we will sing Psalms , in that we are accounted worthy to be despised, and to labour anxiously for the truth. Yea, moreover, being grievously vexed, we will give thanks. For the blessed Apostle, who gave thanks at all times, urges us in the same manner to draw near to God saying, “Let your requests, with thanksgiving, be made known unto God.” And being desirous that we should always continue in this resolution, he says, “At all times give thanks; pray without ceasing.” . . . Each one of us having in his hand the staff which came out of the root of Jesse, and our feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel , let us keep the feast as Paul says, “Not with the old leaven, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth;” reverently trusting that we are reconciled through Christ, and not departing from faith in Him, nor do we defile ourselves together with heretics, and strangers to the truth, whose conversation and whose will degrade them. But rejoicing in afflictions, we break through the furnace of iron and darkness, and pass, unharmed, over that terrible Red Sea. Thus also, when we look upon the confusion of heretics, we shall, with Moses, sing that great song of praise, and say, ‘We will sing unto the Lord, for He is to be gloriously praised.” Thus, singing praises, and seeing that the sin which is in us has been cast into the sea, we pass over to the wilderness. And being first purified by the fast of forty days, by prayers, and fastings, and discipline, and good works, we shall be able to eat the holy Passover in Jerusalem.

6 . . . Let us at all times give thanks to the Lord; through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion, in the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen. . . .

Selections from Athanasius, Festal Letter 2

For Thursday after Ash Wednesday

1 Again, my brethren, is Easter come and gladness; again the Lord has brought us to this season; so that when, according to custom, we have been nourished with His words, we may duly keep the feast. Let us celebrate it then, even heavenly joy, with those saints who formerly proclaimed a like feast, and were ensamples to us of conversation[1. The English translation of the Syriac text is from 1854, revised and edited in 1891 for Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, in vol. 4 of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (1892; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995). Therefore, the English usage is sometimes archaic, as in the case of ensample (= example) and conversation (= general course of actions or habits, manner of conducting oneself in the world).] in Christ. . . .

2 Let us then, as is becoming, as at all times, yet especially in the days of the feast, be not hearers only, but doers of the commandments of our Saviour; that having imitated the behaviour of the saints, we may enter together into the joy of our Lord which is in heaven, which is not transitory, but truly abides; of which evil doers having deprived themselves, there remains to them as the fruit of their ways, sorrow and affliction, and groaning with torments. Let a man see what these become like, that they bear not the likeness of the conversation of the saints, nor of that right understanding, by which man at the beginning was rational, and in the image of God. . . .

5 Oh! My brethren, how shall we admire the loving-kindness of the Saviour? With what power, and with what a trumpet should a man cry out, exalting these His benefits! That not only should we bear His image, but should receive from Him an example and pattern of heavenly conversation; that as He has begun, we should go on, that suffering, we should not threaten, being reviled, we should not revile again, but should bless them that curse, and in everything commit ourselves to God who judges righteously. For those who are thus disposed, and fashion themselves according to the Gospel, will be partakers of Christ, and imitators of apostolic conversation, on account of which they shall be deemed worthy of that praise from him, with which he praised the Corinthians, when he said, “I praise you that in everything you are mindful of me.” . . .

7 . . . Now some have related the wonderful signs performed by our Saviour, and preached His eternal Godhead. And others have written of His being born in the flesh of the Virgin, and have proclaimed the festival of the holy passover, saying, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed” so that we, individually and collectively, and all the churches in the world may remember, as it is written, “That Christ rose from the dead, of the seed of David, according to the Gospel.” And let us not forget that which Paul delivered, declaring it to the Corinthians; I mean His resurrection, whereby “He destroyed him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” and raised us up together with Him, having loosed the bands of death, and vouchsafed a blessing instead of a curse, joy instead of grief, a feast instead of mourning, in this holy joy of Easter, which being continually in our hearts, we always rejoice, as Paul commanded; “We pray without ceasing; in everything we give thanks.” So we are not remiss in giving notice of its seasons, as we have received from the Fathers. Again we write, again keeping to the apostolic traditions, we remind each other when we come together for prayer; and keeping the feast in common, with one mouth we truly give thanks to the Lord. Thus giving thanks unto Him, and being followers of the saints, “we shall make our praise in the Lord all the day,” as the Psalmist says. So, when we rightly keep the feast, we shall be counted worthy of that joy which is in heaven. . . .

Selections from Athanasius, Festal Letter 1

For Ash Wednesday

1 Come, my beloved, the season calls us to keep the feast. Again, “the Sun of Righteousness,” causing His divine beams to rise upon us, proclaims beforehand the time of the feast, in which, obeying Him, we ought to celebrate it, lest when the time has passed by, gladness likewise may pass us by. For discerning the time is one of the duties most urgent on us, for the practice of virtue. . . .

4 . . . Listen, as in a figure, to the prophet blowing the trumpet; and further, having turned to the truth, be ready for the announcement of the trumpet, for he saith, “Blow ye the trumpet in Sion: sanctify a fast.” This is a warning trumpet, and commands with great earnestness, that when we fast, we should hallow the fast. For not all those who call upon God, hallow God, since there are some who defile Him; yet not Him—that is impossible—but their own mind concerning Him; for He is holy, and has pleasure in the saints. And therefore the blessed Paul accuses those who dishonour God; “Transgressors of the law dishonour God.” So then, to make a separation from those who pollute the fast, he saith here, “sanctify the fast.” For many, crowding to the fast, pollute themselves in the thoughts of their hearts, sometimes by doing evil against their brethren, sometimes by daring to defraud. And, to mention nothing else, there are many who exalt themselves above their neighbours, thereby causing great mischief.

5 Behold, my brethren, how much a fast can do, and in what manner the law commands us to fast. It is required that not only with the body should we fast, but with the soul. Now the soul is humbled when it does not follow wicked opinions, but feeds on becoming virtues. For virtues and vices are the food of the soul, and it can eat either of these two meats, and incline to either of the two, according to its own will. . . . And as our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, being heavenly bread, is the food of the saints, according to this; “Unless you eat My flesh, and drink My blood;” so is the devil the food of the impure, and of those who do nothing which is of the light, but work the deeds of darkness. Therefore, in order to withdraw and turn them from vices, He commands them to be nourished with the food of virtue; namely, humbleness of mind, lowliness to endure humiliations, the acknowledgment of God. For not only does such a fast as this obtain pardon for souls, but being kept holy, it prepares the saints, and raises them above the earth.

6 . . . Let no man lightly fall into unbelief; but rather let him believe and know that the contemplation of God, and the word which is from Him, suffice to nourish those who hear, and stand to them in place of all food. For the angels are no otherwise sustained than by beholding at all times the face of the Father, and of the Saviour who is in heaven. . . .

11 Let us remember the poor, and not forget kindness to strangers; above all, let us love God with all our soul, and might, and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. So may we receive those things which the eye has not seen, nor the ear heard, and which have not entered into the heart of man, which God has prepared for those that love Him, through His only Son, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ; through Whom, to the Father alone, by the Holy Ghost, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. . . .

Toward Lent: Historical Observations

After a lifetime of being typically Restorationist about the liturgical calendar, this year I am observing Lent and following the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary (you can subscribe to a useful calendar here). If you come from a background like mine, in which such practices are foreign, you may wonder what this is all about.

The earliest indications we have of practices akin to Lent and the annual celebration of Easter are found in the second-century disputes known commonly as the Paschal Controversy. Essentially, a debate ensued regarding the proper date of the annual celebration of Jesus’s passion and resurrection, as many churches celebrated on the Sunday (“Lord’s Day”) following the first full moon of spring, but some churches celebrated according to the date of the Jewish Passover, which may not fall on a Sunday.

Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Church History (Hist. eccl.) written in the early fourth century, tells the story:

1. A question of no small importance arose at that time [after the tenth year of Commodus, ca. AD 190]. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour. (Hist. eccl. 5.23.1)

Councils and conferences ensued. Letters were exchanged. The conflict grew heated. Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 5.24.9–18) continues:

9. Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate.

10. But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor.

11. Among them was Irenaeus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord’s day. He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom and after many other words he proceeds as follows:

12. For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night.

13. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode. Yet all of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith.

14. He adds to this the following account, which I may properly insert:

Among these were the presbyters before Soter, who presided over the church which you now rule. We mean Anicetus, and Pius, and Hyginus, and Telesphorus, and Xystus. They neither observed it themselves, nor did they permit those after them to do so. And yet though not observing it, they were none the less at peace with those who came to them from the parishes in which it was observed; although this observance was more opposed to those who did not observe it.

15. But none were ever cast out on account of this form; but the presbyters before you who did not observe it, sent the eucharist to those of other parishes who observed it.

16. And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.

17. But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church.

18. Thus Irenaeus, who truly was well named, became a peacemaker in this matter, exhorting and negotiating in this way in behalf of the peace of the churches. And he conferred by letter about this mooted question, not only with Victor, but also with most of the other rulers of the churches.

A historical textbook is useful for parsing what Eusebius condenses here. For example, Everett Ferguson’s discussion of the Paschal controversies in Church History, vol. 1, lists dates for the leadership of the bishops mentioned, clarifying the fact that the controversy had been ongoing for a number of decades at the time of Irenaeus’s intervention: “The earliest documentation for different customs is Irenaeus’s reference to bishop Sixtus (115–25) of Rome not making a test of fellowship over the different customs. . . . He further records a visit of Polycarp to Anicetus (155–66) in Rome in which they disagreed on the Paschal observance yet maintained peace with each other.”[1. Everett Ferguson, Church History, vol. 1, From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 140.]

A uniform practice did not emerge until the Council of Nicaea addressed the matter definitively in AD 325 (two hundred years after Sixtus!). In the mean time, the practice of writing “festal letters” developed, in which a bishop would annually announce the proper time of the festival. The earliest mention of such letters is found in Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 7.20, in his discussion of Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (d. AD 264). Apparently, the practice was especially typical of Alexandrian bishops, and some have claimed that this was due to the Alexandrians’ renowned facility with astronomical calculations.

In any case, a few interesting points arise from Eusebius’s history (I have bolded the phrases I find noteworthy in the text above).

1. Irenaeus is clear that even the Apostles observed a yearly celebration of the passion and resurrection. He, and his direct source Polycarp, are close enough in time to the Apostles that the practice is living memory.

2. There was a fast associated with the observance, broken on the day of the celebration of the resurrection. The dispute was about the length of the fast, not the practice itself. In other words, Irenaeus says that, according to Polycarp, the Apostle John and the other Apostles fasted before their annual Paschal celebration. This is a significant basis for the later development of Lent.

3. Whatever one makes of such practices or their later developments, the example of Polycarp and Anicetus communing together despite their differences is a stunning demonstration of Irenaeus’s claim that “the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith.” The diversity of practices “according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode” was not only acceptable but was unable to break their spiritual communion. The same should hold today!

In subsequent posts I will share selections from the festal letters of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria from AD 328 to 373.

On Narrative Inquiry: A Reading Review

[I wrote this reading review for a doctoral seminar on Methods for Observing and Interpreting Culture.]

What understandings of human narrativity underlie narrative inquiry in the social sciences? This is, broadly, the question with which I began this directed reading. In the following reading review, I will expand on the research context of this question and then review each of the four volumes I read.

Research Context

A theological agenda guides these readings. In particular, I have ventured into the missiological engagement with social sciences in order to broaden a conception of human narrativity already informed by research in theological and philosophical anthropology. I am developing this conception of narrativity in service of a biblical hermeneutic that takes seriously the role of the reader and, therefore, the anthropological description of the reader. While narrative theology and theological hermeneutics contribute significantly to the characterization of the reader’s narrativity, and those conversations engage routinely with philosophers who have pioneered anthropological notions of narrativity, I find myself drawn to a robustly missiological exploration of the topic for a few related reasons.

First, I am developing a specifically missional hermeneutic. This means, on the one hand, that a missional theology informs my theological hermeneutic. On the other hand, intercultural missiology stands to contribute significantly to missional hermeneutics—a contribution ironically underappreciated in the mostly US American context of the conversation. In my view, missional hermeneutics should be rooted in both the ecclesial practices of mission and the studied reflection on those practices that missiology uniquely entails.

Second, among the theological curricula, the discipline of missiology critically engages the social sciences in a way that is vital for missional hermeneutics. Biblical hermeneutics has remained at least tenuously connected to the social sciences through philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose engagement with Wilhelm Dilthey identifies hermeneutics as a social-scientific concern, as well as through linguistics and, more tangentially, through archaeology and history. Missiology’s focus on intercultural studies, however, has placed it in far more substantive dialogue with the social sciences. Biblical hermeneutics should benefit from an intercultural understanding of interpretation. More specifically, a readerly approach like mine, which finds theological anthropology to be hermeneutically essential, can gain as much from the social sciences as from its more traditional interlocutor, philosophical anthropology.

Third, the study of worldview in particular is a hermeneutical concern to which missiology has given consideration. My attention was first drawn to narrative studies through the work of Paul Hiebert, whose diachronic analysis of worldviews focuses on narratives “at the core of worldviews.”[1. Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 66.] The relationship between worldview and hermeneutics is complex, and its explanation is beyond the scope of these introductory remarks, but, in short, worldview functions as an analytic paradigm for the anthropological characterization of readers. Taking narrative as the “core” of worldview, therefore, puts the narrativity of readers at center stage and calls for specific methods of narrative analysis.

Such an assumption, however, raises significant questions. Various leading philosophers have discussed the importance of human narrativity in recent years (and narrative theology has relied on these), but how do social-scientific conceptions of narrative’s role in human life relate or compare? Undoubtedly, the “narrative turn” in both fields have similar roots, and the booming social-scientific subdiscipline of narrative research obviously assumes the importance of narrative for understanding humans. Yet, how is the function of narrative conceived and, more importantly, operationalized in the methods of narrative analysis? Is narrativity an ontological reality of human nature that narrative analysis seeks to understand, or is narrative analysis a primarily utilitarian approach, given that human minds organize experience narratively, making narratives and narration the most useful units of analysis? Is narrative merely a metaphor for the sequential, teleological configuration of human experience, or do narratives per se truly exercise power over human culture and individual people? In other words, how do social-scientific methods of narrative analysis help us understand the narrativity of readers? With these questions in mind, I turn to my reading review.

Reading Review

  1. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly, Narrative Inquiry: Experience and Story in Qualitative Research (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000). 232 pp.

Jean Clandinin and Michael Connelly write as experts in the field of teacher education. Their experience and the examples they bring to bear are centered in the research of educational environments and educators. This does not make the book uninteresting to researchers in other fields, however, and it serves well as an exemplar of narrative inquiry in qualitative research more broadly. Theirs is a somewhat unique perspective, nonetheless. I will overview their approach to narrative inquiry, highlighting its uniqueness, and then return to the book’s relevance to my particular concerns.

The authors begin, in the first three chapters, with an apology for narrative inquiry and establish a rough theoretical framework for the endeavor. In the process, they contrast the concerns and assumptions of “thinking narratively” with “technical rationalism” (36), engaging thereby in the broader debate between more and less positivistic methods in qualitative research. In sum, they reject various kinds of formalism and reductionism that override the experiences of people (participants and researchers alike) with techniques, theories, and universal models. “The answer to the question, Why narrative? is, Because experience” (50).

In chapter four, the book’s unique pivot happens. Titled “What Do Narrative Inquirers Do?,” the bulk of the chapter consists of narratives of researchers’ experiences of inquiry. Surprisingly, there was nothing concretely methodological or procedural in the chapter. The authors even admit, when they come to such matters in chapter eight, that they might have been at home in chapter four given its title, but the move was intentional. The book’s emphasis falls on the researcher’s narrative as much—and sometimes seemingly more—than the narratives ostensibly under investigation: “It is not only the participants’ stories that are retold by a narrative inquirer. In our cases, it is also the inquirers’ (Michael’s and Jean’s) stories that are open for inquiry and retelling” (60). This seems to go beyond typical construals of reflexivity, and the oddity of the proposal in the context of the authors’ discipline is, indeed, part of the story they tell: “We had a file of journal rejections that came about, in part, because reviewers and editors did not see the social significance of the work and tended to see it as only personal. They often labeled the work idiosyncratic and narcissistic” (121). In my view, their difficulty regarding disciplinary justification is largely due to a failure of epistemological explicitness. Throughout chapters five and six, it is clear that “intimate relationships” (88) and even “intimate coparticipation in the intermingling of narratives” (66) is the premise of their extreme reflexivity. In other words, theirs is a relational epistemology—a narrative relational epistemology. One passage is highly representative:

Narrative inquiry is much more than “look for and hear story.” Narrative inquiry in the field is a form of living, a way of life. Of course, there have been well-known, well-publicized narrative inquiries where researcher-driven interviews supported by tape recorders have been the method. These may be appropriate for their purpose but should not be mistaken for the whole of narrative inquiry. Most important, they should not be mistaken for what narrative inquirers do when they are in for the long haul and when they are working toward intimacy of relationship. Narrative inquiry, from this point of view, is one of trying to make sense of life as lived. To begin with, it is trying to figure out the taken-for-grantedness. And when that taken-for-grantedness begins also to be taken for granted by the researcher, then the researcher can begin to participate in and see things that worked in, for example, the hospital ward, the classroom, the organization. (78)

This reflexive, relational intimacy is critical for “thinking narratively,” which contrasts with learning set narrative inquiry methods. Clandinin and Connelly also offer insight into composing field texts, doing analysis, composing research papers, and so forth, but the key to their proposal is role of the researcher’s own narrative experience.

I return briefly to my concerns with the view of narrativity at work in social-scientific research. The authors explicitly begin with their indebtedness to Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of the “narrative unity” of life. This they welded onto their theoretical point of departure, John Dewey’s concept of the continuity of experience. “Narrative unity became for us a way to think in a more detailed and informative way about the general construct of continuity in individuals’ lives. Continuity became for us a narrative construction that opened up a floodgate of ideas and possibilities” (3). In other words, narrative is a philosophical notion that does helpful conceptual work. Yet, Clandinin and Connelly also review a handful of diverse social scientists’ uses of narrative and devise an important distinction between two types. Some have a “sense of a methodologist’s opportunism. They seem to say that life and narrative are linked because the link seems to work” (18). For these, narrative is essentially a useful, borrowed metaphor. Others “argue naturalistically along the line that ‘this is the way the world is, and therefore this is how it should be thought about.’ . . . Experience happens narratively” (19). Clandinin and Connelly agree with the second type, concluding that “narrative is both the phenomenon and the method of the social sciences” (18). Thus, while they learned the concept of narrative from MacIntyre, mere opportunism does not motivate their narrative inquiry. Rather, it is a realization that “experience happens narratively” that sets the agenda for the production of social-scientific knowledge.

Catherine Kohler Riessman, Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences (Los Angeles: Sage, 2008). 264 pp.

Catherine Kohler Riessman’s volume is a delightfully clear and concise yet substantive treatment of—just as the title indicates—narrative methods for the human sciences. The first chapter is a very useful introduction to narrative studies in the social sciences, including definitional discussion of narrative and narrative analysis as well as a short historical overview of the “narrative turn.” I will return to the implications of chapter one for my questions after a short review of the rest of the book.

Following the introduction, the subsequent organization of the book is eminently reasonable. The second chapter reflects “consciously and critically about how we as interpreters constitute the narrative texts that we then analyze” (22), first considering “narrative interviewing” and then focusing at length on the interpretive nature of transcription. The next three chapters deal with one methodological locus each: thematic analysis or the “what” of narratives, structural analysis or the “how” of narration, and dialogic/performance analysis or the “who” of narration. Chapter six deals with “visual analysis,” taking visual artifacts as narrative “texts” and, consequently, pushing the boundaries of the author’s definition of narrative. A final chapter treats epistemological and ethical issues in a cursory fashion, though I find the simplicity and forthrightness of Riessman’s advice refreshing: be ethical toward participants, be transparent with methods and epistemology, be persuasive toward readers, and let peers judge the usefulness and trustworthiness of findings in the long term. Each of the four chapters on methods of analysis works through multiple examples and ends with an exceedingly useful comparative summary table. Altogether, these chapters amount to various forms of “close reading” (11–12) that will seem familiar to students of textual hermeneutics.

Still, these more textually oriented approaches to analysis can proceed without answering the question: Why narrative? Particularly since “not everything is narrative,” it appears that Riessman’s narrative methods are simply genre-specific interpretive tools. A narrative entails “a sequenced storyline, specific characters, and the particulars of a setting” (5), and narrative methods apply to a specifically narrative text. This is still relatively inclusive: “The term narrative in the human sciences can refer to texts at several levels that overlap: stories told by research participants (which are themselves interpretive), interpretive accounts developed by an investigator based on interviews and fieldwork observation (a story about stories), and even the narrative a reader constructs after engaging with the participant’s and investigator’s narratives” (6). Nonetheless, the form of narrative is what constitutes “narrative data.” In view of such limits, one might conclude that narrative analysis has little to do with any anthropological phenomenon apart from the product of storytelling.

But why do people tell stories in the first place? Riessman calls the practice of storytelling “the narrative impulse—a universal way of knowing and communicating” (6), following Roland Barthes. And although “scholars debate whether there is such a thing as prenarrative experience” (7), still “many investigators are now turning to narrative because the stories reveal truths about human experience” (10). Again, why the epistemic privilege? The answer seems to lie in the narrative constitution of identity. Citing early narrative theorist Jerome Bruner, Riessman states: “Individuals, he argues, become the autobiographical narratives by which they tell about their lives. To be understood, these private constructions of identity must mesh with a community of life stories, or ‘deep structures’ about the nature of life itself in a particular culture” (10). This sounds very similar to the function of narrative in Hiebert’s conception of worldview. In contrast with Clandinin and Connelly, Riessman defers the question of the nature of human experience and links the narrative turn to scholarly interest in the nature of human identity. This is still a concern with “truths about human experience,” but the issue is really that the narrative configuration of human experiences functions (whether necessarily or not) in seemingly universal ways, resulting ultimately in identity formation.

Mary Jo Maynes, Jennifer L. Pierce, and Barbara Laslett, Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008). 200 pp.

Telling Stories sustains a single argument throughout the majority of its pages: “analyses of personal narratives, beyond the contributions they make to specific areas of empirical research, can also serve to reorient theories about the relationship between the individual and the social by calling attention to the social and cultural dynamics through which individuals construct themselves as social actors” (2). This focus highlights an important aspect of narrativity to which the previous two volumes gave little attention, namely, the relationship between the personal and the cultural dimensions of narrativity. Worldview is typically discussed as a cultural phenomenon rather than an individual one. “Personal narrative analysis, by contrast, builds from the individual and the personal. It gleans insight not only from subjective perceptions about social phenomena and events as revealed through participants’ stories, but more particularly through narrative forms of experiencing, recalling, and making sense of social action. Subjectivity and narrativity are at the core of the alternative epistemological presumptions associated with personal narrative analysis” (10). At the same time, “personal narrative evidence can never be taken as a transparent description of ‘experience’ or a straightforward expression of identity. . . . Personal narratives are complex forms of evidence that demand sophisticated analytic techniques that build on the recognition of their location at the intersection of the individual and the social” (41). Personal narratives, therefore, mediate neither experience nor identity apart from social context.

Chapters two through four identify three primary social mediations that narrative analysis should take into account: historical context, culturally available forms of narration, and the intersubjectivity of the research encounter. Regarding historical context, the authors’ claim is not merely that context is important but that the personal agency expressed in narratives is always historical agency. Historical context, in other words, sets limits (consciously or unconsciously) on the plot of any given personal narrative. The point regarding available forms of narration is similar. Every culture has a limited store of “plots that circulate” (76). Understanding how a personal narrative uses, ignores, or adapts available narratives is vital. Finally, attention to intersubjectivity relates directly to the previous two points. The production of personal narratives is not only limited by historical context and available forms but also by the researcher’s influence on them—for example, by representing historical context one way or another or by (even passively) eliciting one available narrative form instead of another. One way of putting this is that, through narrative inquiry, researchers access not participants’ narratively configured human experience per se but their narratively configured experience of being researched. The final chapter turns to epistemological issues regarding the validity of arguments based on narrative sources, in relation to the predominance of positivist social science.

For my purposes, the book’s main idea is the valuable take-away. Like Riessman, though even more so, the authors utilize a formal, narrow notion of personal narrative: “a retrospective first-person account of the evolution of an individual life over time and in social context” (4). Nonetheless, even though narratives rather than narrativity are at the fore, experience and identity remain in view, described primarily as “agency.” Moreover, the authors bring out an important new consideration: embodiment. “Personal narrative analysis is an effective method of demonstrating how individual agency is operative in a particular context even while located in an embodied self evolving over time and over the life course” (32). The emplotted self that narrative research investigates is an embodied self. Narrativity has to do with the agency of bodily humans, not the configuration of disembodied experience. Telling Stories, then, implies an understanding of narrativity as embodied historical agency emplotted according to cultural scripts and intersubjective influences.

James A. Holstein and Jaber F. Gubrium, eds. Varieties of Narrative Analysis (Los Angeles: Sage, 2011). 328 pp.

My final reading, Varieties of Narrative Analysis, is an edited volume that, naturally, encompasses a variety of arguments, some of which are more useful than others in relation to my research agenda. To a significant extent, the organization of Varieties of Narrative Analysis follows Riessman’s three primary modes of analysis (what, how, and who?). Accordingly, the book’s sections are titled “Analyzing Stories,” “Analyzing Storytelling,” and “Analyzing Stories in Society.” This serves the editors’ aim “to adjust the methodological balance by bringing together, under the rubric of narrative analysis, a broad range of approaches that moves beyond, but does not exclude, the content of personal stories” (4). Many of the essays contained in this volume serve well to extend the concerns already voiced in the previous three readings. From Clandinin and Connelly’s radical reflexivity, to Riessman’s multifaceted close reading, to Maynes, Pierce, and Laslett’s embodied contextuality, Varieties of Narrative Analysis offers examples of and reflections on related analytical methods.

Aside from the utterly fascinating studies sprinkled throughout the book, the essays that caught my attention in the context of my research dealt with identity formation, corroborating Riessman’s claim that the narrative turn has been motivated by interest in that phenomenon. For example, the lead essay, by psychologist Dan McAdams, refers straightaway to “what many psychologists today term narrative identity” (16). Likewise, Arthur Frank develops the concept of “holding one’s own” through storytelling, which means “seeking to sustain the value of one’s self or identity in response to whatever threatens to diminish that self or identity” (33). Michael Bamberg’s essay, “Narrative Practice and Identity Navigation,” helpfully locates narrative identity in relation to my research question:

With regard to what is special about narratives, it is commonly held that narratives serve the purpose for passing along and handing down culturally shared values, so that individuals learn to position their own values and actions in relationship to established and shared categories and, in doing so, engage in their own formation process as a person. It was this function that inspired a good deal of the narrative turn in the social sciences and humanities because it highlights the relevance of narrative in the identity formation processes of institutional and personal continuities. Functioning to position a sense of self in relation to culturally shared values and existing normative discourses, narrative discourse claims a special status in the business of identity construction. (103)

This brings me full circle to the question: why is it commonly held that narrative function in this way? As the quotation avers, across the diverse methods of narrative analysis represented in this volume, the theoretical use of narrative identity proceeds on the assumption that both shared and personal narratives do indeed function to form both personal and communal identity. But what is the basis of the assumption? I do not ask the question out of a desire for an archaeology of the concept, as though that would justify its various usages. Rather, it seems to me that highlighting the assumption clarifies the sort of contribution to the conceptualization of narrativity that the social sciences stand to make: it is ultimately a pragmatic testing of a borrowed concept. In general, the argument seems to be not that a well-founded theory of human narrativity (whether experiential or constructivist) justifies narrative inquiry but that the effectiveness of narrative inquiry in providing useful psychological, sociological, and anthropological explanations confirms an assumed theory of narrativity. The assumed theory is typically borrowed in the form of a philosophical assertion. For example, similar to Clandinin and Connelly, Donileen Loseke begins with McIntyre: “Because humans are ‘story telling animals’ (McIntyre, 1984, p. 216) and because storytelling ‘may be the way through which human beings make sense of their own lives and the lives of others’ (McAdams, 1995, p. 297, emphasis original), it is not surprising that we live in a ‘culture of story-telling’ (Weeks, 1998, p. 46)” (252). Therefore, we expect to understand a culture and the human beings it comprises through analysis of their stories. But the assumed theory appears to become implicit in much of the narrative analysis literature—perhaps because it has been sufficiently confirmed—in which cases it appears that narrative analysis is justified because it works, regardless of why it works. No doubt there are some purely utilitarian social scientists in the mix. But I suspect that narrative inquiry is more frequently playing a long epistemological game in which the effectiveness of narrative analysis is not merely a self-justification but an argument for understanding human nature as such. The reason narrative analysis provides such unique insight into human experience is human narrativity; conversely, the unique insights of narrative analysis demonstrate human narrativity. Why can we say that people live storied lives, that individuals have narrative identities, that cultures have master narratives, or that worldviews have narrative cores? In view of these readings, I suggest that narrative inquiry in the social sciences answers: because narrative analysis has consistently tested and proven the narrativity of human beings.

Theological Education and Identity Politics: On Listening Carefully

This post is just a sketch of a major issue that looms in the background of my doctoral studies. As the landscape of twenty-first century theological education is rearranged by seismic cultural forces, one of the major shakeups is precipitated by the larger conflict about identity politics in American culture.

In this context, I believe it is imperative for me to assume the posture of a careful listener. So I’ve been thinking about what that means.

Who Is Listening?

I’m a straight white guy. Confession: I don’t accept that as my identity. I do accept that those characteristics shape my experience of everything else that defines my identity.

I’m an aspiring professor. I will, God willing, be writing syllabi and assigning reading soon. I will be interacting with all sorts of students, and leading class discussions in which identity politics is inevitably at play, for good or ill.

I’m a missionary and a student of missiology and theology. I have lived as a minority in a dominant culture that was not my own. I have confronted consciously and conscientiously the issues of race, nationality, economic privilege, and cultural difference—not to mention gender dynamics in a machista culture—that haunted me in missional and ecclesial contexts. This means, first and foremost, that white normativity makes perfect conceptual sense to me. It’s the very thing I was trained to divest by becoming a humble learner and vulnerable participant in Peruvian culture. As a student of missiology, I listen with an ear attuned to postcolonialism, which is more at home among intercultural studies (the a la mode name for missiology) than anywhere in the theological academy. As a student of theology, I listen with many commitments that necessarily shape my interaction with the commitments embedded in identity politics. The latter do not control the former, but listening carefully means they do get a critical hearing.

Listening From Where?

I’m a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary. Conversations about race have been tense on campus since I arrived in Pasadena. Recently, they have reached a fevered pitch.

A couple of articles reporting the situation, including links and video:

Fuller’s official responses:

The ongoing forum in which I’ve participated (note the useful bibliography at the bottom of the page):

In this context, I’m listening in order to understand what is really at issue. It doesn’t seem straightforward to me, nor does it seem that the public articulation of the problem has progressed to anything like a meaningful dialogue. I’ve been required to read pretty broadly throughout my graduate and postgraduate education—despite the fact that my MDiv program could be taken as a paradigm for white male homogeneity—and encouraged to recognize the white, Western, male character of dominant theology. So I’m trying to understand what, on a class-by-class and an institutional level, should be happening. But I’m listening as someone who has felt chastened all along and is somewhat perplexed by the idea that my institutions have failed to challenge my white normativity or teach me about institutionalized racism or give me the tools for ideological self-critique. I suspect, therefore, that the root issue is the experiences of minorities, so that’s what I’m listening to understand.

Listening How?

I’m listening as someone who believes that listening carefully involves asking questions. Yet, in the current milieu, it feels like I’m expected to shut up and listen. It feels as though any question I might ask sincerely in search of clarification will be thrown back at me as evidence of my white normativity. I often get the sense that, because I’m a straight white guy, asking questions is a micro-agression or a power play. So I’ve been listening sort of desperately, without asking questions.

I also think listening carefully involves attending to multiple perspectives. And this is the real sticking point with identity politics. It is all knotted up with tensions between free thought and advocacy, and it is prone to reflexively dismiss or even demonize those who tend toward thought that is free from advocacy. While I think the claims of the free-thought camp are sometimes naïve and overblown (I’m thinking of Paul Griffiths at Duke last year), to say nothing of those who are outright disingenuous, I also recognize a growing tendency among the advocacy camp to shut down interlocutors who don’t fall in line, by bullying or political brute force if necessary. So I’m also giving a hearing to those who reasonably critique the excesses of identity politics. This Quillette article, “Identity Politics Does More Harm Than Good to Minorities,” is an exemplar:

Conceiving identity politics

I’ll end this patchwork of thoughts with some information for those who might be wondering just what identity politics is. The term gets bandied about a lot these days, often vaguely. The quoted definition in the Quillette article is helpful, but a broader perspective might be of more use. (The following is adapted from a group project completed for my Methods for Observing and Interpreting Culture seminar, used with the permission of my colleagues.)

Cultural studies is the broader context of identity politics.

Generally, cultural studies is what it claims to be: the study of culture. But in particular, it is the study of the dynamics of power and authority in sub-cultures and emphasizes gender, race, class, and sexuality in everyday life. Cultural studies isn’t neutral but is biased toward the margins or fringes of society. It is a “radical anti-elitist critique” (Miller 2001, 11) and is shaped by the following concerns: (1) The focus on everyday life and its practices; (2) a shift away from classical or elite cultural forms to popular or industrially produced forms (such as cinema, television, radio, popular magazines); and (3) the focus on ways in which power and authority are exercised in cultural practices.

Experience is the vital concern of cultural studies.

“Experience acts as a methodological touchstone in sounding an insistence on the significance of listening to others and attending to what is relatively distinctive in their way of knowing their immediate social world, for it is only by doing this that we can glean any sense of what is involved in their subjectivities, self-formation, life histories and participation in social and cultural identities. . . . What is crucial is how we understand the bearings which any expressive cultural form has on socially and historically specific experience and how this articulates with broader determinate structures of social life. . . . It is the subjective dimension of lived social worlds that experience occupies, and it is this which is central to the concerns of cultural studies.” (Pickering 2008, 23–24)

Identity politics is a subset of cultural studies.

“In literary and cultural theory, discussions of identity politics have focused on the link between subjective experience and social identity as the central issue that needs to be analyzed.” (Mohanty 2011)

Identity Politics entails a theoretical concern with the tensions involved in the construction of, for example, racial identities: between “subjective experiences and objective social locations” (Mohanty 2011), identification and representation, “my public identity and my lived self.” (Alcoff 2000)

The social construction of identity does not preclude its “reality.”

“Identities refer outward to objective and causally significant features of the world, . . . they are thus non-arbitrary, and . . . experience provides both an epistemic and political basis for understanding.” (Alcoff 2000)

“Social identities are often carried on the body, materially inscribed, perceived at a glance by well-disciplined perceptual practices, and thus hardly the mere epiphenomena of discourse.” (Alcoff 2000)

Sources

Alcoff, Linda Martín. “Who’s Afraid of Identity Politics?” in Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism, edited by Paula M. L. Moya and Michael Hames-García, ch. 10. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.

Miller, Toby. “What it is and what it isn’t: Introducing . . . Cultural Studies.” In A Companion to Cultural Studies, edited by Toby Miller, 1–20. Blackwell Companions to Cultural Studies 3. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.

Mohanty, Satya P. “Identity Politics.” In The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, edited by Michael Ryan. Wiley, 2011.

Pickering, Michael. “Experience and the Social World.” In Research Methods for Cultural Studies, edited by Michael Pickering, 17–31. Research Methods for the Arts and Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.