Thursday, May 6, 2010

Biblical Progymnasmata II - Narrative

I'm continuing my series on Biblical Progymnasmata. Our second entry is narrative, which is already well-recognized as a central genre of the Bible. We'll focus on how Biblical narrative can be used in its own right, as well as how the Progymnasmata teaches how to craft narratives from narratives.

On narratives, Aphthonius states:

"Narrative is an exposition of an action that has happened or as though it had happened. Narrative differs from narration as a piece of poetry differs from a poem. The Iliad as a whole is a poem, the making of the arms of Achilles a poetry.

Some narrative is dramatic, some historical, some political. Imagined narrative is dramatic; narrative giving an account of early events is historical; what orators use in their contests is political. There are six attributes of narrative: the person who acted, the thing done, the time at which, the place in which, the manner how, and the cause for which it was done.

The virtues of narrative are four: clarity, brevity, persuasiveness, and hellenism [i.e. purity of Greek]."

Before getting into examples and explanations, I want to provide a bit of preface. Although narrative is the second stage of progymnasmata, it is quite difficult if a proper method of use is not followed. It is much harder to craft an original narrative, and harder still when the narrative is left without a specific purpose or aim for its being given. Thus, narrative should be done with existing narratives from Scripture, which are then manipulated according to several methods: summarization, reversals of order in retelling (Aelius Theon identifies five ways of doing this), alternating direct and indirect syntax, using various types of expression (asking questions, making inquiry, expressing doubt, making a command, expressing a wish, expressing an oath, crafting a dialogue, stating facts, omitting conjunctions, or expressing a maxim, interweaving several narratives, including refutation and proof, as an extended example, or even as a myth--all things Aelius Theon names). Thus, while it is supposedly an easier step than later stages of the progymnasmata, it is clear that a lot of time and development can be spent on narrative.

Example I: Acts 7:2-53 - Stephen's speech before the Jewish council.


Stephen's speech might be classified as an historical narrative because it recounts the past, but it is probably better labeled as a political speech because it is aimed at making an argument before the council, rather than simply relating events in a more general way. Stephen's speech is a short summary of God's salvation history leading up to the Messiah and the rejection of Him by the Jews. Beginning with Abraham, Stephen retells the history of Israel through the episodes of God's preservation through faithful prophets and kings in the face of opposition from within Israel itself. He saves the provocative statement to the end, for it is likely that his narrative would not have been controversial had he not linked the rebeliousness of the Jews toward God and His prophets to the present-day leadership of Israel. The narrative provides the student with ample material for using the various methods above for manipulating the narrative for a specific audience--just as Stephen chose to recount the sweeping narrative of the Old Testament according to his apologetic and polemical purpose before the council. It would probably be good to have several other narrative accounts of God's salvation history, which are quite numerous throughout the Old and New Testaments. Here are several others large enough for comparison and manipulation: for a more metaphorical account, Ezekiel 16 is good, albeit graphic for younger children; Psalms 105 and 106 are excellent; Isaiah 42 has a more abstract example, and Isaiah 49 has a future-oriented example.

Summary & Use:

Biblical narrative occurs on several levels. Some narratives aim to recount Israel's history with a special focus on representing God's faithfulness in the midst of an unfaithful people, or in the face of threats to God's promises. Other narratives are more specifically aimed to instruct the faithful to remember God's promises, or to condemn the reprobate for their faithlessness. Biblical narratives in general can be useful in several ways: they teach us content that can be memorized, internalized, and remembered in times where our faith is tested; they show us how the Biblical writers themselves crafted narratives for specific occasions and intentions; they allow us opportunities to adapt the narratives for specific purposes we might have in preaching a sermon, witnessing God's faithfulness to an unbeliever, or instructing each other in the promises and commandments of God. For young children, using the Psalms or speeches in Acts by Peter and Stephen can be used as foundational instruction in God's historical purposes. As they grow older, the ethical tone of promise/curse can be heightened through exercises with Ezekiel 16 or the Major and Minor Prophets.


Although it is only the second stage of the Progymnasmata, narrative exercises can be quite elaborate and varied. They are simple because adaptation of an existing story is easier than developing something intuitively or for argumentation. However, as students become more proficient in the use of various methods of adaptation, assignments should be advanced to have the student adapt their narratives for a specific aim (exhortation, apologetic, reproof, etc.). Narrative is also in the second stage because besides being an exercise that stands alone, it can also form a part of later exercises, such as refutation and confirmation. Thus the student who masters the adaptation of Biblical narratives will have a solid grounding in the flow of Biblical history and God's plan of salvation in order that specific doctrines learned during the later stages of Progymnasmata remain connected to their applications in God's Church throughout history.

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