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Volume 14, Issue 2: Incarnatus

Knowing is Story

Douglas Jones

Graduate philosophy seminars are often library quiet, with whispered disagreements over domesticated ideas. I remember one where a mild conflict between two skinny British students turned oddly loud. The prof encouraged the discussion, and pretty soon one of them was standing and shouting from the chalkboard, drawing. The other then joined him, yelling at the top of his voice, scribbling contrary diagrams with thick lines. They were in each other's faces, all red, all over a thin Saul Kripke implication. Finally the prof's laughter filled the room. "This is too great!" he said. "If only we could get a picture of this in the philosophy prospectus—a real philosophy fist fight!"

That event stands out over everything else in the class because it was a dramatic little narrative, a story. I only wish more of that class had been in narrative form. Outside of most classrooms and sermons, we almost always talk in story. Just listen around. We tell stories to explain, bond, defend, entertain, and sin.
Whether they are simple and mundane narratives about what happened to us at the gas station or multi-layered epic novels, stories are characterized by particular details and events embedded in time. Where more logical, mathematical modes most often seek to rise above such time and detail, stories relish in them. Jerome Bruner contends that "a good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. They differ radically in their procedures for verification."1 The story mode "strives to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience, and to locate the experience in time and place," whereas the logical/scientific mode "seeks to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction, and in the end disclaims in principle any explanatory value at all where the particular is concerned."2 A Christian-take on knowing doesn't disdain everything general or abstract, but we would seek to find such kinds and patterns grounded in the created order itself. This appreciation for time and particulars, instead of the desire to escape them, lies at the heart of narrative thinking (and poetic knowledge in general). That's why our modern drive to count as knowledge only those things that can be put into timeless lists of truths, like so many Presbyterian sermons, is so odd. It's so unlike human life. God has set us amid constant rhythms of time—weather, celestial, bodily, social, and more. We live in constant time, designed time. This sort of talk frightens us in our day because so many radical nominalists in postmodern garb invoke time to try to undo objective reality. But in a biblical perspective, time is not some impersonal, autonomous box dictating its own course. Time is the pace of change, and the Holy Spirit is He who shapes change throughout the created order. He is not time, but change is sculpted by His hand. And you can't get any more objective, true, and beautiful than the Triune God. We needn't fear time.
Stories live and move and have their being in time. Just like our experience, a narrative connects events, particulars, and points in a causal sequence, one thing produces another in a story; events grow organically. A logical list has no sense of time and growth; it seeks to move by timeless connections—so unnatural to our basic mode of life. That's part of the answer as to why we can remember narratives so much better than discrete logical points in a lecture.
Though we didn't need artificial-intelligence theorists to point out what is so clearly assumed in Scripture, it is interesting to hear the likes of Roger Schank explain that "humans are not really set up to understand logic."3 After decades of picturing human and computer intelligence as logical problem solving, Schank now urges us to see knowing and intelligence as characterized by stories. He uses the notion of scripts to explain part of how knowing uses stories: "A script is a set of expectations about what will happen next in a well-understood situation. . . . They serve to tell us how to act without our being aware that we are using them . . . You don't have to figure out every time you enter a restaurant how to convince someone to feed you. All you really have to know is the restaurant script and your part in that script."4 New experiences of the same type get bundled together, and the script adjusts over time as we mature and learn new angles. Though we each have thousands of personal scripts from the mundane to the odd, they needn't be exactly the same; just similar enough for an overlap of understanding. In the end, Schank suggests that "knowledge is experiences and stories, and intelligence is the apt use of experience and the creation and telling of stories."5
Scripture itself assumes that stories are central to our daily epistemology. As Eugene Peterson notes, "Story is the primary way in which the revelation of God is given to us. The Holy Spirit's literary genre of choice is story. Story isn't a simple or naive form of speech from which we graduate to the more sophisticated `higher' languages of philosophy and mathematics. . . . The biblical story comprises other literary forms—sermons and genealogies, prayers and letters, poems and proverbs—but story carries them all."6
Earlier installments in this poetic-knowledge primer pointed to the centrality of image and imagination within knowledge. In one sense, a story is an image stretched and projected through time.
This, too, is reflected in the Incarnation. Christ, the Image came in time, and His image isn't static; it extends through history and church by the Holy Spirit.

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