Narrative criticism — What is it?Narrative criticism is a type of literary analysis that is used to identify the larger narrative picture of a text. A narrative is defined as: "a spoken or written account of connected events; a story" (Oxford Dictionary). In the term "narrative criticism," the word criticism is not being used in a derogatory way to mean "critical" or "wrong," but rather it is used in the literary sense to mean "critique" or "analysis." So, when employed with the Bible, narrative criticism is a type of literary criticism that looks at the Bible, or portions of the Bible, as one large grand narrative compiled by a series of shorter passages and stories.
There are stories in the Old Testament that point to connected themes and stories in the New Testament. For example, when we look at the story of the Israelites who were enslaved by the Egyptians and then freed by Moses, we can look at it as a picture of the salvation that was to come through Jesus in the New Testament. Just as the Israelites were captives in need of freedom from their oppressors, humanity was captive to the power of sin and needed a Savior, Jesus Christ. Through narrative criticism we can draw lines throughout Scripture connecting stories that share the common theme of people's captivity and depravity followed by God's willingness to forgive them and bring salvation. This is an example of narrative criticism as a way to recognize the big picture within Scripture.
Jesus spoke in parables, but it is evident that His parables contained a greater depth of meaning beyond being an interesting story. A parable would be an example of a "nested narrative," because it is its own individual narrative. While a parable does contain deeper meanings beyond the story, the meanings are not necessarily attached to a larger theme within the Bible. The same "nested narrative" approach can apply to some instances of dreams and visions within the Bible, as well.
One important point to make is that narrative criticism seeks to understand the big picture by understanding the individual author's deeper meanings—not by reading a preferred narrative into the text. This is one reason that it's always important to take the surrounding context into consideration when looking at a given narrative.
Also crucial to recognize is that while there are larger narratives within the Bible, the Bible is not "just a story." Narrative criticism, when properly understood, does not imply that content is fabricated so as to make a point. Certainly the Bible contains non-factual allegory, perhaps most obviously in Jesus' parables, designed to communicate a specific point. However, the Bible is concerned with factual information and should be interpreted literally.
Narrative criticism is a natural choice to use when diving into narrative portions of the Bible, portions that are recording events or telling stories; however, not all parts of the Bible are narrative, such as much of Psalms, Proverbs, and some of the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. In these situations, narrative criticism will not be able to serve as much of a beneficial purpose for deeper biblical study.
There is more than one type of criticism that can be used to study the Bible, so narrative criticism may not always be the best choice, but it can be useful in helping believers see the larger plans of God at work within His Word. In general, when studying the Bible, it is beneficial to partner with others to do so. In doing this, each individual's faith is strengthened (Colossians 3:16). People who are mature in the faith are instructed to pass along their knowledge and to disciple others (Matthew 28:19–20; 2 Timothy 2:2).
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