Wednesday, 26 May 2010

How to narrate a story

In his super-excellent book Telling God's Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology, Gerard Loughlin talks about the theorist Gérard Genette, a French (did the name give it away?) literary theorist, who wrote about how stories work.

Let's just pause for a moment to enjoy the fact that Gérard is mediated for us through Gerard. And then through me, which I suppose is a disappointment. I'd write only about theologians called Marika, if only there were, like, any at all. There's a Swedish bodybuilder called Marika, but even I find it hard to get theology from bodybuilding. Let me know if you know how I can do it. By the way, Denys Turner once told me (well, not just me, it's not like we're friends or anything, but I took one of his classes once) that he aspired to write a book about the way that Denys the Carthusian drew on the works of Dionysius the Areopagite and - get this - that he would call it Denys on Denys on Denys. I await its publication still.

Sorry, where were we? Ah yes, Genette. So, he thinks that there are five key elements to turning your basic story into a narrative: order, duration, frequency, mood and voice. But what's this? you say. What's the difference between a story and a narrative? Good question, kiddo. For Genette, it's basically a difference between the time of the story that's being told, and the time of the story's telling: so if I told you the story of how I lost and found my favourite sock, I would be telling a story that actually took place over about five minutes and went something like this: I looked for my sock, but I could not find it; I looked down the back of the sofa and there it was!; but the story I told you might take a different amount of time to relay, say, three hours, and I might start at the end, finish at the beginning, and do all sorts of crazy things in between, and from the narrative I gave you, you would have to infer the story underlying it. Still with me?

Let's think a bit about the role of order in making narratives. Genette talks about the difference between the order of events in the story and the narrative anachrony, and says that anachrony might vary from zero, where I tell you what happened in the order that it happened, to much greater anachrony, where the gap between the two was bigger. A very anachronous narrative of my sock story would go something like this: 'I found my sock. I am weeping. My beloved sock. I hunted for it for so long, and now I have found it. I lost it, and I did not know where it was, and now I have found it. It was down the back of the sofa. But my heart was not there. That is why I weep.' Genette also points out that traditional folk narratives tend to be less anachronistic, saying what happened in the order that it happened, whereas more contemporary Western narratives are more into messing around with the order that a story is narrated in.

Up for some more technical vocab? I know you are. So, in a story, if you refer to events that happened earlier, that's called analepsis. So I might narrate thusly: 'I woke up that morning, and when I peeled myself out of the sofa, I found that my sock had been down there with me. My favourite sock. I had lost it several years earlier, when my mother came to tell me that she was dying. And now, this morning, here it was again.'

Prolepsis is when you break off from your narrative to talk about an event that will happen later on. So I might narrate: 'I got home and my lover told me that he was leaving. Incensed, I took off my socks and threw them in his face. When he had gone, I realised that one of my socks had disappeared. I would not find it again until twenty years later, when broke and desperate I rummaged down the back of my broken down sofa to find change for one last drink. I loved those socks more than I loved my man. But now he had gone.'

You can analyse prolepsis and analepsis a bit more if you feel like it, in terms of their 'reach' (is the bit of story you're narrating now years, days or hours away from the bit of the story you were telling when the pro/analepsis interrupted it?) and their 'extent' (how long did the event being narrated last?). This chopping and changing of narrative time can be more or less complicated, and if you want you can interrupt your proleptic digression with another prolepsis, or an analepsis, and so on and so on until no one has any idea what you're on about (hello, James Joyce).

It all gets even more complicated, but that will do for today. Why does this matter for theology? Well, because the Bible is a narrative, no? And if we want to argue that it's telling one big story of God relating to the world, it's worth thinking about how it does that. For example, analepsis can be 'completing' (filling in bits of the story you didn't know already), or 'repeating' (er, telling you stuff it already told you). If the Bible is one narrative, then that means that the retelling of Jesus' story in Matthew, Luke and John is repeating analepsis in the light of the first telling of the story in Mark's gospel. What does that do, narratively? What do the retellings add, or change? How does it affect us if we read them in the order they're in the Bible in?

Think on that, and we'll talk about duration, frequency, mood and voice some other time. I'm off to find my socks.

Photo credit: adwriter on Flickr.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Poetry from the ordinary

I have neglected to mention that I am guest editing the blog Verbatim for a couple of months. It's a blog of found poetry; the poetry of leaflets, instructions, overheard speech and emails. Although I've not managed (perhaps tellingly) to find any poems from theology books yet, it's a deeply theological project: finding the beautiful in the mundane, the everyday and even the ugliness of corporatespeak. You should check it out, and keep your eyes peeled for poetry in your everyday: submissions are welcome.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Ho ho ho hosanna

Why do we laugh? In Laughing Gods, Weeping Virgins: Laughter in the History of Religion, Ingvild Saelid Gilhus says that laughter is an extreme opening up of the body: we fling our arms wide with hilarity, open our mouths to guffaw. And because it's about opening up the body, it's connected with all the other things we do to open up or close off our bodies, which are often connected, in turn, to the ways we open up or close off our communities to outsiders. Laughter is about the boundaries between myself and other people; we laugh at the things that make us similar or make us different, about the rules we make to help us get along with other people, and about sex which is another sort of opening up of the body. We can use laughter to make people feel comfortable with us, or to shut them out. Gilhus argues that laughter's meaning falls into two main categories:

1) creation and birth, joy, sexuality and eroticism, food and intoxicating drinks, feasts and comedies, dancing, ecstasy, madness and wisdom.

2) destruction and death, derision and shame, ridicule and blasphemy, tragedy.

There are, she says, three main theories about why we laugh:

i) The superiority theory thinks about laughter and power: laughter as a tool to make us important, to demonstrate that we are more powerful than other people; as a form of aggression.

"What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, somebody already told her twice."
ii) The incongruity theory thinks that laughter is about the contrast between two different meanings.

"Two fish sitting in a tank. One says to the other: How d'you start this thing?"
iii) The relief theory thinks that laughter acts as a safety valve for society: we laugh about the things we usually try to keep locked up, prohibited. We laugh when somebody says the things that you can't say that!

(Lois walks in on Stewie torturing a bully)
Stewie: We're playing house...
Lois: But that kid is all tied up!
Stewie: Roman Polanski's house.
I love the idea of laughing as openness: as a form of love and hospitality. But maybe it's also a way of forcing open conversations and ways of seeing the world, of challenging the boundaries we put in place to keep us safe and stop us coming into uncomfortable proximity to other people. There's been plenty of media comment recently about comedians crossing the line from funny and edgy into offensive (Frankie Boyle, anyone?), and while sometimes I think it's about rightly objecting to cruelty, it's probably also about resistance to that forcing open of the comfortable little corners of the world that we inhabit.

Photo credit: hersley on Flickr.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Good news!

Just a quick one to let you know that I recently found out that I will have full-time PhD funding for the next three years. That's good for you, readers of mine, because it means I'll have more time to blog: turns out its quite difficult to maintain a blogging habit whilst juggling a part-time PhD, two part time jobs and around four different volunteering commitments. As of August, I shall be trying to do fewer things better, and hopefully my blog will be one beneficiary.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Jainism and ecology

The book Ecology and religion: Ecological concepts in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism is an impressive survey of ecological ideas from different religious perspectives, including, as the title suggests, some discussion of Jainism and ecology. Jainism, in case you never covered it in RE, is an Indian religion that's all about non-violence.

Shreeranjan Soorideva says that the principle of non-violence is the fundamental basis of Jaina culture, and Jaina scriptures totally forbid any kind of killing of living beings. Jaina culture divides all forms of life into four groups which are, in ascending order: 1) vegetable lives, 2) worm lives, 3) human lives and 4) liberated lives. When people do bad things, they accumulate 'karmic particles' which push them down the scale of life, and they have to work their way up by doing good deeds. Because plants are alive too, Jaina culture forbids even pruning or cutting plants. Only fruits that fall to the ground by themselves can be eaten. Tree worship is an important element of Jaina culture, and the banyam tree is considered to be especially holy.

Ashok Kumar Jain says that one of the five sins in Jainism is wanting to possess things that you don't need. He says that Sravaka and Sraviak Jains strictly obey six principles: 1) abstaining from alcohol, meat and honey; 2) not eating fruits; 3) not eating food at night; 4) praising five supreme souls; 5) compassion for all living beings; 6) drinking filtered water. As well as not being allowed to pick or damage plants, it's also forbidden to throw stones in the water or at any object, to dig land without a good reason for doing so, or to make fire (which makes me wonder whether it's rather easier being a Jain in India than in, say, the rather chillier England).

I tend to want to be funny as well as interesting when I blog, and there are lots of easy jokes you could make about such a strict set of rules for life. But I'm reluctant (or is it just that I can't think of any good jokes?). Anthony Paul Smith recently blogged about feeling frustrated that Christian environmental ethics don't really let ecology challenge theology: that Christian environmental ethicists just transpose their preexisting ethical ideas onto ecology, and never let their theology be changed or challenged by thinking about what it means to take care of the earth. People tend to have similar worries about academic books on Indian religions, arguing that academia is similarly unyielding, and just imposes Western (and usually Christian) ideas about religion onto very different cultures without ever letting those cultures challenge our categories. Seriously, what would it look like to take plants (and Jains) more seriously?

Photo credit: Jayesh Bheda