So, what is the narrative? If you do a cursory scan of the news channels and newspapers, you are bound to come up against this question at some point. Whether it’s the accusation that China is creating a narrative to facilitate its own exoneration from any form of complicity in the current health crisis, or the opposition parties at home blaming the government for surreptitiously fuelling a narrative of majoritarian hegemony, or the government blaming the opposition for creating a narrative that generates paranoia among the minorities with regards to the government, narrative has been the buzzword for quite some time now, especially in political circles and media establishments and by extension, everywhere else.
So, what is a narrative?A narrative is basically a story. Narratives can be historical or mythical and can be presented in various forms such as a “myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting…”, as pointed out by noted French literary theorist, Roland Barthes. Postmodern philosophers discovered a newfound attraction for narratives, for its randomness, fragmentation and uncertainties, which was a change from the absolutism of modernism. Theologians of the postmodern era, like Kevin Vanhoozher and Hans Boersma, were fascinated by the theological possibilities of narratives and drama (which is essentially a narrative played out on a stage) and it was a much-needed shift from the propositional way of theologising in the modern and pre-modern era. But what has that to do with us? A lot, many will argue, and rightly so.
Much of what we have as content for our faith is a narrative, a historical story and perhaps nowhere does it reflect more than in the two ordinances that all of evangelicalism accepts and follows—baptism and Lord’s Supper (also called the Communion or the Eucharist). While we do take them as ordinances (simply meaning, decrees or orders), the foundation of those ordinances are the narratives which the ordinances are connected with and essentially serve the purpose of reminding us about. Between varying theological interpretations of these ordinances along denominational lines, we often miss out on the core character of these ordinances. When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, Jesus’ own explanation for this command—Do this in remembrance of me—as we see in Luke 22:19, which is then affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:24, shows the innate character of this ordinance. The Lord’s Supper was instituted to help us renew the memory of Jesus Christ, of his sacrificial life and earthly ministry, and of his continuing ministry through the Holy Spirit in the Church (as the interconnected chapters 11, 12 and 13 of 1st Corinthians tell us), all of which is essentially a story, the story to which all of us are connected. It is a reminder of the story of salvation and of the existence of this new community called the Church which exists because of that salvation. The Passover, with which the Lord’s Supper shares significant strands, is itself in remembrance of a powerful narrative about the Almighty God who delivers His people from bondage and oppression, both physical and spiritual.
Baptism, on the other hand, is a reminder of and a person’s public witness to the sacrificial life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and his/her affirmation to live as such. The Baptism draws important theological parallels with the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea and Jordan river to enter into the Promised Land. But most importantly, it connects our life with the life of Jesus in a unique way as we follow in the footsteps of our saviour and are invited to partake in the same renewed life that he has and shares with us. Baptism is that mile marker which declares that the story of our life is going in the same direction as that of Jesus’.Why is this emphasis on narrative important? First, it tells us that we are a people with history. Irrespective of how much we dislike traditions and old-fashioned things, both Lord’s Supper and Baptism tell us that we are intricately connected to our historical roots, all of which has shaped our faith and walk to this day. It tells us that God is actively shaping the story of His people, starting all the way back at the beginning of time (from a human perspective). Second, it’s a source of comfort and peace, especially in these troubled times. I see and hear many people express their anguish over social media and personal conversations at the fact that this pandemic and the resultant lockdown has not allowed them to take part in the Lord’s Table which, for many, happened on the first week of the month. Many wonder if, and how, we will partake in the communitarian elements of faith like these in the post-pandemic era. While sharing of and partaking in these elements is a crucial aspect of our faith and Christian life, and we must do so whenever possible, we also need to remember that these are given to us to remember—to remember who God the Father is, what He has done through Jesus Christ His Son, and what He continues to do through the Holy Spirit in the church. And as long as we remember and live in accordance to that remembrance, we are essentially following the ordinances of Jesus Christ, our Lord and saviour.