When I was in grad school, our instructor forced us to slog through all 368 pages of Hans Frei's labyrinthine, grammatically-irritating study in hermeneutics called The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. We had only a few days to read it, but a few weeks probably wouldn't have helped a whole lot. German philosophers and theologians can't write. At all. Surely there is a correlation between a language that just crams nouns together, not portmanteau style, but rather like compound words, and in such a way that there is no reasonable limit to how many nouns can be conjoined so as to form more complex or specific nouns and to a writing style that is so complex and circuitous related to the actual point that the reader is often left wondering if she took the wrong exit.
Frei's rather dense prose hid a very simple (to understand) thesis: Christians have not allowed the Biblical narrative to shape them because they have not inhabited the narrative. Instead, the narrative has been eclipsed by competing narratives, all vying for the designation of primary metanarrative. Yes, I'm going to unpack all this, and trust me, I just made Frei really simple. You're welcome.
Evangelicals are not likely to embrace Frei because his thesis does not require that the narrative be referentially true, but his thesis is the only hope for evangelicals and fundamentalists to embody a particular ethic, and that ethic is the only hope they have for witness. That right there is everything I learned in grad school distilled down to something pretty damn simple. That it is problematic only highlights Frei's thesis.
To inhabit a narrative, you have to believe that the narrative somehow has power to actually shape your life. For you non-theists, that is not magic talk. It simply means that to allow a narrative to shape your life only requires the embodiment of ideals extracted from the narrative, and by extension, the demand that hermeneutics be done with an eye toward ethical embodiment. The Bible itself presents competing narratives in the tradition of midrash, but Christians at least agree the narrative leads somewhere, such that there is a metanarrative contained within the text, somewhere, even as it is demonstrably clear, except to fundamentalists who hold to inerrancy, that the entire text cannot be the metanarrative.
The postliberal tradition offered the idea of a lens through which to view biblical hermeneutic. There are times when Jesus, Moses, Paul, and James cannot be right at the same time. In those moments, what lens do you use to decipher the text. That lens will determine your narrative arc, and ultimately, how and if the narrative shapes you. While this will, again, be problematic for fundamentalists and evangelicals, there really is no other way to read the Bible if coherence and logic actually matter and are not themselves eclipsed by an artificially literalist reading of the text. Frei did not mean that the inhabiting of the narrative would create an unreal world or necessitated the reader project literalist categories onto her experience of reality. Rather, the narrative is to shape people into a certain kind of person, specifically, those who are redeemed by God for the purpose of embodying an ethic that is contrary, not to reality, but to the principalities and powers that, for now, have power in the world, including racial, political, and religious hegemonies.
The eschatological reality of redemption is not deferred to the eschaton; rather, the redeemed live the eschatological reality of resurrection right now. The narrative informs the ethical imperatives, and, if Jesus is to be taken seriously, overcomes the fear of violence and death, because Jesus has overcome death on behalf of all with benefits that extend to all, such that an ethic that puts the believer at odds with the powers and principalities may lead to death, but death does not get the last word. This is the soteriological significance of the narrative, and while evangelicals may readily agree to the soteriological aspect, it is the political aspect shaped by the ethical imperatives that will be most troublesome.
The events in Ferguson offer a perfect panopticon of the weakness of current evangelical and fundamentalist narratives to shape ethical imperatives related to politics, not in the governmental sense, but according to a more expansive understanding of the term, to wit, that politics is the science of getting along with others in the world, and for people of moral conscience, the imperative to live redemptively. What I find to be universally true at times like this is that for many, many white, religio-political conservatives, the political narrative has eclipsed the religious narrative, and in such a way that the same group tries to read back their political narrative as non-religious, as if such a thing is even possible.
Religion, even Christianity, is political, but the politics of Jesus don't look like the politics of America's religio-political conservatives, and somehow, they have never noticed. You cannot promulgate a political narrative scrubbed of religious significance; such a thing does not exist if you are a person of faith. In the same fashion, you cannot promulgate a religious narrative that has no political implications; this thing, too, does not exist. The modern lie of conservative politics and conservative evangelicalism is that both are possible.
The narrative arc of the African American churches in the U.S. has been toward justice. Dr. King spoke eloquently of the arc of the universe bending toward justice; he would have preached similar themes and heard similar sermons many times growing up in church. The narrative was shaped by slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, ghettoization, segregation, and the manifold ways white culture reinforced their hegemony using police, legislation, terrorism, and the pulpit. The narrative arc of the white churches in the U.S. has tended toward morality, or a cynic might say, maintaining cultural control. This partially explains the inability of white evangelicals and fundamentalists to empathize with the protestors in Ferguson. Rather, they cling to whatever "news" emerges from white conservative blogs or FoxNews in hopes of discrediting a people they don't even pretend to try to understand. The narrative shapes us all, but our experience of the same place on earth can be radically different.
That the white churches have never noticed is related to the weakness of their narrative to shape ethical imperatives across a broad spectrum of human institutions, desires, and systems. Evangelical and fundamentalist narratives eclipse the biblical narrative by offering a competing narrative of culturally appropriate behavior (morality) or, quite possibly worse, a "gospel" of individual salvation. One need not disbelieve in individual salvation to agree that the atomistic approach to the Bible has resulted in the loss of a robust witness based on ethics, not on the sharing of testimonies or the "truth of the Gospel."
Somehow, the American evangelical church has come to believe that Jesus was deeply, profoundly wrong in his insistence that adherence to the gospel would lead to death. Rather than treat his words literally—the irony, too, is profound—they make of them a metaphor of discipleship, as if discipleship is something other than the possibility of death as a result of embodying an ethic that will stir up the principalities and powers. The new "cross," is the willful surrender of appetites or desires, or getting up early to read the Bible, or preserving virginity until marriage, or giving ten percent, or choosing unpopular cultural positions, or... The list is almost never-ending, but the cross is never the instrument of death that Jesus endured because of his brazen disregard for the principalities and powers. Rather, it is a construct that allows me to be Christian without risking anything other than disapproval or the loss of an orgasm or two, and it will apparently never lead me to empathize with brothers and sisters of a different race whose experience of this country is radically different than my own.