Database vs Narrative Logic (And what it means for scripture)…


database-design-developmentFascinating article in today’s NY Times about the rise of the modern, televised drama with its long narrative arcs and complicated structures.

The Thinking Person’s Entertainment (Alissa Quart)

Here is an excerpt:

The high-octane, multilayered story lines that drive today’s best television represent one side of an opposition posed by Lev Manovich, a scholar at the City University of New York Graduate Center: narrative versus database. Database logic (that of the computer archive) tends to lack beginnings or endings, and thematic developments are not necessarily sequential. Professor Manovich has written that the database is simply a collection of individual items in which “every item has the same significance as any other.” One bit of information stands on equal footing with every other bit of information. Information is gathered, without a fixed order.

This idea of database logic grabbed me immediately as it seems to me to be the default message with which many modern Evangelicals deal with scripture. As Christian Smith has argued in his work The Bible Made Impossible, the modern Evangelical had often sought to make the Bible into a textbook (at best) or compendium of useful and important information (at worst). It is from this delta that the stream of ‘biblical’ books flows: the biblical weight loss program, the biblical business management model, the biblical sex manual, and so on and so on and so on. In fact in many of our best churches this idea has jumbled our sermons into a topical fruit basket game. This week we will discuss 3 passages with the word orange in them, and see how orange you are. I exaggerate but the thematic- topical sermon is built on the sands of database logic. Pick a modern issue, grab a topical dictionary, and you too can tell us the biblical way to stress relief.

Yet this does not seem to me, to be the way of Christ. Here again are the words of N.T. Wright:

“Jesus’ parables broke into the world of first-century Judaism, cracking open ways of understanding God’s Kingdom and creating hermenuetical space for fresh insight in which people could imagine different ways of thinking, praying, and living. In the same way, scripture itself holds out the continuing promise that God’s word will remain living, active, powerful and fruitful (e.g. Isaiah 40:8; 55:11; Hebrews 4:12). This should generate hope that through a fresh reading and teaching of scripture, our present culture  and all that goes with it  will be addressed and challenged by new God-given viewpoints, not to neuter them by squashing them into that culture’s mold.

Thus it will not do, without serious debate, to simply appeal (say) to Romans 13 to justify military action, or to Romans 1 to forbid homosexual practice, as though a simple reference settled the question. To do so would be to fail to pay attention both to the real debates that have gone on about the context and meanings of both passages.” (The Last Word, 18-19)

The pastor who pulls out a passage and uses its as the trump card of his sermon on war or homosexuality; the author will compiles a list of foods used in the bible; or the colleague who blasts you with jerry-picked passages via social media may be right that the scriptures supports their viewpoint on diets, war, or party allegiance; but they are perhaps more like the broken clock that is right twice a day. I will never forget training for a job; when my trainer looked at me and said, “you’re getting the right results more often than not; but its not for doing the job the right way.” I may have been getting the right results, but my inabilities to do so in the right manner seriously jeopardized my ability in the long run. Why? Because technique and muscle memory are so important in doing a job. Your brain. Your will. Your inventiveness. Your creativity. All these things can work in the short term. But when exhaustion, lack of sleep, or any number of distractions hit, only good technique and the muscle memory to hammer it through will save your work. This is why it’s important not just to be right about the passages we are explaining, but to learn to be right in the right way.

Here again is an exceprt from Quart:

IN the first years of the new century, television seemed to be looking to find a competitive niche for itself in a media world increasingly dominated by the database logic of the Web. “Lost,” “Heroes” and other shows of this era (and films like “Babel” and “Traffic”) offered what I call “hyperlink television” and “hyperlink cinema.” Their “sideways” and flashback-laden narratives involved constant cutting back and forth among disparate characters, reflective of an emerging culture of sensory as well as existential multitasking. TV shows, like the rest of the world, started to operate at a frenetic pace.

Those shows made sense to Web-savvy audiences alive to the fun of skipping back and forth from one thread to the next, and to random-seeming series of nonlinear sequences directed mostly by whim, taste and mood.

Smartphones have helped make our lives so multilayered and cacophonous that only super-narrative television shows like “Boardwalk Empire” can offer respite from our everyday “hyperlinked” reality. My preference for these shows over “hyperlink” shows suggests that I, along with a large segment of the American viewing public, again want to be captivated by melodrama.

In our hyper-linked world, there is a large desire for narrative, for story, for melodrama; and Scripture, like modern TV, is a narrative form. It is telling a story. A story that our world needs to hear. The problem is that many pastors and Christians like modern media executives have forgotten what it means to tell a good story.

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