Firstly, references to "story" are emphatically NOT the arbitrary exaltation of one type of Biblical literature over another, such as propositional or poetic genres. While attention is typically drawn to the overwhelming percentage of the Bible that is actually in narrative form, this point should be seen as supporting a larger claim about the fundamental nature of reality itself. Instead of seeing our world through the a canon of abstract universal laws, detached from any particularity, these theologians are claiming that the make-up of our rationality is itself a "storied" one. Our attempt to make sense out of data is to fit it into our understanding of our individual stories as well as our broader story of the world. Every individual sees the world as inhabited by key characters interacting in such a way as to drive forward a plot. Our understanding of the world has a beginning, it carries on according to the plot with various themes weaving in and out of it as challenges are overcome toward some desired final conclusion. Nothing, it is said, is exempt from this sort of thinking, no matter how empirically detached it may appear. Scientists carry on according to their own "grand metaphysical stories" by which they can make sense out of notions like "progress". Because the structure of our minds is story-like, our observations of the world are always "storied" observations - and in that sense there is no "way it is" apart from the way these events are interpreted by and fit into our understanding of "the story".
These claims impact biblical intepretation and theologizing because they reverse the priority of explanation in doing theology: instead of appealing to abstract "attributes of God", soteriological concepts, etc. and then using individual accounts in Scripture as illustrations of these definitions, narrative theology commends particular stories about God as our primary definitions with the propositional content being the commentary. Our doctrine of redemption isn't an abstract category in which "God's purchasing sinners by the death and resurrection of Christ" is one instance - we only know what redemption is because of Christ's death and resurrection! God isn't omnipotent with specific instances of God acting powerfully in the Bible - those instances define what we mean by omnipotent (a definition which includes powerfully conquering sin through weakness on the cross). In this way postmodernism's critique of "Enlightenment rationalism", which claims to operate without cultural factors and biased accounts of the world (like stories), happens to share presuppositionalist critiques against evidentialism and Christianity's critiques of secular science.
But isn't this idea antithetical to postmodernism? Isn't Christianity a "metanarrative"? Lyotard's famous definition of postmondernism, namely "an incredulity toward metanarratives", isn't the denial of this - that there are these larger stories in which people see the world - it is, at least according to Merold Westphal, rather the rejection of "totalizing" accounts which say that their view of the world is outside the mediation of a narrative. It is, as it has elsewhere been called, "the view from nowhere". Thus whilie many theologians continue to use the word in reference to a "worldview", making Lyotard's conception of postmodernism the utter denial of "grand stories" of the world (like Christianity), it might actually be rather the opposite; namely a denial of scientific rationalism that can open a space for Christianity as a "worldview". Christians don't take the Gospel writers to be recording what happened in a detached way - they're writing theologically, describing the events of Jesus' life as part of a larger narrative of God's work in the world. They weren't simply robotic biographers, noting details for the sake of accuracy - they were heralds of the Son of God, proclaiming His arrival, death and resurrection in order to defeat sin and death. Moreover, any attempt to get "behind" the text to reconstruct what really happened (something conservatives do through excessive harmonization and liberals do through radical biblical criticism) isn't a way of achieving "what really happened"; it's simply another ideologically motivated account which competes with the Gospels ideologically motivated account. All history-telling is revisionist. One either chooses to believe the account given by the Gospels as a product of divine inspiration, or one chooses to weave one's own equally ideological account.
So how does story relate to historicity? Isn't concieving as Christianity, and the Gospels in particular, as "story" tantamount to denying that anything actually happened in time and space? In Hans Frei's 1987 exchange with Carl F. H. Henry, the issue of historicity obviously became a central part of Henry's critique. Consider Frei's response, which I'll quote at length:
Of course I believe in the “historical reality” of Christ’s death and resurrection, if those are the categories which we employ. But they weren’t always the categories employed by the church. There was a time when the church didn’t talk about “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith.” There was a time when we didn’t talk, as many people have talked for nearly two hundred years now, about Jesus Christ being “a particular historical event.” And it may well be that even scholars won’t be using those particular terms so casually and in so self-evident a fashion for much longer. In other words, while I believe that those terms may be apt, I do not believe, as Dr. Henry apparently does, that they are as theory-free, as neutral as he seems to think they are. I do not think that the concept”fact” is theory-neutral. I do not think that the concept “probability” is theory-neutral. I do not think that we will talk theologically in those terms, perhaps, in another two generations. We didn’t talk that way 300 years ago. One talked in that day and time much more nearly about one person in two natures, undivided, but also unconfused. And that was just as adequate and just as inadequate a way of talking. If I am asked to use the language of factuality, then I would say, yes, in those terms, I have to speak of an empty tomb. In those terms I have to speak of the literal resurrection. But I think those terms are not privileged, theory-neutral, trans-cultural, an ingredient in the structure of the human mind and of reality always and everywhere for me, as I think they are for Dr. Henry.Frei was pointing out that the language of "factuality", divorced from distinctly Christian ways of talking, is to import an ideology - namely that of the Enlightenment rationalism which dominates biblical criticism - into the discussion to the neglect of the biblical text. Apologetics and criticism concerning the "historicity" of the Gospels took the authoritative focus from the Gospels and placed it upon the historians' own reconstruction, whether conservative or liberal. And that, thought Frei, was the chasm between the text and the reader which one ought not to fall into.
Again, in reading Frei I hope you can hear the faint but shrill voices of Van Til and Schaeffer crying out against the evangelical acceptance of the "brute fact" and the "theory-neutrual", "common ground" interpretations which we claim to reject in our apologetics. I also hope you can discern the difference between this boldly Christian approach and the subjective existentialism with which it's often wrongly associated (as recently as in a popular lecture series I've just heard). These, and not some other touchy-feely motives, or parroting of "Phil Donahue" (talk about a generational insult!) are what drive many "emerging Christians" to speak so passionately about the importance of "story" and how Christians fit into it.
There are, of course, some difficulties with seeing the theological task this way (as there are with the "Old Princeton" hyper-propositionalism), but I'll leave those for the comments (and the mostly ignored previous post about David Kelly Clark and narrative theology)!