Ricoeur’s Theory of Narrative as a Theory of Popular Cultural Religion

Ricoeur’s Theory of Narrative as a

Theory of Popular Cultural Religion

Although Ricoeur developed his theory of narrative with literary novels in mind, I would argue that it can also be read as a theory of religion, and as a theory of popular culture. Moreover, it can illuminate the connection between the two, the ways popular culture can function as religion.13   We shall see that popular culture functions as religion in the way it represents reality, similar to the way a narrative represents reality. We shall explore parallels between popular culture, religion, and narrative as I lay out a précis of Ricoeur’s theory of narrative as a threefold mimesis, using a group of women who read romance novels as an illustration throughout.  Later, I will apply this perspective on another example, a 1980s London dance club. Finally, I will offer some conclusions and some possible directions for a deeper engagement between Christians and popular culture.

Mimesis and Emplotment

Ricoeur’s theory begins as a theory of representation, that is, how we interpret reality and re-display it to ourselves. As such, this theory has applicability to all sorts of cultural products and actions: art, religion, popular culture—wherever humans try to show themselves what life is like. Ricoeur calls this process “mimesis,” imitation.

In considering different theories of mimesis, Ricoeur rejects the Platonic, “specular” model, where representation is judged according to how realistically it mirrors reality.14  The specular model leaves no room for human interpretation, for art.  In other words, the humanness of the human reflection of reality in mimesis is ignored. So Ricoeur turns instead to Aristotle’s Poetics for a model of representation where human agency is necessary for mimesis. For Aristotle, mimesis is always a creative and interpretive representation. Aristotle is most interested in the mimesis of human action and suffering,15  and that happens through a process of “emplotment”: the arrangement of events into an ordered narrative whole, a plot.16  In this way, narrative actually augments the meaning of the world of human action and suffering by creating a fictional “world” with its own intelligibility, its own coherence.17

Already we can begin to see how this theory might clarify some of the functional connections between popular culture and religion. Once we start talking about ordering the meaning of the world of action and suffering, we are beginning to enter religious territory. Religion, in many cases, concerns interpreting our world, our actions, and our suffering.18  And this kind of religious activity happens in popular culture. Consider the experience of going to a good movie, the experience of being drawn into a “world” apart, a separate reality where human action and suffering is augmented, and the feeling of returning to the everyday world once the credits roll. All of a sudden, Johnson’s description of the movie theater as cathedral that I quoted in the epigraph starts making more sense, because what happens in the dark is akin to a sacred experience, the ephemeral creation of a world of meaning, a quasi-holy mimesis. Or consider how youths can find a metaphysical focal point in a rock ‘n’ roll song, using it to express their discontent with the world as it is, and expressing a vision of the world as it should be. All of a sudden, Sam Phillips’ statement about rock ‘n’ roll changing the world (also in the epigraph) does not seem quite so overblown, for just there a religious mimesis occurs.  When considered in this way, popular culture clearly encroaches on themes such as the suppressed knowledge of God and idolatry—territory that Paul addresses in Romans 1:18-25 (more on that below).


The Threefold Mimesis

But the connections, I believe, become even clearer once we consider Ricoeur’s theory of narrative in more detail. Ricoeur analyzes the way narrative mimesis mediates our experience of time in terms of three dialectically connected moments that he calls mimesis1, mimesis2, and mimesis3; or prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration respectively.19

Mimesis1: Narrative Prefiguration as Revelational Provocation

Mimesis1 has to do with the network of structures of everyday life that call forth narrative and make story-telling possible: the symbolic rules for interpreting action, social and ethical norms, even the way our experience of time changes subtly when we are practically engaged (what Heidegger calls “within-time-ness”).20  This pre-narrative network of structures gives our lives a quality of stories-not-yet-told, the “living imbrication from which the told story emerges.”21  This life-context provokes stories and renders such stories intelligible. Further, Ricoeur says, “We tell stories because in the last analysis human lives need and merit being narrated.”22  Ricoeur brings to his theory a presupposition about the worth of human lives, that they are worthy of attention, worthy of storytelling.

Is this pre-narrative context simply the neutral background noise of our lives? A Christian theory of popular culture as religion would have to say, “No.” In fact, the language Ricoeur uses is strongly reminiscent of the kind of “background noise” that Paul talks about in Romans 1:18-25, what theologians call general revelation: the knowledge of God that is built into the cosmos. It is a passage that is worth quoting at length:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the beginning of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

In this remarkable passage, Paul asserts that God has built into the universe a dynamic whereby he is continually being revealed , but also where that knowledge is continually being suppressed by sinful humans as we reorient our core desires towards substitute gods.23  Though Paul does not tell us exactly how this knowledge is communicated, he does point us in the general direction: the arena of creation that displays God’s “eternal power and divine nature.” Paul sees a significant connection between this revelation that comes through creation and the tragic foolishness of exchanging the worship of God for the worship of the creature. Idolatry, then, is a willful confusion over the significance of creation. In idolatry, we short-circuit creation’s job of gesturing toward its Creator, and find instead something in creation itself that is worthy of service and worship. Note the bitter irony here: it is in creation that God’s power and character are displayed, and that is why it serves as such choice source material for the sinful, twisted interpretation of idolatry.24  The overall picture that Paul paints for us, then, is of false worship that springs from the context of a creation that is structured to be intensely meaningful (though sinful humans constantly, willfully misconstrue that meaning).25

It is here that Ricoeur’s account of mimesis1 as a life-context that provokes narrative and enables stories to be told resonates with Christian theology. Indeed, without these biblical presuppositions, Ricoeur’s theory ultimately makes little sense. His theory insists that life is structured to be both intelligible and significant, but why should it be? Life is intelligible because God made the world as a backdrop of a meaningful story ready to unfold. Ricoeur emphasizes the way humans care about motivations and how to interpret each other’s actions. Doesn’t that point to God’s lovingkindness towards his creatures and the communitarian character of the Trinity reflected in our lives? Ricoeur asserts that we all know, finally, that human lives are worthy of storytelling rather than silence. But he never says why. A Christian approach would point to the knowledge of our own dignity because we have been created in God’s image.26  Finally, Ricoeur claims that these pre-narrative structures provoke a response. But why should they? A biblical perspective provides an answer: they provoke a response just because they are revelation. Revelation always provokes a religious response—we are provoked either to covenant submission to or rebellion against God. This is the pattern that Paul describes in Romans 1:18-25: God reveals himself in various ways, and humans, apart from God’s grace, respond religiously, that is, in idolatry.

Let us be more concrete: what do these “pre-narrative structures” that serve as general revelation look like? Doubtless, we need to keep a functional perspective and ask, “What can act as general revelation?” Any natural, cultural, social, or temporal structures could be used as general revelation, and therefore would provoke a religious response. The “living imbrication from which the told story emerges”27  to which Ricoeur refers is potentially as broad as life itself: the beauty of nature, romantic love, a concern for social justice—anything. Even sinful structures, such as social oppression, can be provocative in just this way. The experience of oppression holds a mirror to our fallenness and God’s wrath revealed from heaven—it spurs people to look beyond what is immediately given them to something more deeply meaningful within their experience.

Let me give an example of a pre-narrative/revelational context in action. In 1984, Janice Radway published her justly celebrated ethnographic study of a group of middle-aged women from a small city in the mid-western United States (a town she calls “Smithton”) who all bought romance novels from the same bookstore during the 1980s.28  Radway investigated the romance novel industry, the way these books were used, why any given novel was liked or disliked, and the impact these books had upon the Smithton women. For these women, romance novel reading is a “world,” a sort of quasi-religion (as we shall see later).

What was the pre-narrative context out of which this world arose? What was the general revelational context that provoked their particular religious response? Radway notes that these readers all shared a similar experience and background. All were female, most were married with children under the age of eighteen, and most did not work outside the home, or only worked in part-time jobs.29  Further, all of them shared a need for “escape”—not from their families per se, but from the dull routine of housework and errands, of being emotionally and physically drained by the needs of children and husbands (who often showed little gratitude, assistance or affirmation).30   In other words, their experience of patriarchal society as expecting much and giving little in return provided the provocation to which the romance novel served as a religious answer, the text-world that they would inhabit through the ritual of reading. The tensions these women experienced everyday is their “mimesis1.” But how is this experience of patriarchy general revelation? From a biblical perspective, these women experience life on a fallen planet and alienation from God in terms of isolation and lack of appreciation and affirmation. Such women feel, through patriarchy, the “wrath of God that is being revealed” (Ro 1:18), the way the creation-order groans under the weight of futility after the Fall (Ro 8:20-22).31

In this way, popular culture (in this case, the act of reading romance novels) responds to the provocation of the pre-narrative, revelational context that surrounds us.  Let us turn our attention from the pre-narrative context to the narrative response (for our purposes, the religious response), which Ricoeur calls mimesis2.


Mimesis2: Narrative Configuration as Religious World-building

In Ricoeur’s narrative theory, mimesis1 prepares for and provokes narrative. In mimesis2, or configuration, the focus shifts to the narrative response to that provocation. Here we reach emplotment proper, the creation of a “world of the text.” Mimesis2 for Ricoeur is Janus-faced, a moment of mediation or connection between the pre-narrative context (mimesis1) and the effects of the narrative text-world in the reader’s world (mimesis3).

So on the one hand, mimesis2 takes the raw material from the pre-narrative context and shapes it, combining the elements of a story (events, characters, circumstances, etc.) into a tensive whole, a “concordant discordance.”32  In this way, narrative configuration draws from its context to create a “world of the text,” a sphere of meaning with its own peculiar sense of time. Time in a text-world is both linear (one event after another) and synoptic (a purpose-filled sense of the whole story throughout).33

On the other hand, mimesis2 also reaches forward in the dialectic and influences experience and perspective of the reader (mimesis3) by shaping the experience of reading itself. The world of the text generates schemata, rules that governing its own interpretation (that is, how the point of the story relates to the way the