“What’s the Story with ‘Story?'”, James K.A. Smith

The article sampled below from James K.A. Smith is worth reading. He is critiquing Alan Jacobs’s “Just-so Stories.” I have a stake in this debate especially because the proposed topic of my PhD research has to do with Ricoeur and “story.” I have to say, I think that this article is a good example of why philosophy is so necessary. As much as I have enjoyed reading Alan Jacobs over the years, I’ve also been maddened by his reasoning at many points, especially his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. (I’ve expressed some of my frustration here: GoodReads Review)

“Story” seems to be the new black. Or the new magic. Or maybe the new black magic.

This is Alan Jacobs’ concern in his recent Books & Culture essay, “Just-So Stories.” His primary target is the “just-so” stories about “story” that are now the darling of “evocriticism”–those (allegedly scientific) accounts that “explain” the power of “story” by explaining them away in terms of reproductive fitness and evolutionary adaptation. According to these sorts of just-so stories,”story” is important because it teaches us empathy, or trains us to have a theory of other minds, or equips us to be able to make predictions–all of which enable members of the species to avoid getting killed and thus find the time to reproduce. Jacobs’ rightly targets and questions such accounts. (I would also recommend Jonathan Kramnick’s essay, “Against Literary Darwinism,” as well as the follow-up symposium in Critical Inquiry (Winter 2012).

But Jacobs’ argument gets a little fuzzier when he turns his critical attention to those Christians who have turned “story” into a bit of a cottage industry. (And I suppose I felt myself a bit of a target here, given the centrality of story for my argument about “how worship works” in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.) So I’d like to extend the conversation a bit, on just this point, precisely because I think Jacobs raises important questions and advances the conversation.

Read On

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