Walter Brueggemann: Permission to Narrate

I have recently seen this phrase, “Permission to Narrate” in two interesting contexts. First, so far as I know, the phrase was coined in 1984 by Edward Said. Said was a respected academic at Columbia University. More importantly, he was the most outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights in Western discourse as he readily embraced his own Palestinian identity.

He wrote his essay, “Permission to Narrate” in The London Review of Books in 1984 in the wake of the war of Israel against Lebanon. His commentary concerns the way in which that war was reported and championed in the West with unrestrained embrace of the Israeli cause. The phrase is Said’s courageous reference to the fact that Israel and its defenders were given the “right to narrate” the war from Israel’s perspective and according to Israel’s interest. The Palestinians, by contrast, were denied such a right, had no advocates, and were not permitted to narrate their version of the crisis.

Said’s observation of the one-sided reportage on the war concerned the way in which counter opinion had been silenced, censored, and screened out. He noted, for example, that John Chancellor on NBC had said that Israel in the war had been “savage,” but days later he retracted that statement as a “mistake.” Because there was no allowance for a counter-narrative, Israel’s version went unchallenged in a way that was able to present the Palestinians as “terrorists.”

The second usage of the phrase I have noted is by Martin Weegemann in his book entitled Permission to Narrate (2016). The subtitle of Weegemann’s book is Explorations in Group Analysis, Psychoanalysis, and Culture. It is well known, of course, that “talk therapy” in its many variations, constitutes an opportunity for silenced selves (or that part of self that has been silenced) to be brought to speech. The accepting environment of talk therapy is a way to grant permission to narrate one’s life, after that life (or that part of the self) has been silenced. Attention should also be paid to Roy Schafer, Retelling a Life: Narrative and Dialogue in Psychoanalysis (1992) who, long before Weegemann, saw talk therapy as narration of the self:

"I propose that that person be viewed as a narrator, that is, as someone who, among other noteworthy actions, narrates selves. One person narrates numerous selves both in order to develop desirable (not necessarily “happy” but at least defensibly secure) versions of his or her actions and the actions of others and to act in ways that conform to those selves. In this account, there is no self that does anything. Instead there is one person telling stories about single selves, multiple selves, fragments of selves, and selves of different sorts, including deceiving and deceived selves. The narrator may, of course, attribute selves or self-states to those others, too, and others may (and do) reciprocate." (51)

These usages of the phrase set me to thinking about “permission to narrate” in the Bible of which I will cite two witnesses.

First, the elemental testimony of Israel to its Exodus emancipation is in the form of a stylized narrative from parent to child:

“When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance [of Passover]. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observation?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” (Exodus 12:25-27; see 13:8).

While this exchange is familiar to us, it is nevertheless astonishing. It is an utterance on the lips of an erstwhile slave who is willing and able to tell the children the story of enslavement and emancipation, a narrative that traffics in remembered pain and surprising freedom. This is a narrative that is grounded in a memory of suffering.

It is, moreover, a narrative that would never have been “permitted” by Pharaoh as long as enslavement endured. Thus, the narrating parent, in liturgic context, claims permission to narrate, to tell a story that is contrary to the dominant story of Pharaoh. In sum, Israel’s entire doxological tradition pivots on this narrative of slavery and emancipation, and Israel eagerly claims permission to retell it often and vigorously.

Second, I consider the case of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar in the gospel narrative (Mark 10:46-52).Because he was a blind beggar, we may conclude that he had likely been reduced to silence as an awkward embarrassment to society. But then, in the person of Jesus, he speaks! He shouts out (v. 47)! He breaks the long imposed silence. It is as though the presence of Jesus had given him permission so long denied to him.

His utterance is brief: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” That is all. That, however, is an amazing narrative. It is an assertion that Bartimaeus is hoping for mercy. It is an admission that he had long been denied mercy. It is an affirmation that he trusted Jesus to be a source and giver of mercy for him. That is, this brief utterance is a bold articulation of the whole truth of Bartimaeus’ life.

It is remarkable that this self narration in this moment is met with silencing hostility. Mark says, “Many sternly ordered him to be silent” (10:48). Luke says it was “those who were in front” (Luke 18:39). Matthew reports that it was “the crowd” that sought to silence him (20:31). This convergence of these forces suggests that many conspired (as they do!) to silence an unwelcome voice that assumes permission.

All of these voices conspired together to deny permission to Bartimaeus. He, however, accepted the permission that the presence of Jesus offered him: “He cried out even more loudly” (Mark 10:48). He would not be denied permission! By the end of the account Bartimaeus has signed on with Jesus:

He regained his sight and followed him on the way (10:52).

It is possible to conclude, I judge, that the rescues of Israel by YHWH (see the summary of Psalm 136) and the rescues of Jesus (see the summary of Luke 7:22) are a series of moments in which “permission to narrate” is granted that results in testimony to transformative experience. Derivatively this is what causes the church at its best to be a venue for testimonies, for narratives about the gift of new life that was not imaginable in the old contexts of domination.

It follows that the church and its pastors are and must be storytellers. The church as storyteller is not for entertainment, or for “sermon illustrations,” or for “narrative preaching” that has become so popular. It is rather that the church should be a permission granting community so that those who have been silenced and denied their narrative have a secure place in which their narrative can be told, received, honored, and taken seriously.

The church does not just tell stories. It is a permission-granting agency so that we do well to keep in clear purview the roster of those who are elementally denied permission to narrate their lives. The church has gladly known itself to be a storytelling operation. Thus we have two familiar hymns to the point:

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story, because I know ‘tis true;
It satisfies my longing as nothing else can do. (The United Methodist Hymnal 156)

We’ve a story to tell to the nations,
That shall turn their hearts to the right,
A story of truth and mercy,
A story of peace and light. (United Methodist Hymnal 569)

The story the church loves to tell (and that it claims permission to tell) is the story of Jesus, “a story of peace and light” that drives darkness to dawn. Close inspection, however, shows that the version of that story told by the church is often bowdlerized and “cleaned up” to make it nice, sweet, and palatable, when in fact the story of Jesus is powerfully subversive so that it does not easily cohere with dominant interests.

It strikes one that “permission to narrate” the story of crucifixion and resurrection draws to it those stories “from below,” from executions at the hands of the state or of dominant culture, and from resurrections that defy imperial logic. These are stories not unlike those of the Exodus that stunned Pharaoh and of Bartimaeus that repelled the crowd standing “in front.” Thus, as Said has seen, the Palestinian story is unwelcome in the West. And anyone who has been engaged is serious talk therapy knows that what must be told and must be heard is most often not a pleasant or agreeable story, or one would not need special permission to narrate.

And surely in the case of Jesus, what finally got him executed by the state was his capacity and readiness to give permission to the narratives of those declared nonexistent by the state. That is the narrative (along with those small narratives from below that are drawn to it) that the church is entrusted to tell. This is the story we love to tell. That is the story we have to tell to the nations, where the cry for mercy is the thematic of every utterance.

The narrative for which the church has permission is precisely the story that dominant culture wants to shush.

This way of thinking has caused me to see that the church as a community that has permission to narrate the true story of the world, a truth we may recognize because we see through the prism of the one crucified and risen. This suggests, moreover, that the preachers of the church have permission to go to the depth of social economic reality where mercy is absent and required, even though every preacher knows when looking out on a congregation that she has not received permission that is variously denied by the assemblage. Thus, I judge that the church and its preachers have more permission to narrate than we are most often prepared to claim.

I conclude with two reflections on the proper time for our work of narration. The wise “preacher” (Ecclesiastes) observes, as we know well:

There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak (3:7).

The trick is to know when it is the right time to speak, when it is time to narrate, when it is time to exercise permission to narrate. I suggest that many wise preachers judge many, many times when it is a proper time for silence when it may be a time to narrate the truth of the world. The word of Ecclesiastes is seconded by an odd verdict in the prophet Amos:

Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time (Amos 5:13).

The term translated “prudent” might better be read as “successful” or “prosperous.” Thus, the verse would seem to agree with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 3:6; those who seek success will clam up in wisdom. In context, however, the verse in Amos may be ironic. It may be the judgment of Amos that this is no time for silence, no time for success, no time to worry about success and prospering. That surely is the burden of the rest of the book of Amos. Amos had indeed been given permission to narrate, and he does so with singular passion (see 3:3-8)! He does so, even when the high priest, Amaziah, seeks to deny him permission (Amos 7:10-17).

If we read Amos back to Said and the Palestinians and back to Weegemann and talk therapy, then it is obvious that silence and prudence cannot be the order of the day. Rather, permission to narrate requires the willful violation of prudence and the transgression of silence.

My judgment is that this is such a time in the church.

We do indeed have a story to tell, and we love to tell it. But the story we have to tell the nations is from below. It is a story occupied by slaves such as Bartimaeus. It is a story of the urgency of mercy that every time overrides the force of silencing culture. The truth for which the church has permission to narrate is subversive. Its telling, however, is likely the only ground for hope for our society amid its deep denial and its equally deep despair.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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