Embodying the Great Story: An interview with James W. McClendon

The Witness. 11 pp.

For the better part of two centuries, modernism has waged a relentless war against narrative ways of knowing. The forces of rationalism, abstraction and science effectively marginalized, suppressed, or destroyed cultures of story. Utilitarian facts were privileged over useful fictions, and the propositional eclipsed the poetic, while narrative was relegated to the parlor, or the theater, or the reservation. And as Native American novelist Silko rightly warns, as people became confused and forgetful about their stories, they became increasingly defenseless against the onslaught of the myths and machines of modernity.

The Enlightenment used the principle of criticism to unfetter our minds from the “pre-rational” myths of religion and traditional culture. More recently, however, the postmodernist movement has used the same critical capacity to unmask modernism’s own master narrative: the myth of “Progress.” This totalizing narrative has functioned to legitimate capitalism, the Euro-American colonization of Third and Fourth World peoples, and the technological domination of the earth.

James William McClendon, Jr. was born in Louisiana in 1924. Raised and ordained in the Southern Baptist tradition, he liked to call himself a “small b” baptist theologian. McClendon taught theology for 46 years at a variety of public universities and theological seminaries. These included the University of San Francisco (where he was the first non-Catholic theologian in U.S. to belong to a Catholic theology department), Stanford, Temple, Goucher, Notre Dame, St. Mary’s Moraga, Baylor, and Fuller Theological Seminary. His pioneering Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology (Abingdon, 1974, Trinity Press, 1990) helped launch the narrative theology movement. His magnum opus was a three-volume work in systematic theology: Ethics (1986), Doctrine (1994) and Witness (2000).

Jim became my teacher in the late 1970s at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, and remained my theological mentor and friend after. This interview took place at Dr. McClendon’s home near Los Angeles on July 18, 2000, shortly before his untimely passing. I have a profound sense of indebtedness and gratitude for his work and witness.

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