Thursday, 13 March 2014

A Big Story Told Through Many Stories

I said in the last post that I now try to primarily engage with the Bible as God's Big Story (as well as a Sacred Place where we experience transforming encounters with God). This is not new, and right across the Christian theological spectrum there has been an emphasis on the narrative nature of the Bible for many years now. But people put this observation to varying uses and still end up with very different views of the Bible and of what they think it teaches. I also don't think what has taken place in academic and more reflective parts of the Church has always connected with popular Christianity at the grassroots, especially among pentecostal-charismatics. We have tended to concentrate on the Bible as a 'sacred place' of encounter; and then used it as a book of answers, a rule book, or blueprint when we wanted to argue the case for our beliefs and assumptions. Having said that, in the best sermons I have heard, the preachers have actually
drawn upon the Bible as Story and drawn us into the Story. In many respects, it is the way we intuitively engage with Scripture when we are not trying to defend the fortress of our beliefs. So in the next few posts I'd like to say a little about how it is affecting my perspective on the Bible. Here, I want to say a little about the nature of story, then about the significance of it being a Story told through many stories, and then finally a key way in which Story affects our approach to Scripture. 

The attraction of story

The thing about stories is that they don't deal in abstract concepts, but in the particularities of life - about people and relationships, the things that happen to them (plots) in specific settings. Normally the plots involve some kind of conflict with a critical turning-point, and key moments that hook on to our imagination and draw us in. And unlike an encyclopedia or a systematic theology, stories don't seek to tie up all the loose ends and tidy things up into a nice neat package. And the 'truth' of them engages us at a deeper, more emotional and imaginative (perhaps spiritual?) depth than at the level of concepts and propositions. They communicate to us through a kaleidoscope of images, language, characters, events, associations and connotations etc. We often feel a resonance with our own experience, and we enter into the world of the story. I love Paul's theology in his letters, but I also love that it is being worked out in real life stories of new church communities coming into an understanding of their true new identity in alien and hostile environments. And that the amazing, mind-blowing truths of what Christ has accomplished through his death and resurrection - of the kingdom of God, of new creation, of grace, of the whole new resurrection order, of the gospel etc. - touch down in real life with real people, in the mundane messiness of life in actual communities.

A multiplicity of stories

There is one big over-arching Story in the Bible - the story that runs from creation to new creation and turns on the death and resurrection of Christ. The story of the restoration of all things. But it is told through many voices and stories - of floods and famines, of the great escape of slaves, of wars and weddings, of slain giants and foolish kings, of lovers and tyrants, of temples built and destroyed, of foolish sons and faithful daughters, of both extraordinary miracles and overwhelming tragedy. And they are told through the voices of prophets and priests, of shepherds and slaves, of lovers and doctors, and more. All of this  makes the Bible so rich in its plurality, diversity, complexity and even ambiguity. It tells the big universal Story through the narratives of the individual and the particular (I recommend Bible and Mission by Richard Bauckham for a refection on the significance of how the Bible combines the universal and the particular). This is something I will return to but for now just note that, though we connect with God's one Big Story and the Truth that is captured and expressed through it, we do not do this by approaching the Bible as a Big Book of Answers. God chooses to let his Truth gradually emerge through the varied stories of real people in different contexts and situations, even allowing the plot to twist and turn and get a little confusing at times, and in danger of being mis-understood (is God really that violent?) but eventually becoming clearest in the person of Jesus Christ. God seems to be secure enough to let his Truth come through the mess and the muddle, the complexity and diversity, the highs and the lows of real life. It seems to me that understanding this is crucial to understanding the Bible.

The powerful play goes on...

Some refer to God's Grand Story (or metanarrative to use the postmodern term) as the Divine Drama. The wonderful thing about this is that we are not just in the audience watching it. We get to go on the stage and play our part; we are in the cast of this great drama. If we see the Bible not just as the script we have to learn, but the account of the play's story so far, it helps us to understand and engage with it. It is not then just about trying to 'learn your lines' or gather timeless truths from a theological compendium or the moral lessons from the big rule book, or to reproduce a divine blueprint. It is rather about entering into the Story and letting the stories and the Story shape us and form us; but also to co-operate with the writer and director, the Holy Spirit, to take the Story forward, living in the momentum and direction of the Story's big themes and dynamic principles, and focused on it's primary and heroic character, Jesus Christ. I learned much of this from theologian and writer, N T Wright, and I will say more on his ideas about this in my next post. But I will finish with the words of the American poet Walt Whitman, made popular in the film, Dead Poet's Society, and in a recent advert.

…the powerful play goes on and [we] may contribute a verse.


  1. What does it look like when we exchange the blueprint bible for the blue sky bible? And look at the Eternal one as less Harold Pinter, wanting to control everything down to the fine detail and more Mike Leigh ( Gathering Nuts in May) working with the actors as a cooperative and empowering them to improvise scenes in His bigger story

    1. Like this, John, though I haven't seen that particular Leigh film. The way forward is definitely the art of improvisation! And isn't it amazing that God invites us to partner with him - 'co-operate' with him - in the realising of his great Story.

  2. When Jesus called Peter and Andrew (Mt 4:18) He saw something in them that no-one else saw, that they didn't see, that looked like Jesus saying " Peter, there's something I want to do together with you, that I don't want to do without you." I think He sees something like that in each of us. I wonder what Jesus says in answer to the question " Jesus what do you see in me that make you want to do something together with me that you don't want to do without me?"

    1. Love what Paul says in Ephesians 2:10 - we are 'God's work of art.' The great thing is that he doesn't just work on us but in us, and with us, and through us. But I think you are right, John, that it starts with him seeing something in us that we or others cannot see.