Christian Storytelling Part III: The Story of the Scriptures

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Christian Storytelling: Part I
Christian Storytelling: Part II

In our journey through the Christian story and Christian storytelling, we have to take a look at the Bible. Since we’re all big fans of Sally Lloyd-Jones here, I don’t think I’ll have to do much convincing when it comes to talking about the Bible as a story. But whenever the subject of interpreting Scripture comes up, lots of very strongly-held opinions clash. I want to say that at the outset, because I think we can have a very gracious and charitable discussion about how to approach the Bible.

What we think of the Scriptures will dictate how we interpret them. I want to propose some ideas (mostly not my own) about how to approach the Bible as a story, but first, I’ll start with two often-held views of the Scriptures and their interpretation.

1.  The Bible is God’s personal letter (or “love letter”) to each of us. The method of interpretation that usually follows this point of view goes something like this: A small group Bible study sits around with Bibles open and reads a verse or a passage. Then the small group leader says, “Let’s go around the circle and share what this verse means to you.” Then each member says a few things about how that verse touches his or her life, and the whole group sits around in amazement that the Scriptures can mean so many different things to so many different people. Now, I don’t want to disparage this outright, because undoubtedly, the work of the Spirit can and does apply the Scriptures to our hearts, even in a given moment in a small Bible study.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t be honest about the potential problems, or the incomplete nature of this method. The Bible is neither addressed directly nor written directly to you or me. Genesis 1 doesn’t start, “Dear Travis.” It is not a letter, but a collection of a wide variety of literary genres, all of which communicate truth in a different manner and require a different set of rules for understanding. You would totally misunderstand Dickens, Shakespeare, or any other writer if you took their book as a personal letter to you; the same is true of the Scriptures. This method can really mess up our theology and Christian practice. So let’s conclude this: The Bible is definitely to us and for us, but it is also a collection of writings in a wide variety of contexts and needs careful consideration for understanding. Taking the Bible as “God’s love letter” lends us to the idea that “It’s just me, my Bible, and the Holy Spirit, and that’s all I need.” In fact, we need the whole community of believers and those who have gone before us.

2. The Bible is a sort of “Guidebook” for our lives here on earth.  It is God’s instruction to humanity. While many would not word their view this way, many folks who reject view #1 hold some form of this view. We’ve all heard that the B.I.B.L.E. is our “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” The Scriptures are all too frequently employed as a rulebook or a topical guidebook to get through life here on earth. Have a problem with patience? Look up every verse that mentions patience. You’re aware of this method. It’s the medicine cabinet method, or the magic book or grocery list method.

The method of interpretation that follows is usually centered in some way around the grammatical-historical principle. We understand, contra view #1, that the Bible was written at a certain time and in certain genres.  So we apply a two-fold method of interpretation: (A) “What did this passage mean when it was written?” and (B) “What does it mean to us today?” If we follow step A, we will arrive at “biblical principles.” Once we have extracted the biblical principles out of the biblical narrative, step B will apply the principle to our lives today.

The problem with this is that it misses key elements of the purpose and nature of the Scriptures. The Bible is not a book of life principles or “keys for living.” It is not a self-help book or a systematic theology book. It is, by and large, a narrative about Christ told in various forms and genres. This undoubtedly makes interpretation and application more difficult (more about that in Part IV). Now, on to an alternative approach to Scripture and its application.

3.  The Bible is an unfinished drama.  This is the view of the Bible I plan to expound upon in a coming post. N.T. Wright has offered, I think, a much more helpful view of the Scriptures than either of the two views above. Here is how he summarizes this approach to the Bible:

Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.

While there are obviously potential weaknesses with this approach, I think there is much to commend it as well. I will explore its strengths and weaknesses in Part IV. In any case, we must keep one thing primary, and this is really the whole point of this post: The Scriptures are about Christ and his story. And it’s about our invitation to participate in that story, which is why this third view is attractive.

The Scriptures are meant to show us Jesus and lead us to Jesus. Any approach to the Scriptures that is not centered around seeking Him “that we may have life” will result in the error of the Pharisees. We can extract principles and apply the Bible personally all day long, but if we haven’t started with the understanding that the Bible is the story of Jesus, and that “every story” in the Bible “whispers His name,” we’ll miss the real magic of the Scriptures.


11 Comments

  1. chris holdridge

    So glad I stopped in today and got to read you doing what you do best.

    I agree with your assessment of Wright’s perspective here, and I would add that it probably subsumes the best aspects of the first two perspectives you mention. I think of all the study, discussion, and negotiation that went into producing high school Shakespeare plays (and the beautiful but unmistakably human product!). My western evangelical hair trigger trembles at the thought of the Bible being “unfinished,” but I totally get it–and it’s a very helpful way to understand its “living and active”…ness.

  2. Kenny Thacker

    If we approach the scriptures looking for a rule we’ll find one, but won’t be able to keep it. If we approach the scriptures looking for Jesus we’ll find Him, and He will transform our lives.

  3. Laura Barton

    Thanks, Travis, for articulating so well those first two views! I’m always grateful to hear that I’m not the only one who has grown weary of those ways of reading the Bible. Has anyone else read much N.T. Wright? I know he holds some rather controversial opinions about certain topics, but reading his work has helped me tremendously in learning to take the Bible seriously as a story (and a part of history) rather than just some kind of magic book of ethics and rules. Looking forward to hearing more of what you have to say about the Bible as an “unfinished drama”, Travis!

  4. Loren

    This is a great set-up, Travis. I’m looking forward to part IV.

    My dad recently shared something he’d heard at a conference that struck me as good truth, and seems to go with your #3 supposition: The Bible does not include everything about life, the world, etc. However, without the Bible, nothing makes sense. I may not learn how stars are designed by reading the Bible, but I will not truly marvel at a star if I don’t know that God created them, and that that’s only one tiny part of how marvelous He is.

    I’m sure I’m not phrasing this in the best way–I hope it’s clear!

  5. Leanne

    Interesting. I’m taking a Biblical Hermeneutics class right now so this is a lot of the stuff we’re learning about. I haven’t heart N.T. Wright’s idea but think it sounds like it has merit. Our class is reading a book by a guy named Joel B. Green that presents the idea of reading the Bible with literary criticism lenses and being a “model reader” who interacts with the text on a personal level because it was written for “the church universal.” At thr same time, he recommends studying it with the Rule of Faith – holding to basic doctrines that the Church has always held. I’m curious to hear what your next installment will be. This is obviously on my mind a lot these days!

  6. Tony Heringer

    Nice one Travis. I was listening to our boy Eugene Peterson this week and he hammers home some of the same points in particular your point: “It is not a self-help book or a systematic theology book.” Peterson feels the two great errors that continually crop up in history are Gnosticism and Moralism. That would be another way of framing methods 1 and 2. If you want to hear more of his thoughts, go here: http://www.marshillaudio.org/Catalog/ConversationDetails/Conversation026.aspx

    The title of this conversation with Peterson is called “Dancing Lessons: Eugene Peterson on Theology and the Rhythms of Life”. The title is a play off a theme in his great book “Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places”.

    This idea of the larger story has been in my head for the last decade and has continued to gain momentum through the writings of Peterson, Wright and Michael D. Williams (his book “Far As The Curse Is Found”also travels down this path you are leading us on.)

    Looking forward to Part IV!

  7. Tony Heringer

    Eating a late lunch and reading “Practice Resurrection” by Eugene Peterson and I ran across this quote and felt like it connected with this series:

    “Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga.” – Marilynne Robinson, The Death Of Adam

  8. Steve Wilburn

    Great post! Reflects and puts into words a lot of what I’ve been thinking about recently.

    A seminary professor of mine actually expanded Wright’s model this way:

    The 5th act of the God’s story in Christ is actually partly written. We know the beginning (how the Church was formed) and we know the end (the return of Christ and New Heaven and New Earth) but the middle part of the act is left without a script. It is that part in which we live, and it is that part of the story we are called to faithfully play out in light of all that has come before and all that is yet to be.

    In any event, reading the Bible as the story of Jesus has dramatically changed how I approach the scriptures for the better. Keep up the insightful thoughts!

  9. Profile photo of Travis Prinzi

    Travis Prinzi

    @travis

    Way behind on commenting. Thanks for the feedback so far, everyone.

    Chris, that’s exactly it: the first two methods aren’t just thrown out, but they fit nicely into place in the third way of thinking about – better, participating in – Scripture.

    Laura, I think Wright’s book on Scripture, “The Last Word,” is a nice longer treatment of many of these themes. Yes, Wright can be controversial on some issues. But I think he also sees some other issues very clearly, outside of some of the ways we’ve gotten “stuck,” so to speak, theologically.

    Loren, what you’re saying is spot on. Think about science and medicine. We do what we do to save and improve lives. There are no medical guides in Scripture. What’s there is far more important: The fundamental belief that life itself is valuable and worth saving in the first place. Without these more permanent things, we’d never get to the medicine.

    Leanne, yes! The Rule of Faith. I can’t believe I’d never even heard of it till I was in seminary. It seems that very early Christian concept should be foundational to all Christian teaching.

    Tony, yes, Peterson is another one who makes fantastic contributions to this line of thinking.

    Steve, I like where your prof is going with that. I think Wright assumes the same things, actually – that we’ve got just a little of the fifth act, and a glimpse at the story’s end.

    Thanks, all. Working on Part IV.

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