Friday, January 23, 2009

Reading the Bible as Story

In Scot McKnight’s book, “The Blue Parakeet” the idea of reading the Bible as story is a major theme. He says we must read the Bible as story. It is a whole series of stories written in different ways for different reasons. The earlier stories affect the later stories. As he says, none of the stories is the final story. But together they all tell “The Story.” It is a true story. It is a story with power. But most of all it is God’s story

Story is a very important word these days. We hear is quite often on the lips of young people. Some people say they think in stories (probably not most). They have been influenced by the post-modern period that we have all passed through. For post-modernity, story is more important than fact, than science or truth. Truth is something that those in power or those with money use to control the less powerful. (Those who write the story, control the glory). But stories can communicate without appealing to truth or being totally true. Since post-modernity distrusts truth as either being nonexistent or unknowable, it has appealed to story as a way to understand people and the world around us without having to be true. Stories communicate and there is wiggle room in them because the story can be “true” for you but not necessarily true for me. It can tell something of value without having to be true. And that’s okay, because I still understand something about you and the world around me without needing the obsolete and or even dangerous idea of truth.

As a Christian, I can’t accept that truth is non-existent, obsolete or even dangerous. The idea of truth is foundational for us to understand that there is an ultimate reality. There is objective truth no matter how hard it might be, a times, to discern it. Jesus said he was the truth. He said the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth. So, truth must stand.

But…as we try to understand the world around us, we realize that everything has a story. I have my story…the story of my life. You have your story. The town we live in has a story. The nation we live in has a story. The whole earth has a story. There is a true story for everything. For us to understand each other and the world around us, we need to listen to all the stories. Our existence is a series of interlocking stories.

Many people are uncomfortable with the word story to describe our existence. Some prefer fact and factual accounts. Others prefer more the objective perspective of “provable” history. Still others look to the empiricism, objectivity and precision of science. But all these are simply different ways of telling the story of something or someone. All are trying to communicate something in a fashion that will tell the real story.

I suspect the reason people have a hard time thinking of the Bible as Story is because stories aren’t always true stories. They are often fictional. We tell stories to our children before bedtime. Bedtime stories are meant to put children sleep. Novels are stories. Sometime they are pure fiction. Nowadays we have seen the rise of the “historical novel” where the background is carefully researched history, but the story line is fictional. The characters are real, but they could have been because their character and actions were taken from the accounts of real people living real lives and their real events. We fear that mixing fiction and history will cloud the truth.

The reason for approaching the Bible as story is because in reality, it is a story. It is God’s story of himself creating, interacting, redeeming and bringing to culmination the world around us. We must not deny that it is a story…God’s Story. But it is a true story. It is a powerful story. God tells us this story so we can understand him and his love for us. It tells us how to love him back and love the people he so loves.

As student of the Bible and theology now for nearly 30 years and I have seen people treat the Bible in ways that was never intended. People see the Bible as if it were written in the 20th century. They see it as a textbook. They want it to be history has they read it now. They want the biographical accounts of figures as though they were written from the perspective of a “modern.” Some think they can distill science out of the Bible. Some appeal to the precision of Greek and Hebrew languages and surmise that because of this precision one can simply exegete the texts based on a grammatical-historical basis and arrive the real meaning of a text based simply on the reading of an isolated bit of text. Still others see the Bible as communicating directly to them with no notion of it place in history or the culture from which is came.

The Bible is a series of writings done from 1500 B.C. to nearly 100 A.D. It uses many different ways of speaking: history, poetry, narrative, parable, metaphor, fiction, prophetic, apocalyptic and more. All demand that the reader pay attention to the way the writer wrote. All demand that the reader keep the writer’s words in their historical and cultural context. All demand that the reader keep in mind where the writer’s words…his part of the story…fits into the overall story. But most of all, the reader must keep in mind that the Bible is telling a story through the patchwork of stories, accounts and different kinds of writing.

Yes, the grammatical-historical method of reading the Bible is good. Yes, because of the descriptive nature of the accounts, we can see direct correlations between the physical world of the writer and how we see our world. Yes, there is a certain precision in the language. But, we must not make the mistake of expecting more precision from the language than it can give us. We must be careful not to think that the Bible is scientific. It does not have that optic. We must be careful that in exegeting the passages we study, that a too reductionist approach will not yield the message the author was conveying.

We need to remember that the Bible is story…God’s story told through the stories of the writers that he chose and that he gifted to write the story. And such, we need to become “his-storians.” We need to read the story. Listen to it time and time again. Get to know the fabric, the warp and the woof of the story. We need to learn when something is speaking figuratively or factually. We need to know when the meaning of a text must be qualified by its historical setting and background culture. We need to learn to ask the right question as we read so that we can get the right answers.

The more we listen to the story, the more we’ll understand the story. That is why even those who don’t know the Greek and the Hebrew (while being very important for translation and exegesis) can still understand the story. The story communicates. God made it that way. He speaks a language we can understand because it is a story of our earth, our world and the people around us. As “his-storians” we can hear his voice. But we will only hear it when we listen to God as the master storyteller. After all, it is his story.

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At 11:23 PM, Anonymous Joshua Case said...

Well put Paul!

So it sounds to me like you are a metaphysical absolutist and epistimological relativist?

Thanks for your thoughts!

At 11:50 PM, Blogger Paul Luedtke said...

Well, not completely. If all of reality was created by God then there is objective reality. But within reality there are things that behave more absolutely and things that behave more relatively. Chemistry and physics at a macro level behave rather absolutely. But at a minuscule level, for example electrons, we must factor in probability. Light exist as photons which have both particle and wave qualities. But light travels at a speed which is constant. Time is very rigid until one begins traveling at the speed of light. So, as I've often said, there are absolutes and there are relatives.

As for being an epistemological relativist, again not completely. When it comes to the words of God having meaning, I believe there is a fixed meaning. But because those words were given at certain times and in certain cultures, meaning is relative to those factors and must of taken into account. How's that?

At 2:20 AM, Blogger Vince Morris said...

"Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing." (Matt. 13:34)

I wonder--it isn't so much that the story IS the whole truth, but perhaps Jesus' methodology tells us that the story is the most efficient delivery mechanism for truth...

Always a pleasure read your thoughts, Paul. I look forward to getting to know you better in coming years.


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