The Bible as Story

The Bible as Story is something that I’ve been pondering off and on for around four years. During my sophomore year at Davis College I read a book that was basically a novelization of the Bible. Although the book took some creative license, perhaps too much at times, it did get me thinking about the fact that the Bible was a story.

This thinking was further reinforced by Dr. Snyder, my Hebrew Bible prof at Davis. He taught the Bible in a really fresh way. He somehow made us, as students, part of the story. I will never forget the strange epiphany I had when I was sitting in my prophets class and Dr. Snyder was talking about the exile. Keep in mind that I had already taken two semesters worth of Bible with him. During that time we had walked through the Torah and Former Prophets. Throughout that time he had taught us what the Israelites thought, at least as much as it can be known via the text. So, naturally, the Israelites thought God lived in the box (aka, Ark of the Covenant). Specifically they thought he lived in the box in the back room (The Most Holy Place). So, imagine my surprise when Dr. Snyder tells us that God went with them into exile. I was like…”Wha?!” Don’t get me wrong, I knew that God didn’t really live in the box. I knew that he is not a God confined by space – yet I was so into the story that it came as a bit of a shock. All these years (for Israel, hundreds) they’ve thought God lived in a box in the back room of a tent, and then later the back room of a temple in Jerusalem. Yet, in reality God is not limited by such things.

This is just one example of how seeing the Bible as a story has impacted my understanding of it. So, what does this mean? What is it to see the Bible as story? Well, I think one of the first things it means is to have an idea of Progressive Revelation. That is, we know more than them, in regards to revelation – Moses didn’t know the seed of the woman would be named Jesus. I think this is something important to keep in mind as one reads the text. In hindsight we might see Isaiah 53 as Jesus, but the people of that time didn’t have as much as we do – from a revelatory perspective. As a result, to expect them to see Isaiah 53 in the same way is somewhat stupid. Of course, this also plays into how we look to the future. They didn’t have it all right, so what makes us think we can perfectly outline what will happen during the End Time? Much is obscured from the characters within the story that we know. We now see that Jesus is the second Adam, and that he is the seed that crushed (crushes?) the serpent’s head. But Adam did not know that. He had a completely different perspective on things. Understanding this fact can irrevocably alter our perception of the text.

Second, I think we need to keep in mind that we read stories (or hear stories) from beginning to end. We start at the beginning. We need to walk through the story in that way. More often than not people start the Bible in the middle. Ultimately we need to immerse ourselves in the story and make it our own story – at least in a way. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you a story of my own.

When I teach the Torah to Junior Highers (and I would do the same regardless of who I am teaching) I actually tell students to forget everything they know about the Bible when we begin. That means that, if I were teaching in a traditional Sunday School environment the idea would be that during week one they know nothing about the Bible. During week two they might know Genesis one and two, by week three (when we might talk about Cain and Able) they’d know what had happened up until that point in the story. Specifically I plead with students to forget everything they know, or think they know, about Jesus. Case-in-point, as we talked about Genesis three one week, I asked what we, as a class, knew about at the end of the session. Someone raised their hand and said something to the extent of, “Adam and Eve sinned, but God promised that he would send Jesus.” I looked at the student, thought for a moment and then said, “Who’s Jesus?” The class looked confused at first and then it dawned on them, “Hey! We don’t know who that is yet!”

The reason I tell that story is to point out the importance of letting the story progress at its own pace. It allows us to identify with the characters more. It allows us to immerse ourselves in the story. Yes, Jesus did come – and yes he did crush the serpent’s head. But Adam and Eve didn’t know that. The re-fall in chapter four becomes so much more potent if it is allowed to take on the quality of hopelessness it was, I believe, meant to convey. Here, the seed of the woman has failed as badly (worse?) as the woman. The hope of chapter three has turned into despair. As we teach the Bible, or as we read it ourselves, I think it is important to stay with the story.

Now that I’ve laid out my theory about the Bible as story, how does it practically work out? This is a difficult thing to tackle, since it will vary greatly depending on the group that you’re teaching. I’ll give some ideas I’ve picked up from my experiences teaching Junior Highers in a traditional Sunday School environment.

1. Tell the story
It’s vitally important that you become familiar with the story itself. I like to get to the point where I can tell the basic outline of the story without having to refer to notes or the Bible. As I taught, I didn’t read ten verses from the text, I told the story that those verses told. Yes, sometimes I referred to the text to bring something into focus. At times I pointed out a particular word from the text or something similar, but I tried to allow the story to flow.
2. Become a good story-teller
The best story tellers love the stories they tell. There is nothing more agonizing than listening to someone tell a story in which they have no interest. It’s not normally something we have to endure because normally, when people tell a story, they enjoy the story and want to tell it. Good story-tellers also know when to move a story along a little faster, or when to dwell on a portion a little longer.
3. Never reveal the end!
I am forever hurt and wounded. I have never seen The Sixth Sense yet I know what happens in the end. Even if I were to watch it, it wouldn’t feel like it would if I didn’t know the plot twist. In a story, there are certain points that provide suspense and additional engagement in the story. When I first played through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic I enjoyed the game. It is one of my all time favorite games, and a single scene contributes greatly to the position it holds in my heart. Near the end of the game there is a brilliantly placed plot-twist. I didn’t see it coming, and it floored me. That single scene pulled me even further into the story that the game was telling. If my brother, who had already played the game, had revealed that plot-twist to me, I would have enjoyed the game much less.
4. Be okay with not saying “Jesus”
This point goes hand in hand with #3. Jesus is the end. We should celebrate Jesus. We should always remember him. But at times we need to take a step back and be okay with immersing ourselves in the story that comes before Jesus. We need to allow ourselves to relate to characters in the Hebrew Bible in a way that we cannot if we are constantly reminding ourselves that Jesus fixes this, or Jesus fulfills that. We remove all tension because we know the end, instead of letting ourselves participate in the tension, however briefly, as we relive the story.
5. Don’t be afraid to research
Some of the greatest stories there are have incredible back stories and universes. The Wheel of Time, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter – all of these have massive worlds to explore. Sometimes it takes research to figure a detail out. Don’t be afraid to do this with the Bible. It won’t hurt the story to open a commentary and read about the Deuteronomist. Just keep in mind that the story is the story, and one needs to let it speak for itself. Having said that, research can help to illuminate things in the story and make it come to life even more.

Goodness, if you’ve survived this long I admire you. For those of you showing up here looking for info on storying the Bible or for stories and youth ministry, you now have some of my basic thoughts. For those of you who frequent my blog, God bless you for suffering through my thoughts. I’d be more than happy to interact and dialogue with anyone who is interested in this topic.

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2 thoughts on “The Bible as Story

  1. Great post – I like it a lot.
    Part of the hard thing with teaching Sunday School (traditionally) is the time limit. Not on Sunday mornings, but over the span of a class. 12 weeks later, the administrators are reshuffling classes, swapping out curriculum, etc. Even with a whole year, it’s hard to cover.

    I have long had a dismissive attitude towards Sunday School curriculum, in large part due to my own discontent with it, and also due to pride. But we did something like this approach a couple of years ago, and didn’t get too terribly far. Far too much crammed into Genesis, and a lot of good questions coming up. But then, that was with 1-2 graders, and even 3-4 graders, and they always want the conclusion. “What do you think?”
    I haven’t taught any classes older than 3/4 grade right now, partly because my mother teaches the junior high and is loathe to give it up, even to me. And beyond junior high, there is no teaching allowed for women in my church. Although, I suppose I could make a bid for the ladies’ class in the future…. except currently they’ve eliminated that class.

    So have you developed your own outline/points/timetable/curriculum for this, or do you use somebody else’s material?

    Oh, one other comment: the other hard thing I’ve run into is knowing how to relate my own growth to my students. There’ve been many things I encounter that are thrilling to discover, but they don’t have the same impact on my students. They can’t – the kids aren’t there yet. I’ve found it very difficult to sort out how to balance the differing opinions I’ve come to hold from the standard opinions I grew up on. Of course I wish that they would have my experience, because I count the way over which God has led me so invaluable. But He never leads any two people the exact same way. Most of them will encounter the information I have in radically different settings, and so they will never mimic my experience – they’ll have their own.
    Have you developed a rule of thumb for when to introduce something in hope that they’ll connect with it, vs. teaching the standard so that they have a basically similar grounding for when they reach the point in life that you did when you were given an epiphany?

    ~ Jen

  2. Wow, yeah. Great thoughts. It’s really hard to teach things like this to younger kids. I don’t have that much experience with kids under 11, so I’m somewhat limited in what I can say in regards to them. I guess its just a matter of trying to boil things down to their level. With Junior Highers I could sometimes move quickly through material, in an attempt to whet their appetites, and sometimes, if they were really interested, they’d check it out on their own later.

    I developed a curriculum/lesson outlines for much of the Torah. It was part of a class project in my undergrad work, and I’ve since refined it. I really need to go through again and do another refinement. Maybe this summer before I start seminary, we’ll see.

    It can be difficult to translate your own experiences into something understandable to others. I don’t know how I’d do it with younger kids. With junior highers and senior highers (but Junior highers especially) they are right at that age where they are developing abstract thinking skills, and are trying to figure out the world. As a result, they are sometimes going through what I went through, and sometimes ready to be pushed a little and made to think about what life might be like a little bit down the road. At least they can relate. My rule of thumb has tended to be to be as open as possible with students. Again, I’ve not dealt with students younger than 11, so I can be open about more things with that age group. The ministries I’ve served in have been, up to this point, temporary positions (during college, that kind of thing). As a result I’ve often tried to give as much as I can in as short an amount of time as possible whenever the opportunity arises, rather than a strategic sharing at certain intervals or ages.

    -Calvin

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