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.