This is the fifth post in a series on Interpreting the Bible in the 21st century.
People say and write a lot about the Bible. But here is something interesting: the way we write about the Bible is very different from the way the Bible itself is written.
Most of the books, newspaper articles and webpages about the Bible are written like impersonal essays – a string of observations and evidence making some point. But the Bible itself is something quite different. A large part of the Bible is stories – and most of the rest is very personal.
What difference does this make?
Stories from Genesis to Revelation
The Bible starts with stories (Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, and the gang) continues with stories through the major events in Jewish sacred history (Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon and a whole bunch of heroes, villains, kings and prophets). Even the prophets, who warn Israel of impending danger, tell stories and graphically illustrate their message.
Stories are just as important in the New Testament, where the key components of christian belief – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of the christian church through the power of the Holy Spirit – are again told and explained through stories.
There are different types of stories, to be sure, from the ‘sagas’ of the early Old Testament (I use that word to avoid at this time making a call on whether these stories are history, myth, or something in between – we’ll get to that later), through historical chronicles in the later Old Testament and into the New, to the biographies that we know as the four gospels.
Jesus was particularly known as a story teller – Mark’s gospel tells us (Mark 4:34) that at one point, his public teaching was almost entirely based on parables. And Jesus’ parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Fool, and many others are among the best known stories in our culture.
Even the last book, Revelation, which is primarily visual, also tells stories.
What!? No Systematic theology!?
The Bible we read contains 66 separate ‘books’ or writings. They include (depending exactly how you classify them – some have elements of more than one genre) 18 sagas or historical chronicles, the sayings of 17 prophets, 4 biographies, 21 letters, and half a dozen varied writings (poems, songs, stories, musings on life and an apocalyptic vision).
There isn’t a textbook, a systematic theology, a catechism or formal credal statement among them, although a few sections contain small elements of some of these. In the Bible, truth is not general known via impersonal facts, but through stories which can be universally appreciated and through teachings (in the prophets and the letters) which are very personal and written into very specific situations.
Taste the difference!
This might be a little unexpected to us today. We’re used to reading about truth, whether in science, history, philosophy or theology, in prose. Often difficult prose with lots of big technical words in thick well-meaning books. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion are in prose, not story. So is Martin Rees’ book on cosmology Just Six Numbers. And so is Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
If you want to give a lot of facts, there’s nothing like a good description, perhaps accompanied by a table or a graph. However it is easy to glaze over when facts are presented.
But a story grabs our attention if it is well told. It gives pictures and insights that may be unforgettable. A story may not be so good on presenting detail, and each story comes from the perspective of the story-teller. But a story can make the ‘big picture’ easy to understand. And a good story makes us think rather than tell us everything.
Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son tells a human story with which we can all identify. It speaks to each of us in different ways. And most people will remember the story of extravagent forgiveness long after they have forgetten a homily on the same theme.
The Bible is one big story
Not only is the Bible composed of many stories, but christians believe it tells one big story. The evidence is everywhere:
- The beginning of the story contains promises that God will do certain actions in the future. Further promises are made to the king, David, about his descendents.
- The prophets continue to interpret the past from God’s perspective and point to a coming and glorious future that they themselves never see. But expectation grows ….. and grows.
- Then Jesus comes and says that all these promises and hopes are fulfilled in him. The people are divided, but many believe him, on the basis of his teachings and healings.
- Jesus’ apostles, principally Paul, point over and over again to how Jesus is the fulfilment of the whole Jewish scriptures. God’s daring plan to include all peoples in his kingdom is now able to be understood.
- Finally, in the last book in the Bible, we see the broad sweep of history in a series of cataclysmic visions. What God started at Genesis, he will surely finish.
The Bible is indeed a story book and a book of stories.
So what can we learn about the Bible from all this?
As christians we believe God planned for us to have the Bible. So we can only conclude that:
- He never wanted it to be primarily a textbook. He apparently made no effort to make it a comprehensive statement or reference on doctrine, or ethical behaviour, although of course it does contain both.
- Doctrinal and ethical truths are not taught academically, but are shown in very practical ways in specific situations and in people’s lives.
- In telling a story, the Bible’s truths are available to the educated and illiterate alike. Everyone can see and understand ‘the big picture’ of what God is doing. Yet there is plenty of meat on the story bones for those who need this. In this way it is egalitarion.
- Jesus’ parables were stories designed to elicit a response, to encourage people who were interested in knowing more to think and ask questions, while allowing others to let the teaching go right past them. It seems that the Bible may be somewhat the same – we can choose to focus on the main messages, or not.
- God’s message is not to be understood just with the intellect, but with our imagination, and with the spiritual core of our being.
Exercises in missing the point
Unfortunately, many readers, christians and sceptics alike, miss a lot of this. They approach the Bible as if it was a textbook. Finding different perspectives, they either decide the Bible can’t be ‘true’, or try to find ways to harmonise the differences. In the end, this can be a diversion that keeps us from hearing God’s story.
Of course we need to determine whether the Bible truly tells God’s story, but we need to understand that story first, and judge it according to what it is, not on what we think it is.