A Storied Faith

Intended to *Ground* Your Traverse … 

In my last Traverse fb post (Jan 5, 2016), I highlighted how some secular writers have found new appreciation of the Bible as classic inspiring literature. In traversing church & culture, it’s time to turn the focus home-ward. How do believers engage the Scriptures? Check out my provocative post from WonderingFair, entitled “Confessions of a Recovering Biblicist.”

What is the Bible? I first wrote this blog-piece to challenge a common misuse of this Sacred Text. By treating our Scripture as a repository for rules, or timeless advice, we easily fall into a flat and Pharisaical reading. For many in our culture, the Bible is perceived as a weapon—a sword swung freely to dissect what religious people dislike in post-Christian society. And for many lapsed Christians, the imposition of archaic laws became increasingly implausible; they left the faith in pursuit of a fully human and free life.

In technical terms, this is a deontological hermeneutic. We look for binding obligations and principles, formulas, do’s and don’ts, that apply to all people irrespective of time, culture and place, and tell us precisely how to live. But, this reading pays little attention to how we received this text (i.e., event, inspiration, preservation, translation, illumination). It largely ignores the original audience, and the nature of this book.

What if we changed to a teleological approach? What if we adopted the metaphor of an unfolding story, or a travelogue—the record of God journeying with humanity, oriented toward his mission in the world? Who is the sender, the agent, the task, and the receiver? What key impediment must be removed to secure the ending, where the characters live happily ever after? And who is our helper on this quest, resolving the central conflict?

Yesterday I sat through a great session with Compass Ministries at their Summer Conference. In a one hour session, we experienced the flow of the biblical epic as a dramatic and yet coherent narrative. Towards the end was this gem:

The church is called to fulfil its mission, its vocation, by shaping its life around the story of God, especially the story of Jesus. And to live out this story in such a way that people are drawn to them and the God they worship. The church invites the world to participate in the new world made possible by Jesus. In this gathering of people, the church, the world is meant to be able to taste and see the new world made possible by Jesus. We are to be a signpost pointing to a different way to be human.

How would our reading of the Bible, and relating this revelation to our culture, change if this was our approach?
And why this current emphasis on story? Is it faithful?

Well, to start with, it is faithful to what God has given us. As N. T. Wright explores in his article “How Can the Bible [A Story] Be Authoritative?” and his book, The Last Word, God rarely barks commands at us. This would only be good in a highly defined and static situation, where submission rather than growing up, communal responsibility and loving relationship are the goal. Discerning WWJD is more complex than replicating what Jesus once did. So, speaking into a changing world where divine words mustn’t lose relevance even 2000 years on, God chooses instead to let us in on his take on history and his plans for all creation (the missio Dei). Only as we see ourselves as within this ongoing story can we faithfully improvise in our act on the world-stage … our trajectory is set toward shalom.

It also fits anthropologically and ethically.

As Alasdair MacIntyre suggests in his landmark book, After Virtue,

I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part? We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters—roles into which we have been drafted—and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. … Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources.

Humans live by stories, making sense of life by tying disparate events together into a coherent plot. So, the church needs to be clear on its six-act story of creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, Church and New Creation. In its contours, we are called to create and cultivate, repent, bless, love, reconcile, and worship. Our mission emerges from the ongoing epic.

So, if you have done any of my courses at Malyon, you’ll find that a story-formed faith permeates and grounds all we do. It affects how we interpret the Scripture (see here for my 5 minute video introduction to “The Journey”, with participant guide here). It shapes how we share the gospel, commending and defending our beliefs apologetically in the face of defeaters such as suffering as we re-tell this epic narrative. Creation, fall and restoration is the frame for our worldview, and the beating heart of our everyday theology. It gathers a global church for mission as they are “united in the great story”. It even suggests the contours for how we integrate faith and work.

SPANNING THE DIVIDE: Try reading and relating to the Scriptures as a 6 act-play. You are to prayerfully listen to the Director’s voice, following his inspired promptings to faithfully improvise in your particular time and place. This is in continuity with what went before, and naturally reaches toward what lies ahead. In dialogue with people beyond the church, focus less on the Bible’s rules, and more on the flow of the story as together you try to make sense of the world in which you live. Demonstrate how it leads toward, rather than away from, freedom and life to the full.

PS – as horribly compressed as this is, here’s my own framing of the Bible’s story. Goheen and Bartholomew take a similar approach in their book, The Drama of Scripture:

ACT I: It begins in the garden where we were designed for good, to love God, love others, and care for His planet.

ACT II: The core tension emerges, however, as we rebel, coming to a head at the Tower of Babel. Damaged by evil, we turn inward, despising God, abusing others, and vandalising His world.

ACT III: God’s plans to resolve this tension focus in on a tent. Israel is chosen to bless the world as a pilgrim people. Continual sin, however, threatens the covenant and lands them in exile, awaiting Abraham’s seed and the Kingly Messiah.

ACT IV: Before we can journey out to bless the world, God Himself must journey in to Jerusalem for a deadly confrontation. The stage is set to announce the long-anticipated reign of God. Ultimately we are restored for better on the mount of crucifixion, Jesus paying for our sin and completing Moses’ and David’s work with a New Exodus.

ACT V: The Holy Spirit, sent by the resurrected Christ, then descends in power on a house. Fearful believers are filled in that upper room, transformed to spread this good news across time and place to reach us today. We’re sent together to help heal, a taste of how the story ends when Jesus returns.

ACT VI: We look, then, to our telos in the city of the New Jerusalem. Jesus returns and judges the world to set everything right. Sin is replaced by shalom, and God’s kingdom is established everywhere for His glory and the flourishing of all creation. In short, this is the Great Story of the Bible, a journey in from the garden, via the tower and tent, to a mountain. And then it’s the journey back out to bless the whole world from the house to the city of God.