Recovering the Story
There used to be a time not long ago when people found a great new way to solve theological problems. Let’s say you wanted to know what the Bible said about parenting. All you had to do was compile a list of all the Bible verses that mentioned parenting, and you had your answer (in theory at least). But instead of doing all this work yourself, the professionals offered a convenient solution: the Systematic Theology. The 20th Century gave rise to some of the most comprehensive systematic theologies. The works of scholars like Wayne Grudem, Millard Erickson, and Norman Geisler became staples of any serious pastor’s library. Fueled by this systematic approach to Scripture, debates raged over dispensationalism versus covenantal theology, the details of different eschatologies, and the specific nuances of Pauline justification. For some, these debates proved helpful, but many lost sight of something essential: Story.
A Telling Omission
The Apostles’ Creed is one of the central affirmations of orthodox Christianity, and is recited regularly in many churches. Let’s review its beginning here:
I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
Perhaps the Apostles’ Creed has become so familiar that we don’t even give it much thought any more. But on a close reading we notice something very strange. The very foundation of the Christian faith is completely absent from this text. Before reading on, take a minute to carefully read over the above creed again and ask yourself what important elements might be missing.
Did you notice what’s missing? We go straight from Jesus’ death to his suffering and death. Not a word is spent on Jesus’ life and teachings! We have become so fixated on propositional truth statements that we completely miss the Story which gave rise to these propositions in the first place.
How We Got Here
To understand how many of us could have lost ourselves in cold facts at the expense of the grand biblical Story, we need to briefly review our history.
Time frame: 476 (Collapse of the Roman Empire) – 1700
- fixed social status
- integration of the material and spiritual realms
Time frame: 1700 (beginning of the Enlightenment) – 1989 (Fall of the Berlin Wall)
- the supremacy of reason
- faith in the scientific method to solve humanity’s problems
- historical optimism
- the main social narrative of Western dominance
- traditional social values
Time frame: 1989 – today
- a counter-reaction to the beliefs of Modernity
- skepticism about our ability to know anything for certain
- tolerance toward the multiplicity of cultural narratives
- perceiving all truth as a social / language construct
- doubting a peaceful future of the human race
- open social values
While the above timeline is admittedly a very rough generalization, it is helpful in understanding the momentous shift taking place in Western thought. If you are 30 years or younger, and were raised in the West, you most likely have a Postmodern worldview. If you have grown kids of your own, you were raised in a Modern context, and are probably keenly aware of the more recent shifts in Western culture.
The Postmodern Lens
Our worldview has a profound impact on how we approach the Bible, for good or bad. While Postmodern readers have their own blinders, one thing they intuitively do better than their Modern counterparts is read the Bible as Story. This has several reasons. For one, they aren’t too bothered by the often ambiguous nature of Biblical narrative since they aren’t hunting for propositional truth statements to begin with. Also, Postmoderns are more clued into varying cultural milieus. After all, their own circle of friends includes Philippinos, African Americans, and Chinese, all bringing along different values. So it seems natural to pay close attention to the Jewish culture from which the Bible arose.
Reading the Bible as Story
As an author team of Postmoderns, we see a great need to begin reading the Bible as Story again. We need to immerse ourselves in the often peculiar stories of the Old Testament, and go much deeper than just trying to extract tidy moral lessons. And we need to soak up the stories of Jesus’ life, and those of the Early Church, without attempting to squeeze them into a theological straight jacket. The individual Bible stories are not simply neat standalone narratives, but rather weave the tapestry of God’s Grand Story of the Redemption of All Things. When we begin reading the smaller stories in light of this master plan, the whole biblical message takes on a new meaning and urgency. Instead of asking “How do these verses contribute to a particular theology?” we are confronted with a much more important question: “Where is your role in the Story?”