The Storyteller’s Bible Study

In As You Like It, Jacques delivers Shakespeare’s famous words, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

True and truer still. We are characters written by God into His great story of His cosmos. A story that He wrote, produced, directs, and stars in. God is the grand auteur and storyteller that all other auteurs and storytellers either point to or rebel against. Burrowing even further into God’s Divine storytelling, He has graciously chosen to reveal His main plot, His primary story, in the Bible.

This is why, as God’s created Image Bearers, we respond so quickly and profoundly to stories. We are not only playing a role in God’s meta-story; we are mini-storytellers, all of us. Sadly, we often check our storytelling heritage and God’s divine role as the Holy Storyteller of all at the door when we enter into our Bible reading and study.

In his book What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain argues that professors who are successful at producing students who effectively engage their field of discipline are professors who focus energy on how the students construct their knowledge of the discipline’s facts. In other words, the best professors focus energy on imparting the discipline’s epistemology to their students. A history professor teaches his students how to view and interact with the facts like a historian. A biology professor teaches her students how to view and interact with the facts like a biologist. And so on and so forth.

Bain’s arguments and conclusions frequently accompany me as I interact with the variety of Bible study plans available. You see, as profitable and good as many of those plans are, I believe that the storyteller’s epistemology is woefully underrepresented.

Like all well-crafted books the Bible is simultaneously simple and complex. I’ll attempt to explain what I mean by “simple” in a bit. As far as complex, well, for starters the Bible is a Divinely inspired book.

I’m sure that most people won’t as much as raise an eyebrow at my claim that the Bible is a complex book. It’s intricately written with much nuance and deep metaphors that defy cursory exploration. The characters (true, historical characters) frequently have conflicting motives and act in contradictory ways. At times, the symbolism is so rich and so varied as to seem overwhelming to the uninitiated. But that’s not the totality of what I mean when I describe the Bible as “complex.”

It’s often pointed out that the Bible is not a science textbook nor is it a political science textbook. It’s not a lot of things, even if its principles and themes should shape how Christians interact with science, political science, and other things. However, if you ask if the Bible is a history book, the answers will be less sure and less consistent. So, is the Bible a history book? Well, yes, and, no.

It includes history, a lot of history, but it includes much more than history. The Bible includes poetry; it includes theology/philosophy. It includes ancient apocalyptic structures and themes. Letters, ancient chronologies, and incredible tales of talking snakes, universal floods, giants, and a hero who dies in order to win also help tell the Story of the Bible. It is a complex book because it seamlessly weaves together different disciplines and their respective epistemologies. Astonishingly, it does so within one Story.

Referencing Ken Bain, most Bible study programs and systems build off either the epistemology of the historian or the theologian/philosopher. Even my favorite Biblical theology books are rooted in the epistemology of the historian or theologian/philosopher. And that’s good, right, and helpful.

However, what’s lacking are Bible studies rooted in the perspective of the storyteller.

I don’t believe that the perspective is lacking within Christendom. Many excellent children’s Bible story books give evidence that Christians understand the Bible as a unified story. There are theology books that reveal that theologians love God’s story as they allow their own role as mini-storytellers to emerge in their books and articles. However, I believe that when encouraging Believers to study God’s Word, that encouragement is usually divorced from our roles as mini-storytellers as well as divorced from the truth that the Bible is God’s Story.

That raises a question, though. Is the Bible a single story?

Many Christians will quickly affirm that it’s one book; but one story? Isn’t it a collection of multiple books connected by similar faith themes?

If the Bible isn’t a single story, then the storyteller’s epistemology is rightfully undervalued for studying the book. However, I strongly believe that the Bible is one Story. And I’ll make my argument in support of that claim as I present the storyteller’s Bible study method. As such, I believe that a storyteller’s perspective and epistemology is a helpful and needed aid for interacting with the Bible and interpreting it. In fact, going a step further, I believe that without understanding the Bible’s story as a storyteller would understand it makes it more difficult to interact with and interpret it using other epistemic lenses, no matter how good, right, and helpful those other lenses may be.

Puzzling over the Christian belief that the Bible is a single book containing a single narrative, literature professor Northrop Frye pushes back on secular convention (and his own internal desire) that states that the Bible is a collection of disparate, ancient Near-Eastern mythologies. He writes,

[Narrative unity in the Bible] exists if only because is has been compelled to exist. Yet, whatever the external reasons, there has to be some internal basis even for a compulsory existence. Those who do succeed in reading the Bible from beginning to end will discover that at least it has a beginning and an end, and some traces of a total structure. It begins where time begins, with the creation of the world; it ends where time ends, with the Apocalypse, and it surveys human history in between, or the aspect of history it is interested in, under the symbolic names of Adan and Israel. There is also a body of concrete images: city, mountain, river, garden, tree, oil, fountain, bread wine, bride, sheep, and many others, which recur so often that they clearly indicate some kind of unifying principle. That unifying principle, for a critic, would have to be one of shape rather than meaning; or, more accurately, no book can have a coherent meaning unless there is some coherence in its shape.[1]

For Northrop, who was not a Believer, the tension he felt and attempted to synthesize regarding the Bible’s narrative unity was a product of,) A. his rejection of the Bible as a divine book with one author and, hence, a rejection of a clearly set forth authorial intent, and,) B., the conflict (A) created when it clashed with his overall knowledge of the Bible informed by his expertise as a literature professor. Furthermore, his tension was born out of his belief that for his students to fully engage Western literature, they must engage the Bible. Teaching the Bible, it was impossible for him to not be affected by the book’s transcendence and Divine origin, even if he acknowledged its narrative unity begrudgingly.

Christians, on the other hand, should not feel Dr. Northrop’s tension. We believe that the Bible is inspired by God, ultimately authored by God, and that God, as author, had a reason for authoring it. And that reason unfolds as the story unfolds.

(In Part 2, which is written and will be posted tomorrow, Lord Willing, I begin to provide definitions, questions, and tools needed to effectively interpret the Story of the Bible as a storyteller.)

What Is a Story?

If someone were to ask you to explain what makes a story a story, what would you say?

I have taught the following definition of story to my kids, and I believe that it provides the foundation for literary analysis and ultimately discovering authorial intent:

In a story, someone wants something. That someone is called the protagonist. However, someone or something is standing in the protagonist’s way. That someone or something is called the antagonist. The story is what the protagonist does to overcome the antagonist and achieve his or her objective. If the protagonist succeeds, the story is a comedy (in the classical sense). If the protagonist fails, the story is a drama (in the classical sense).

Several years ago, while in college, friends who were taking a playwriting class would frequently come to me for help. One of their ongoing assignments was developing several rough outlines for plays – five at a time, I think. These students would become bogged down by specific actions and settings or unique character traits or plot devices – for example, a spaceship flies to close to a black hole and the resulting time-bend puts them back on earth before they left and one of the astronauts who contracted an alien disease on the flight is still sick even though he’s now back to a point in time before he came in contact with the alien.

Frustrated, they would tell me, “I have an idea for a story – a spaceship flies to close to a black hole and the resulting time bend puts them back on earth before they left – but I can’t seem to develop it any further.

As interesting as they can be (some of what the students who came to for help came up with weren’t interesting), plot devices, unique character traits, and specific actions and settings are not a plot and focusing on them will rarely lead to a story. Doing so fits under the colloquialism of putting the cart before the horse.

So, when they would come to me in dismay because they had failed to come up with the requisite number of rough outlines for a play, I would quickly come up with a basic story. For example, a baker wants to bake a cake for his daughter, but the flour salesman won’t sell him any more flour.

That brief outline raises some questions. Why does the baker want to bake a cake for his daughter? Why won’t the flour salesman sell the baker the needed flour? And exploring character, questions like, why did the baker become a baker to begin with?

Initially, while coming up with the story, I wrote, “but the floor salesman is angry at him,” complicating the plot in the basic outline. Being angry with the baker, may be the reason why the flour salesman is refusing to sell the flour, which, if so, raises another question. Why is the flour salesman angry at the baker?

A simple plot outline – someone wants something and someone or something is standing in the way – prompts a flood of questions that helps lead to honest character descriptions, interesting actions and settings, and workable plot devices, the things that help make the story colorful and compelling.

The Bible adheres to that definition of a story. The question for Christians who are engaged in studying the Bible should be, “Do I know the whole story well enough to legitimately interact with this small part?” Of course, that also raises the question, “What’s the first step in discovering the whole story?”

Well, read it.

The Whole Story

A common mistake that actors make after being cast in a play is to immediately scroll through the script highlighting all their lines. Eventually, highlighting and working on lines is something that will need to be done, but it should wait until the actor has read the entire play several times.

At its core, the actor’s job is to present a cogent piece that fits coherently within the whole puzzle called the play. Without knowing, and knowing well, what the entire “puzzle” looks like, the actor runs the risk of creating a piece that is out of sync with the whole.

Besides not truly understanding and having a good picture of the whole play, when the actor begins looking at his lines too soon, the actor isn’t allowing the play’s given circumstances to shape his understanding of the character. Instead, his own life’s given circumstances are shaping the character. The problem is that the playwright didn’t take the actor’ given circumstances into account while writing the character.

That same interpretive principle applies to studying the Bible, too. Without knowing the whole story of the Bible, readers can’t say with any level of assurance that they truly understand any given passage. For example, how can you know what 1 Samuel 17 is about if you haven’t immersed yourself in the whole story of the Bible? The answer is, you probably can’t.

To be clear, I’m speaking about the ideal. If a new Christian or simply a Christian who has yet to read through the Bible from cover to cover is asked to participate in a study of 1 Samuel 17, I would encourage them to join the study. However, I would also encourage them to begin reading the Bible from cover to cover. It’s not necessarily an either/or.

The thing is, in my experience, few Christians have read the Bible from cover to cover even once. On the flip side, many of those same Christians are eager and willing to take part in a Bible study. While I applaud (and encourage) the desire to study the Bible, I believe that people are shortcutting the interpretative process by engaging in study without reading the whole thing first. As Karen Swallow Prior writes in her book On Reading Well, “Our desires as human beings are shaped by both knowledge and experience. And to read a work of literature is to have a kind of experience and to gain knowledge.”[2]

Reading the Bible from cover to cover shapes our understanding of it and enables us to better bore down, relying on the knowledge of the whole as we examine the parts. And the better we know the whole story, the sharper our interpretive instincts become, allowing us to better study the parts. And just as importantly, reading the Bible also shapes us.

Using literary terms, reading the whole story reveals the given circumstances – the who, what, why, and how. While reading the Bible cover to cover, take note of the main characters, the major themes, and the overarching narrative movement. For example, while reading the whole, what characters continue to pop up?

Well, “God” is an obvious answer. From beginning to end, God is front and center in the Bible. That must mean something, but at this point in the study, the goal is to collect information and not to interpret that information. Remember, you don’t possess enough information yet to trust your interpretation.

Other characters are highlighted and mentioned throughout – Abraham, Moses, and David, to name three. That means something, but, once again, the initial readings are to collect information. Also, when reading cover to cover, certain themes rise to the top. While not exhaustive, that list includes sin, death, judgment, salvation, and a garden and a city.

Throughout the whole Bible, sin brings judgment, specifically death, yet within that darkness the hope of rescue, of salvation, runs concurrently. Once again, that means something, but what that means is a question to be explored later. Because, and jumping ahead a bit, the answer to that can only be answered when the protagonist’s objective and the antagonist’s obstacle are revealed to the reader.

Thousands of words could be spilled pointing out the myriad and colorful given circumstances coursing throughout the entire Bible that tie it together. And that speaks to my larger point here, the Bible is chock full of narrative information. While it’s not necessary to have uncovered every bit of narrative information contained in its pages, reading the Bible cover to cover multiple times is essential to an effective Bible study.

The Objective and the Obstacle

Without spending a lot of time proving this from the text, God is the Bible’s protagonist. In fact, for the sake of my growing word count, I’m going to assume that the readers agree with me that God is the Bible’s protagonist. If you disagree or are unsure, I’ll be giving textual reasons for why I believe this to be true if (and when) I write more posts in this series and/or turn the whole thing into a book. For now, I simply state that God is the Bible’s protagonist. But what does God want?

Reading through the story of the Bible, the theme of relationship between God and His people shines brighter and brighter – created for relationship, broken relationship, and restored relationship.

At the beginning of the Story, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Later, in the third chapter of the Story, we learn that God communed with His Image Bearers (Genesis 3:8). The problem, of course, is that by Genesis 3:8 those made in God’s Image, Adam and Eve, are hiding themselves from God because they were afraid of what He would say and do. The relationship between God and His people has been broken just a few pages in.

The fact that the relationship has been broken can’t mask that the entire text of the Bible is riddled with versions of the phrase “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” The themes of familial relationship between God and His people that we read in the Bible (Father, children of God, etc.) help us connect the interpretative dots as we seek to discover what the protagonist (God) wants. In Deuteronomy (and the rest of the Bible), it’s revealed that God wants to bless His people, with the primary and most important blessing being His presence.

God wants to have a relationship with His people. It’s why He created humans. It’s why the Bible exists. Or, rather, God’s objective is why the Bible needs to exist, why God chose to reveal Himself and His objective in the Story called the Bible.

So, the answer to what does the Bible’s protagonist want is that God wants to have a positive relationship with His people. Moving forward with the next question will help us to sharpen how we view God’s objective. And that next question is, “What’s the obstacle in the protagonist’s path?”

(side note – reading the Bible reveals that God is completely sovereign over all things. Technically, nothing can stand in God’s way. The form of the questions doesn’t provide absolute statements about God’s character, but they do help us determine authorial intent.)

While reading the Bible from cover to cover it’s next to impossible to avoid picking up on the theme of God’s holiness. And, frankly, even if we don’t have a robust grasp of what it means to be holy, it’s really difficult to miss the larger and ironed out point – God’s holiness means that He can’t have a positive relationship with sin. Likewise, how God defines sin becomes clearer and clearer the more we read.

This means that when we go back to the beginning, Genesis 3 takes on a new resonance. A dark resonance, to be sure, but it becomes clear from Genesis 3 that the obstacle to God having a positive relationship with His people is sin. Most likely, looking at Genesis 3, Serpent-Satan and death should be folded into that obstacle, too. In fact, if you were to ask me who/what the Bible’s antagonist is, my answer would be the same as my answer for what the obstacle is to the protagonist’s objective – sin/Serpent-Satan/death/the rebellious hearts of God’s people is/are the antagonist.

At this point, we’ve filled out the basic outline for the Bible’s Story – God wants to have a positive relationship with His people, but sin/death/Serpent-Satan stands in the way – leaving the big question, what does God do to overcome the obstacle and achieve His objective.

As soon as that question is asked, Genesis 3:15 calls out.

Speaking to Serpent-Satan, God declares, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

While pronouncing the curses on those involved on the coup on His throne, God delivers an astonishing line – “he shall bruise your head.”

With that one line, a glimmer of hope still exists in the Story. God is not going to stand idly by. But, all the way back in Genesis 3 it’s hard to see exactly what that means. At the end of the chapter, God’s care and concern for His people is evidence by His providing clothes for Adam and Eve. What’s more, in the act of God clothing His children the fact that an animal had to die rings as an important point. But why?

Obviously, those who have been to Sunday school or studied the Bible on any level can probably answer that question. But, if given a specific passage, say 1 Samuel 17, can those same people explain how 1 Samuel 17 is connected to Genesis 3:15? Because, here’s the interpretive rub – in stories, the protagonist’s overarching objective, called the “super-objective,” is the interpretive grid through which the rest of the story must submit to. That’s why I believe that if a person can’t explain how a passage is connected to Genesis 3:15, that person may not understand the passage in question.

Asking the questions, who is the protagonist? What does the protagonist want? And, who (or what) is standing in the protagonist’s way? are all vital to interpreting stories and determining the authorial intent. However, if we’re being honest, that raises the question of how do I know that I answered those three questions correctly? The concluding sentence of the previous paragraph foreshadows the answer. But that’s for the next post in this series in which I will endeavor to explain “The Through Line of Action.”

[1] Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Harcourt, Inc.: New York, 1982), xiii.

[2] Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, MI, 2018), 21.

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