Why Teach the Bible as a Story?

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“Daddy, can you tell me a rule?”

That’s a sentence that no child of mine has uttered.  Like, ever.

The fact is that human beings are story-driven creatures—from our earliest memories to our final days. In the words of the novelist David Foster Wallace, “We need narrative as we need space-time.”

Yet if you asked most Christians to articulate the basic story of the whole Bible (from Genesis to Revelation) they would struggle. Understandably. After all, there is a lot of content. The Scriptures span centuries, languages, cultures, and genres. The Bible is comprised of poetry, legal codes, songs, history, romance, prophecy, lament, and detailed instructions on everything from sex to skin rashes. And to top it all off, the book is not in exact chronological order.

Maybe because of this, Christians have sometimes tried to approach Scripture as something other than a grand story that reveals God’s work in the world.

Here are a few examples:

1) The Bible as Rulebook

One way the Bible has been viewed is as a kind of cosmic rulebook.  And this is not entirely wrong.  There are commandments in it.  And one of the more famous lists has several that begin with “Thou shalt not.”

But rules have meaning only when embedded in a relationship, and in a story.  Hence even the Ten Commandments are preceded with a narrative that says why God’s people should love and trust the rule-Giver:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod. 20:2).

This shows the danger of viewing the Bible primarily as a bunch of “dos” and “don’ts.”

First, that is not how the Holy Spirit put it together.  The real book starts “In the beginning”; and God’s order of operations begins always with unmerited grace (bringing people out of slavery), while later giving rules that show a better way to live.

We need a better approach than “The Bible as mere rulebook.”

2) The Bible as Devotional Self-help Manual

Since the “rulebook” approach no longer played well with a generation burned by legalism, a second view of Scripture is to see it as a repository of somewhat poorly packaged devotional insights, conducive to self-help, parenting, and Danielic diet tips (Yes, that’s a thing.).

Unfortunately, when one opens the Bible, this isn’t really what it looks like.  So in order to transform it into the Ancient-Near-Eastern equivalent of a Tony Robbins talk, the content needs some “tweaking.”

Verses like Jeremiah 29:11 must be ripped from their narrative context (which is about Israel’s upcoming seventy years in painful exile), in order to be transformed into inspiring nuggets for the modern individual.

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jer. 29:11).

Now, make no mistake, this passage is inspiring.  And it does have implications for the modern person.  But to approach the Bible primarily as a repository of motivational pick-me-ups is to transform it to our own individualized, self-focused image.  That’s not what Scripture is.

But while these “modern” ways of misreading Scripture are unhelpful, the “postmodern” imbalances are problematic too.

3) The Bible as Oppressive Power-play

Given the obvious and painful tendencies of human power toward oppression, a popular postmodern view of Scripture sees the Bible as primarily the product of a wicked patriarchy that desires to rule the masses.  “History,” we are told, “is written by the victors.”  And more specifically, by the men who ended up on top.

Undoubtedly, this is sometimes true.  And the Bible holds nothing back in showing the violence and oppression that humans have wrought.  (Remember Jeremiah 29:11.)

Yet to “deconstruct” the Bible to this extent is to miss the rather obvious fact that this God is the one who leads an oppressed minority (Israel) “out of the land of slavery” (Exod. 20:2).  And in many ways, the long and bloody storyline of Scripture is merely an outworking of what “Exodus” from exile and slavery looks like at every level of life.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” pronounces Jesus as he quotes from the Old Testament:

because he has anointed me
     to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
     and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19)

So while there is a story of oppression in the Bible, the God we see in Jesus Christ is working to upend it.

Conclusion

In the end, what strengths there are in each of these approaches to Scripture are best captured when we teach the Bible as a single storyline from start to finish.

That’s what I’ve tried to do in Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements.

To be sure, we need more than just a “Story-framework” to understand and live the Scriptures. We need the Holy Spirit, as encountered in community that gathers round the risen Jesus—his body, blood, and word.

But a simple storyline can help regular people begin to see how all the little “bits” of Scripture fit together in a seamless whole that anyone can understand.

That’s why I wrote Long Story Short, and I hope it helps you get swept up in the grand narrative that God is writing

Long Story Short by Josh McNall is perfect for:
1) Newcomers classes 2) College or Young Adult Ministry 3) Home groups 4) Neighborhood Bible studies 5) Sunday School. As you walk through this book, you will: Learn the big story of Scripture as a seamless whole; engage with a highly readable book; ee challenged to think about familiar stories of the Bible in fresh ways. “Joshua McNall in his engaging and witty little book Long Story Short, can help you understand the storied world in and of the Bible, and perhaps more importantly help you understand how actually you are in the story, and you must embrace it as yours.” (Dr. Ben Witherington III) Get the book from our store here.

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Dr. Joshua McNall is Assistant Professor of Theology at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. He lives in Bartlesville, Oklahoma with his wife Brianna and their four children. In addition to preaching and teaching roles, he blogs regularly at joshuamcnall.com.

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