Humans enjoy stories
Human beings like stories.Love stories, sci-fi, murder-mysteries. History and documentaries. Long-form video games and narrative-driven board games. The list goes on.
Shoot, even things that aren’t stories are stories. Take politics. The table is set with a protagonist and a series of antagonists. The mission is laid out. Victories and defeats follow. Passion. Intrigue. Corruption. Virtue. Good guys, bad guys….
Is sports any different? Most sports people I know don’t merely tune in to dispassionately watch. They know who “their guys” are, and they are well acquainted with the enemy. They know the personal lives of the players. The history of the teams and coaches. It’s a story.
I think people follow court cases on tv for the same reason. We like to follow the arc of the story. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, a story arc just means we recognize that stories have a beginning and an end, and they’re connected by a series of events.
In stories, we see conflict and resolution, and we hope that conflicts in real-life will end in real-life resolution. We know that problems are real, and we hope that justice is just as real. There are many types of stories, and many reasons for people to like them, but people like stories.
Incomplete stories are broken stories
I grew up before Netflix, so timing was important. If I wanted to watch a movie, I had to check TV Guide to make sure I knew what time to be home and what channel to turn on.
Have you ever started watching a movie after the beginningand been forever confused? It’s important to catch the kickoff, or the movie opening, or the season premiere, or whatever. Becauseif you miss the beginning, you’re probably going to misunderstand the rest of the story.
Sometimes you can get away with missing the beginning, but it will still change your understanding. Take Star Wars. You may presume that, like Star Trek and so many other movies set in space, that it takes place hundreds or thousands of years in future. But what are the first words of the opening crawl? “A long time ago...”So, apparently, it’s not in the future. Sometimes missing part of the story doesn’t entirely break it, but it ends up telling a different one than intended.
Since we are talking about shows, and now that Netflix is part of our lives, this changes the experience. I can't tell you how many times I have been watching a show and then realized I fell asleep for part of it. Since it's Netflix, and because I can, I often rewind it to the last thing I remember. Then I promptly fall asleep again. During one show I recently watched, I fell asleep at more times and in more episodes than I can count. Keeping track of what I missed become too difficult, so I gave up. Rather than backing up yet again, I resigned myself to the fact that there would be things that would confuse me, and I’d have to just roll with it.Let me tell you, this affected my experience! I finished the season, and I still enjoyed the show, but my understanding of the plot has some definite weak points. I don't understand why this one character was angry all the time, or what gives another character so much drive, or what happened to that guy’s car… I am realizing too far in that I have missed some crucial plot points. I'm missing some important pieces to the puzzle that keep me from properly understanding the show.
The Bible is a story, and I broke it
I am realizing recently that this is not that much different to how I've grown up with the Bible.Certainly not for any lack of teaching or exposure. I grew up in a good church with good parents. I had wonderful people around me and every opportunity to learn. This is not to say that the way it was presented was perfect – it never is. But much of the problem is on me. I often came in late to the show. Too often I missed critical details and didn’t bother going back to understand them properly. Some parts of the story became broken beyond any easy repair. Others became scrambled because I missed an important detail. Much of the problem is my making, and some came from an incomplete telling – but regardless,the burden to resolve it is mine.
Fixing Broken Stories
Scripture has been given to us as a whole, but I suspect that we rarely see it that way.We take these children’s church stories, devotionals, and life verses and let them fill our minds uncategorized. Eventually, we act like a cold-case detective. We crack open the file and pull out these bits and pieces. Then we tack them to the wall and start connecting them with string, building a complex network we call the bible.
We are clumsy detectives though. The only reason the bible needed putting together is because we took it apart.The bible came to us as a whole, but rather than learning to see the narrative woven throughout, we disassembled it and tried to solve a puzzle of our own making. And worse, we sometimes treat the pieces as Legos – as if there are no wrong ways to put it back together.
Some Mis-assembly Required
My problem wasn’t really lack of exposure to the bible. Far from it! I had plenty of access. I knew all the stories, but I think like many people, I was attempting to assemble the puzzle without looking at the box top.Because of this lack of framework, the picture I came up with was slightly off. Over the years I’ve talked with so many people who have the same experience. Many recognize it and admit it, but others do not – likely because they are unaware.
For those of us who see it though, it is unsettling. We look at the puzzles we have been constructing – from the pieces that we had – and find problems. What do we do with those problems? And worse yet, what do we do when most of the people we talk to seem to have them too?
Have you ever run into this? You are talking to another believer and find that your puzzles look different? (That is, you see the bible differently than they do.) The picture you have constructed might be very similar to theirs – after all, we use almost all the same pieces – but the way we put them together causes us to have different final pictures in mind.
Or maybe we think that things are a certain way now because of the way we've assembled our puzzle. What I mean is that the story we’ve constructed from our pieces of the bible may lead us to hold a skewed view of reality, or false expectations of the future, or misunderstandings of the past, or incorrect assumptions about God. This might not be a huge deal in some cases, but sadly, in too many, the puzzle under construction is quite unrecognizable.People sometimes have pieces upside down, or they haven't bothered identifying the edge pieces. Many have even mixed in pieces from other puzzles - whether accidentally or intentionally.
It doesn’t have to be this way.I’m not here to suggest that we can perfectly assemble the puzzle of the bible – after all, some things will remain mysteries. But what I will say is that we can do better. After learning from a number of different sources, I’ve come across some observations that have changed the bible for me, and I’m hoping it might help you, too.
Finding the Narrative Arc of the Bible
When I was a kid (and into my adulthood), I saw the bible as a collection of stories, lessons, and rules. It’s not that I doubted any of it – it just became difficult or confusing for me to “hold it all together”.What was the unifying theme? The grand storyline?
Imagine we’re going to build a house and I tear apart the plans and hand the pieces out to you. One of you makes a great window, another builds a nice chimney, front door, etc. If no one keeps a copy that shows the whole picture, how do we know where our piece belongs? Without a master plan, we might have all the perfect pieces in all the wrong places.And more likely, we’ll each have little mistakes in our pieces, but we won’t know it because we don’t know how the piece fits into the whole. In the end, we’ll have an odd-looking house that isn’t much good to anyone because it’s put together incorrectly.
I Needed a Framework
For a good part of my life, the Bible remained somewhat compartmentalized. I had David and Goliath, the parting of the Red Sea, tithing, the feeding of the 5000, the woman and the dragon, the Proverbs 31 woman, the spies in the promised land, the Beatitudes, a talking donkey, the snake in the garden, the resurrection… On and on they go. It made for an odd-looking house.
I had a relatively accurate understanding of each story. The trouble is I didn’t know where the pieces went. I mean, I could probably tell you where in the bible each is found, and maybe a general idea of when they occurred in history, but I didn’t always know how they fit God’s story.Understanding that makes a huge difference.
The Bible as a Bridge
Instead of a house, let’s picture a bridge. It has an origin and a destination. This bridge represents a narrative arc. The ends could represent creation and the new creation, or the opening of Genesis and the end of Revelation. On one end we have God’s kickoff of reality and on the other end we have God’s desired goal. And everything between is the details of how God is going to carry out his plan to arrive at his destination. The bible has a narrative arc – a beginning, an end, and a grand story to connect it all.
The bible’s stories I mentioned before are the microlevel. The type of cable in the bridge and how it’s braided – the details on how each bolt and rivet and weld is placed - these are crucial details in building the bridge. But if we are looking at all these detail drawings and misunderstand what is being built, we may end up with a swingset instead of a bridge – all because we missed the macrolevel of what the big picture was. So let’s step away from micro and talk about macro.
The Big Picture of the Bible
One popular way of looking at the history laid out in the bible is to identify the major turning points. They are often stated as Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. I like this way of categorizing things.
God is the creator and the rest of reality is his creation. He created the earth and us and everything else. Creation is when everything came to be.
Shortly thereafter, those created rebelled against their creator. The peace and harmony shared between them was broken. The Fall is how we describe this loss of innocence through humanity’s treason against her king.
Not all hope was lost. God determined that humanity’s fall was not to be the final word. A price was due for the sins of men, but God himself provided that payment. A covenant was made between God the Father and his only Son. Redemption refers to the mission Jesus willingly undertook at the Father’s bidding which resulted in the salvation of those who would believe.
Jesus’ death was not the end of the story. For those who truly put their trust in Jesus, there is reconciliation with God. Through the work of God the Holy Spirit, the brokenness brought by sin is mended. Some of this happens in this life, and it is completed by the next life. Restoration is God’s work in the Christian where the benefits of Jesus’ payment for sin is applied to our lives, and all of creation is brought back into God’s perfect plan.
Side Note: The Gospel
This template is a great starting point to understanding scripture. It’s a concise summary of the grand narrative of the bible. It’s also a good way to help you remember the gospel.The gospel is something we would all do well to have reinforced. Unfortunately, the surveys show that many Christians are unable to give a good explanation of the gospel. If we don’t know what it is, that makes it difficult to tell others. The gospel is not that “Jesus loves you and doesn’t want you to go to hell.” There may be some truth there, but that’s not the gospel taught in scripture. The shortest version I’ve heard that is accurate is that “God saves sinners”. Our four themes help us expand it a bit.
Who are sinners, specifically? People that were created (that means everyone)
What made people sinners? In the fall, our guilt makes us enemies of God.
How does he save sinners? In Christ’s death, we are redeemed and restored.
Creation, fall, redemption, restoration: These are the major plot turns that help us understand the story of the bible and the good news of the gospel
Building the Bridge (and other assorted metaphors)
For today’s discussion, I don’t want to get sidetracked on the rivets – I want to see the whole bridge. So we’ll need to zoom out.
Sometimes people talk about getting down “in the weeds” as a way to describe getting distracted by details. I picture a boat motor’s prop getting tangled up. By contrast, I’m asking that we zoom our camera way out. Out of the weeds, out of the water, far, far away until only the major features are visible. You might call this the view from 20,000 feet. In this case you could picture the view from an airplane. You can’t see weeds from a plane. You can’t even see the boat – or maybe even the lake it’s in.
If we get hung up on minor details in a story, we miss the point.
If I focus on the fact that lasers don’t make sounds or that sounds cannot be heard, I’ll lose track of who is fighting and why.
If I’m hung up on the fact that Tolkien mentioned plants that did not exist in Middle Earth such as potatoes, I’m going to miss all the valuable themes in LOTR.
If I’m too focused on a few puzzle pieces in front of me, I’m going to make a train that is part horse.
If I’m too hung up on who Cain married, or who the 144,000 are, or what diet Daniel ate, or what prayer Jabez prayed, I’m going to miss the whole point of scripture.
I don’t mean to diminish any of these topics. I’ve spent countless hours discussing such things myself! There is absolutely a time for focusing on the details, but that is only after the major themes have been established.Otherwise you risk building a different story than the one God intended to deliver.
Establishing the Structure
Like all good stories, the arc of the bible has a beginning and an end. If you’ve read the beginning and end of the bible, you’ve seen that there’s also some fairly bizarre sounding languagein those passages. We’re going to ignore that and look for the major themes.
If we use my bridge metaphor, the ends are the original creation and the new creation. In between we could identify the connecting structure of Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. With this structure in place the narrative arc may be laid in, developing the story of how God wove it all together in real time.
Once seen this light, we can see that, from the opening of Genesis, God had the close of Revelation in mind. And the books and authors between each did their part to connect the dots. Throughout history he told his story. The play was so artfully crafted that each scene within could be told as a story of its own. These are some of the bits we extracted. But seen in the grand narrative, they are shown to be vignettes that move the larger story along.
The Symphony of Scripture
You might compare this to music. Sometimes I get a memorable hook of a catchy song stuck in my head. That hook alone isn’t usually something that could stand on its own. It’s a piece of the whole that the songwriter crafted. An important element, but not as important as the song itself.
In classical music, the orchestra often introduces a theme in the beginning. It will often change, but you will recognize the repeated strain as it is carried along by different instruments, echoed with variations. It will ultimately be reconstituted into a climax at the end that soars in a culmination the composer had in mind all along. In this way, the bible is very much like a master symphony.
The Bible as a Play
The key players are God and man. There are supporting roles of supernatural creatures, as well as beasts of the field and air and sea.
The story is set in the Ancient Near East. It starts in a garden, then moves and expands until it is the talk of the entire Roman Empire.
One of the earliest conversations between creature and created contained the instruction to remain loyal.
Among the earliest actions of the created is rebellion. This sets up the conflict that consumes the rest of the story.
The place where God and man first meet is a garden. Later, they would meet on mountaintops, in tabernacles, and in temples. The primary function of each is the same. These are places in the story where heaven and earth meet and interaction between the creature and the creator is possible.
From there, the story takes off until it culminates in a newcreation, with a new garden. This is no accident. The story ends where it began. And in between those two creations are a number of recurring themes. Like the melodic strains that are woven throughout an orchestration, the bible uses recognizable refrains that come up repeatedly, and once you know them, they are difficult to miss.
So, if we are to understand scripture correctly, it helps to be on the lookout for these repetitive themes. We also need to see each part in the way that it serves the whole. And in fact, we find out that much of scripture exists in order to tell that story.
Avengers Endgame as Parable of Story Resolution
Avengers Endgame, of all things, does a good job showing this. Numerous storylines are pulled together and resolved in one amazing finale. It struck me while watching the movie that it was a good illustration of how the end of a story can make clear things that were previously hidden, and put right so many plot lines that seemed unresolved.
Understanding the Bible in Light of the End
In similar fashion, when scripture is allowed to interpret scripture, when we know the grand narrative, and when we look for recurrent themes, we see things we might have missed before.
In the beginning, God declares his creation good. This is the idea of shalom – completion, perfection, and peace. Shortly thereafter, humans choose folly over wisdom and leave God’s shalom and enter a life of unrest. This struggle between restlessness and perfect rest surfaces repeatedly in the narrative.
The serpent in the garden points out that our existence began with cowering to a beast, and that the farther we run from God, the more beastly we ourselves become. Will we live like beasts, or will we image God?
Whether we receive true wisdom by fearing God or pursue a counterfeit on our own is a major theme of scripture. Whether two trees in the garden or two metaphorical women in the writings of Solomon, the choice between wisdom and folly is a refrain we see expressed often in the bible.
Moses isn’t in the bible to teach us about handling our own Red Sea moments. He’s there to show us what it looks like to shepherd a people, plead with God on their behalf, and ultimately lead them to safety. And all that is so that we will recognize Jesus as the true shepherd, the true mediator, and the true savior through a better covenant.
David isn’t in the bible to show us that we can defeat our personal giants. His story is to show us that we all quiver on the sideline in fear awaiting a true champion to step out of history and defeat sin once and for all.
Solomon isn’t there to tell us how to deal with baby disputes. He spent the beginning of his life as a wise man who honored God, and ended his life foolishly chasing after his own desires. A large part of his existence was to help us understand that much of life is pursuing wisdom and avoiding folly.
Ruth isn’t in the bible just so we can have a love story. It’s to paint a picture of what redemption looks like so we can see that Jesus was the true redeemer.
On and on we could go, reevaluating the stories we know, back in the context we have pulled them from. And we should! We’ll start that next week, but this is a pursuit that will take a lifetime of examination and discussion in community.
You may recall a few months ago I spoke about the biblical themes of garden, city, and temple and what they represented. That message covered come of this same ground I want to talk about today if you’re interested in going back.