A Powerful Collision: God, Bible, Authority & Narrative 3

blank_page_intentionally_end_of_bookHow does this narrative approach then change the way Christians understand and relate to God and the Bible? Let’s look briefly at a narrative understanding of God, the fall, saving faith and evangelism.

1. A Narrative Understanding of God. The particular plot line reveals a lot about the heart and character of the Author. Therefore, in our quest to know and be known by God we will find the nature of God most clearly revealed in the plot.

Throughout the grand narrative of Scripture God is revealed through his loving acts in the past on behalf of his beloved children, by the fact that he mourns our fallen and broken condition, that he does not turn away from us in our rebellion but pursues his wayward bride throughout with an outlandish love and scandalous grace.  Rather than giving us our just punishment for our self-centered rebellion he enters into our history in Jesus and takes our sin upon himself as the fullest demonstration of his love.  He hears the cries of the downcast, the downtrodden and the least-of-these.  He mourns with those who mourn and grows frustrated with the rich, proud and arrogant, and is committed to working toward the lasting renewal and restoration of the entire world and will not stop until he “makes all things new.”

Far from being Aristotle’s “First Principle” or “Unmoved Mover”, the story of a God who is oozing passion, purpose, desire, relationality, love and is relentlessly pursuing individuals to join in the beautiful story of Resurrection and New Creation He began with Jesus on the third day and to be consummated when He becomes “all and all” (1 Cor 15).

2. A Narrative Understanding Human Sin. The Fall of humankind in Genesis 3 can be understood as Adam’s unwillingness to honor and accept the Author-Character distinction (the Biblical name for this is “idolatry”). Rather than accept his role as a created character in the plot of another Author’s story, Adam sought to seize the Divine Pen and begin writing his own story. Still today the most pervasive sin common to the human race is the insistence upon creating our own plot, authoring our own lives, and either leaving God out of our personal stories or just giving Him a smaller, more convenient, and self-serving role in the plot (e.g., making Him our means of eternal life in heaven but never making him Lord of our present life).

3. A Narrative Understanding of Faith & Salvation. If the great Fall into the dark night of sin and death was brought about by rebellious characters desiring to usurp the Author’s role (cf. Gen 3:4; Phil 2:6), then saving faith starts when renegade writers put down their pens, stop writing their own tales, and begin seeking their place within God’s unfolding redemptive drama.

(Disclaimer: This literary metaphor can misleadingly suggest a Fatalistic understanding of the will of God and seem to limit human freedom. However, I believe that God has granted his created characters incredible freedom to choose their own unique role within God’s Story. Unlike real storybooks, then, these characters are alive and able to communicate and interact with the Author!).

Trusting God with our life entails a deeper faith than just accepting some doctrinal propositions in our head so that we can go to heaven when we die. Trusting God means we let God’s Story—his unfolding plan of cosmic renewal being brought forward through His Body the Church—become the controlling rubric for our own lives here and now.

4. A Narrative Understanding of Evangelism. Similarly, when we understand this holistic view of faith and redemption, then we will adapt our outreach efforts to go beyond merely preaching the four spiritual laws or inviting others to confess a creed or pray a formulaic prayer (though all these may have a time and place in the process). Instead, we share the entire story of God and his dealings with his world—creation, fall, Israel, slavery, liberation, rebellion, exile, and the prophetic promises of a new exodus when all creation will be set free from its bondage to decay.

Furthermore, like the prophets of old we are called to confront and expose the false narratives (worldviews or belief-systems) that are keeping individuals as well as the world’s systems operating out of alignment with God’s good, just, and loving will (Rom 12:2). To those who live within the hopeless narrative that there is no Author of history, and that life is therefore some sick, cosmic joke, we are to point out all the divine fingerprints that so permeate nature and the heavens, all pointing toward a wise and intelligent Creator (Psalm 19). To the closet Deists who believe in a Creator but who is nevertheless quite distant and unconcerned with our earthly affairs “down here,” we are to tell the story of God’s personal involvement and intimate nearness (Acts 17) most beautifully demonstrated in the incarnation of Jesus Christ (John 1).

Next time we’ll focus on what a narrative approach says about the Bible and authority.  

4 Comments Add yours

  1. mike says:

    Really enjoyed this essay. One observation…”Still today the most pervasive sin common to the human race is the insistence upon creating our own plot, authoring our own lives, and either leaving God out of our personal stories or just giving Him a smaller, more convenient, and self-serving role in the plot..” Jeremy, I would agree that insisting on being our own masters & “creating our own plot” is a significant problem. But I wonder whether it can be characterized as the most pervasive sin. Indeed the epic story of mankind’s relationship to God is incredibly rich, complex, dynamic, truly breathtaking in scope. I don’t presume in any way to diminish God’s complexity – He is infinitely beyond our comprehension. And I’m not suggesting we stop thinking deeply about God. But we must guard against the displacement of the God Who Is by a God who is largely a product of the experiment of human thought. The story of God & man has been endlessly debated, interpreted, deconstructed, reassembled, etc., and in the process a God emerges who is so complicated and often contradictory that He becomes largely incomprehensible thus, inaccessible to many if not most people. So, it is no wonder many people turn to themselves and their own devices to create plot lines for their lives. But I think there is a far more pervasive sin than our desire to be lords of our own lives, one that is the predecessor to the sin of self worship; that is our disobedience to and disregard of the second great commandment. We all know the first, then Jesus says, in Mark 12:31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” It’s brilliantly simple, completely accessible, understandable to every person almost regardless of intellectual capacity, crosses all cultural barriers, requires no endless debate, speculation and interpretation. Woven into the human fabric – discernibly so, it is our fallen nature that resists. I think we overlook the immense power in this commandment and the incredible opportunity it presents to know God in a pure, deep and essential way through our obedience to it. I would posit that our right relationship to this commandment is where we find a great vantage point to observe God’s unfolding story and when we ignore it we are left with a great void. It is that void we attempt to fill with ourselves.

    1. Jeremy Berg says:

      Wow, thoughtful remarks, Mike. Thanks. Lots of big stuff on the table here. Interesting that you would offer the second greatest commandment as a, perhaps, better way forward to living rightly with God and neighbor.

      You say, “But I think there is a far more pervasive sin than our desire to be lords of our own lives, one that is the predecessor to the sin of self worship; that is our disobedience to and disregard of the second great commandment.”

      My thoughts on your great suggestion:

      1. You seem more skeptical than I am that we can accurately grasp who God is: “He is infinitely beyond our comprehension. And I’m not suggesting we stop thinking deeply about God. But we must guard against the displacement of the God Who Is by a God who is largely a product of the experiment of human thought. The story of God & man has been endlessly debated, interpreted, deconstructed, reassembled, etc., and in the process a God emerges who is so complicated and often contradictory that He becomes largely incomprehensible thus, inaccessible to many if not most people.” I disagree. This sentiment doesn’t take seriously enough the very concrete, no-interpretation needed, full self-disclosure of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” Jesus said. Who is God? Look at Jesus. Jesus made the incomprehensible, transcendent God both comprehensible in his character and intimately knowable in relationship by the Spirit. John 1, Hebrews 1 and Col. 1 seem to suggest the formerly mysterious, incomprehensible God has moved into the neighborhood, took on flesh and we now have a clear glimpse into the eyes of the invisible God in the face of a Jew from Nazareth.

      2. You say, “The story of God & man has been endlessly debated, interpreted, deconstructed, reassembled, etc., and in the process a God emerges who is so complicated and often contradictory that He becomes largely incomprehensible thus, inaccessible to many if not most people. So, it is no wonder many people turn to themselves and their own devices to create plot lines for their lives.” Are you referring to Christians with differing interpretations of Scripture? Or humanity in general throughout the ages (other religions, philosophers, etc.)? If the latter, I would say God has revealed himself quite clearly in Scripture – and they were looking in the wrong place for knowledge of the true God. Regarding differences of interpretation among Christians of different persuasions, I believe our commonalities far outweigh our minor differences. I don’t believe Bible-reading people would agree with you that a God “emerges who is so complicated and often contradictory that He becomes largely incomprehensible.” Not if they have poured over the Scriptures. But many in our culture haven’t taken Scriptures seriously.

      3. I believe obedience to the first commandment makes the second commandment possible. Most theologians have argued throughout the centuries (as does Jesus it would seem) that right relationship to neighbor is made possible by first getting right with God. Genesis 3 follows this pattern. Our first parents broke with the first commandment, which then led to a downward spiral that led to fractured relationship with others (e.g., Cain and Abel). The pattern that permeates the NT is that a right relationship with God will lead to rightly ordered relationships with others. God-love leads to neighbor-love (and even enemy-love!). An example of this pattern is John 15: As we “abide” or “remain” in the Father/Vine we become branches able bear fruit. But the first commandment seems foundational for the second commandment.

      4. You posit: “I think we overlook the immense power in this commandment and the incredible opportunity it presents to know God in a pure, deep and essential way through our obedience to it.” I’m not sure how loving others necessarily leads to any essential knowledge of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as revealed in Holy Scripture. Philanthropy and charity are done in the name of every religion, and we can celebrate and unite around the common good it produces. But the goal of the Christian epic of redemption is not to unite human beings who worship various gods in a project of global philanthropy. The goal is to bring idolaters who have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God” for lesser, man-made gods back into proper God-glorifying, God-loving relationship that ripples out into rightly ordered relationships with fellow human beings.

      4. Finally, we should trust Jesus knew what he was doing when he added a second commandment to the well-known first commandment (which was the foundational creed “Shema” (Deut. 6) of Jews for centuries prior). The first wasn’t enough. It must be accompanied by the second. They go together like a hand in a glove. Let’s not fall for a false “either-or” in this discussion. You have helpfully pointed that out to me, as my post focused only on the first commandment.

      A great book written on Jesus’ remarkable, powerful move to bring these two greatest commandments together as the creed of Jesus movement is called “Jesus Creed” by Scot McKnight.

      So, in sum: I believe God has clearly revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The Christian life of discipleship is fueled by first coming into proper relationship with God (through Christ by Spirit) in order to then love our neighbors as ourselves as we mimic our savior who fulfilled both of the Greatest Commands perfectly. What do you think?

      1. Jeremy Berg says:

        Mike, stay tuned for part 4. There I mention a bit more on how knowledge of God requires that we inhabit the story of God — that we learn to live within the narrative world of the Bible. Many Christians memorize some verses, follow some biblical principles, learn some abstract theological facts about God. Few, however, have immersed themselves in the full story of God. Stay tuned.

      2. mike says:

        What do I think? I think I’ll probably expose some serious shortcomings in my theology before this conversation is over. But, what the heck.
        1) Is it skepticism or humility that leads me to believe we can know very little about God? I would prefer to think it is the latter. Not that what we can know isn’t extraordinarily significant, rather that it is infinitesimally small in the scope of God’s grand dimensionality . Certainly Christ gives us a new lens through which we can view God but this view, lovely and life-giving as it is, is still but a glimpse. Jesus brought with him the possibility for reconciliation to God but plenty of interpretation about the nature of God and the workings of that reconciliation is still needed and it would seem that the disclosure is anything but full. You see examples of our struggle to understand and interpret everywhere. Early in your essay you say “Therefore, in our quest to know and be known by God we will find the nature of God most clearly revealed in the plot.” You seem to be saying that to be “known by God” requires some effort on our part. But isn’t God omniscient? Totally? Inherently, perhaps? I’m confused…The list of these enormously complex and ultimately unknowable (by us) aspects of God’s nature goes on and on, and they pop up all over the place. Certainly you’re far more familiar with the bones of contention than I. I point this out because, as interesting as they are, I think the endless scholarly debates tend to be divisive. Yes, Jesus displays God’s love for us. Yes, He offers an avenue to reconciliation and yes, I am inexpressibly grateful and utterly in awe of that fact. Yet, while Jesus helps explain God’s disposition toward his earthly creation, He doesn’t explain God – nor does he really try to. It seems to me that when Jesus says, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” He refers only to certain aspects of the Father. There are countless other aspects that are hidden, mysterious, unknowable to us. And that’s o.k.
        2) Mostly I refer to humanity in general but it is deeper than that. There are those who have abused and continue to abuse Scripture by distorting its message (prosperity gospel comes to mind) Many within the church don’t take the Scriptures seriously and teach that much of what we find in Scripture is subjective (emergent church comes to mind) Doctrines like hell, sin and even the very words of Jesus are all fair game for revision. These differences within the faith are anything but minor and yes, I think the unsaved see an incomprehensible and irrelevant god in this foolishness within the church while believers withdraw from the discussion because they’re troubled and confused by the lack of unity and clarity. And clearly there are difficulties within scripture that pose significant questions.
        3 & 4) agreed, no “either or” here. the two commandments are linked and I see the pattern you describe but I do believe loving others can lead to a deeper relationship with and deeper love for God. When I first came to the Lord He was still mostly an incomprehensible blur. I had nothing close to a right relationship with Him, all I knew was that I had come to the end of myself. It was mostly through the selfless, determined love of my new brothers and sisters along with the mysterious work of the Spirit that a picture of God began to emerge in my heart and mind. I am sure that an essential knowledge of the God of Abraham can be gained by those who are being loved. And when I, in turn, find it within myself to love others in the same way I was loved, God reveals something of Himself that I’ve found nowhere else.
        In sum: God remains largely a mystery. His revelation in Christ, precious, startling, improbable, magnificent as it is gives us but a glimpse. A beautiful, hopeful life-changing glimpse about which much will never be fully understood. And, an act of genuine love toward a neighbor is to fulfill the second great commandment (whether the benefactor believes or not) and can provide a path for non-believers, new believers and mature believers to be obedient to the first great commandment. I think the street runs both ways.

        Thanks for taking time to respond in such depth and thanks for shining your light. I will stay tuned.

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