Some people spend a lifetime trying to understand the Bible. Others reduce it to a few basic principles.
In Walk the Line, a film portrayal of country singer Johnny Cash, a conversation between two young brothers suggests another approach. During a reflective moment, just before a tragic accident changes their lives, the boys are lying on their beds. Jack is reading his Bible when Johnny asks, “How is it that you read and remember all those stories in there?” Jack responds, “J. R., I wanna be a preacher someday, so I’ve got to know the Bible front and back. You can’t help nobody if you don’t know the right story to tell them.”
Jack’s desire to know a story for every occasion might seem boyishly naïve. Or it might sound like one side of a current debate. A growing number of scholars and church leaders believe that the unfolding drama of the Bible is at the heart of its life-changing power. Others, however, are convinced that focusing on stories, instead of teaching doctrine, has become a trend that is watering down the authority of the Bible.
As in so many controversies, there is truth on both sides of the issue. The Bible is more than romance, mystery, and adventure. Between its covers we also find the laws of Moses, the songs of David, and the letters of Paul. Yet, even the laws, songs, and letters of the Bible have a story behind them.
The story factor of the Bible raises important issues. As the plot of the Bible unfolds, even some things as basic as the Ten Commandments are not given directly to us. The laws written in stone are part of the unfolding drama of God’s relationship with His chosen people. In a similar way, the parables of Jesus and the letters of Paul are also part of what God was doing with a group of first-century people. How then can they be God’s Word to us?
How does God speak through a story?
How can any part of the Bible be for us, if all of it tells the story of God’s relationship with ancient tribes, disciples, or churches? How can we say this is God’s Word to us when we are looking over someone else’s shoulder?
Some would answer these questions by saying that the value of narrative lies in its ability to mean something different to whoever hears it. Others would say that while it’s clear that the stories of the Bible are designed to engage both our imaginations and our hearts, they are also written to help us resist our tendency to make the Scriptures say whatever we want them to say. By weaving together people, events, and ideas, the plot and subplots of the Bible provide a context for understanding the author’s intent. Every story tells us something about God and something about ourselves that we will either act on or ignore.
Consider, for instance, the story Jesus told His disciples about a wealthy man’s desire for a return on his investments. According to Jesus, the man divided some of his assets among three workers before leaving on a journey. While he was gone, two of the men invested the money entrusted to them and had a profit waiting for the owner when he returned. The third, however, hid his money “under the mattress” to protect it. The owner was not pleased. He rejected the employee’s excuse by saying, in effect, “You knew that I expect a return on my investment” (Matthew 25:14-30).
In this parable, the employer didn’t tell his workers how to put his money to work for him in his absence. What is clear, however, is that they all knew him well enough to make their own choices as to what they should do while waiting for his return.
What about us? Does the most-published book in the world tell us enough about God and ourselves to enable us to serve Him as we wait for His promised return? Or are we already rehearsing our own excuses?
Imagine saying to Christ upon His return, “Lord, it’s so good to see you. I’ve been so confused. I kept waiting for You to tell me what You wanted me to do. You were so silent. All You left was a book full of someone else’s stories. They were all about people living in a different time and place. I had my own problems. I needed to know what You wanted me to do.”
Can you imagine the Lord saying, “What more did you need to know? You knew what I was like from the stories of My relationship with Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and Miriam. You heard how I responded to the prayers and wrongs of David and Solomon. By My involvement in their deeply flawed and troubled lives, you saw that I could walk with you on paths of your own choosing rather than Mine.”
Suppose the Lord continues, “You’re right. The Bible is the story about My relationship with people who lived a long time before you. Every one of those stories told you something about Me and something about yourself. That’s as much as I wanted you to know. I didn’t give you the Bible to answer all your questions. Then you wouldn’t have had to trust Me. I was more interested in telling you stories that would help you answer My questions. Once you knew what I was like and how far I would go to bring people of all nations to Me, would you want to do what you could to help? Would you be thankful for what I had done for you? Would you care that I love you? Would you trust Me to guide and enable you?”
Father in heaven, forgive us for hiding behind what You have not told us. Help us to be like young Jack, who wanted to know from front to back Your book—the stories that tell us what we need to know about You and about ourselves—for the sake of those for whom Your Son died.