Ever since reading Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism in Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, I’ve been working on a research project to investigate how, exactly, a person would go about reading the Bible using what Smith calls a “christocentric hermeneutic.” I figured that if a first-year seminary student could learn the 3 (or 4 or 5) steps of inductive Bible study, then there had to be a way to systemize the christocentric hermeneutic so that regular people (non-scholars with a life outside of conferences and research papers) could understand it.
In one of those space/time convergences that sometimes happens, last week several bloggers all wrote posts wondering why some people continue to pretend that their Bible is, in fact, something much tidier and more well-behaved than the Bible God actually gave us. While I have no idea why someone would deny what’s right in front of their eyes, both Smith and N.T. Wright (who are much smarter than I am) assert that the reason for this is that the modern evangelical’s worldview does not allow for the possibility that a story (gasp!) could be authoritative. And authoritative is the one thing the Bible has to be.
The bad news for many evangelicals is that no amount of whining, rationalizing, or closing our eyes and wishing really, really hard will change the fact that Christianity’s authoritative document—the document that God intended us to have—looks more like The Lord of the Rings than The Collected Sayings of Gandalf. It is what it is—and what it is is a narrative.
For the moment, I’m not going to explore what we might mean by the word “authoritative.” Right now, I just want to explore the assumption that evangelicals can’t conceive how a narrative could have spiritual authority. I realize that I’m on shaky ground disagreeing with N.T. Wright about anything, but I submit that evangelicals (and in fact most people) already know ”in their bones” that narratives can be authoritative, they just don’t know that they know it. The challenge, then, is helping them acknowledge what they already instinctively understand.
Why is it that parents worry when their kids spend too much time playing Grand Theft Auto? Why do some conservative Christian parents try to ban Harry Potter from the school libraries? Why are sci-fi snobs (like myself) concerned about teenage girls who obsess over Twilight? It’s because people instinctively know that stories can become so authoritative that they can infiltrate and inform a person’s worldview. We worry about (or in my case make fun of) something like Twilight because the beliefs and behaviors that are portrayed as positive in these stories are not worthy of being emulated. We worry because we realize, that for good or ill, the values in these narratives can become so powerful that they become the grid through which the world is filtered.
Stories are the easiest thing in the world to make authoritative. They get inside our head and become part of our cultural consciousness. I submit that one of the reasons that the Bible does not have the authority it used to—even for people who say they’re Christians—is because we have removed the one aspect of it that actually could infect, inspire, and transform us.
“It’s like in the great stories, Frodo, the ones that really matter…”
I don’t think it would be hard to convince evangelicals that a narrative can be authoritative. All we have to do is get people to consciously acknowledge something they already intuitively know. The problem is that while people like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Roger Olson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Christopher Wright, Christian Smith, and insignificant bloggers like myself have been banging this drum for a while, the word is not getting out to the local church.
So I’m asking for your help. What can we do to get the church to publicly acknowledge that authoritative narratives are alive and well and living in our apartments? How do we get them to admit that a story can be a hundred times more authoritative than any old instruction manual? How do we get them to celebrate the fact that the Bible is the greatest STORY ever told?