I’m not saying anything surprising when I say that Americans are a self-absorbed lot. This may also be true about people in other developed countries like Canada and Europe, but I can only speak from experience about the country in which I’ve lived my whole life. Since birth, we Yanks have been trained to believe that everything revolves around our needs. (They wouldn’t be called “needs” if we didn’t “need” them, would they?)
If there is one place you’d think the emphasis would be on something other than ourselves, it would be church. But even there, the emphasis is often not on the person’s need for Jesus, but on their need to get out of debt, fix their marriage, or manage their generalized anxiety disorder. There’s a big difference between a preacher who talks passionately about how following Jesus can totally transform a person’s entire existence and one who assumes that the only way to keep the audience’s attention is to address their “felt needs” by providing a “practical application.” One is preaching the gospel, the other is listening to marketers.
This unconscious self-absorption is reinforced in the way many evangelicals have been taught to read the Bible. I once wrote a post detailing the reasons why calling the Bible an “instruction manual” is the worst metaphor in the history of the world, suggesting that reading the Bible this way completely reverses the focus of the book. What should be an earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting story about God and his plan of redemption becomes, conversely, a kind of self-help guide for people who want to model their lives on an episode of “Father Knows Best.”
Recently, while working on my current research project/obsession, I was thinking through how narrative theology might be helpful in constructing a christocentric hermeneutic. Suddenly, it dawned on me that one of the benefits of reading the Bible primarily as a narrative is that it automatically reduces the self-centeredness inherent in the “instruction manual” metaphor. If the Bible is God’s story, then the purpose of reading it is to become intimate with God and how He works, not how He can fix my life. No longer does every passage have to have a “practical” application that I can “use.” If the Bible is a story about God, it is not all about me.
And as an added bonus, reading the Bible as a narrative should greatly reduce the probability that someone will read the account of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 and ask, as someone in one of my Bible studies once did, “why put it in the Bible if it doesn’t apply to me?”