Why are People Afraid to Admit that the Bible is a Story?

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?

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11 Replies to “Why are People Afraid to Admit that the Bible is a Story?”

  1. for those who don’t narratives are authoritative… look at the amount of advertising dollars on TV (contrasting this to the statements that violence on tv doesn’t do anything) or the crafting of a political candidacy.

  2. In my experience–in both civilian and military parishes–folks aren’t so much opposed to the notion that narrative can be authoritative as they are opposed to the semantics of ‘story.’ For many of us, based on how we use the word everyday, “story” implies fiction, and so to say that the bible is story is to undermine its historicity and even its veracity. I have had many people object to my discussions of the bible as story because they made the unwarranted leap I just described…but I haven’t had anyone object to the concept when explained.

    1. That’s a great point. I’ve also had similar experiences in which people assume that “story” means fiction, when to me the word “story” just means a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. It just goes to show you that some disagreements can be avoided by simply clarifying the meanings of words.

  3. I cannot recall if it was ever published, but Jonathan Edwards began a history of redemption before he died. Obviously I never read it. What it shows me, however, is that he understood there was a story line through Scripture.
    It’s also enlightening to see the thematic unity of the Bible. I think that would elevate the authority of the Scripture in our minds, because we can see God at work in people’s lives in every age.

  4. I’m not a Biblical scholar, but I was an English major who specialized in the literature and history of medieval & early modern Europe. Of course, I studied a bunch of other works as well. This helped me process the fact that the Big Truth is the Big Truth, no matter the characters and plot. It’s a giant secret to most of humanity (except for scholars of literature and/or culture) that well-crafted narrative is SUPPOSED to expose great truths and ideas, instead of merely entertaining us with whiz-bang crap. You don’t learn this unless someone TELLS you, and if you never have a decent instructor to fill you in, or at least graze through some Joseph Campbell, you go through life thinking that fiction = a bunch of lies, and myth = big fat heretical Satanic no-no. No one teaches the average citizen about the deep and important meanings – or even existence of – symbolism, allegory or fable.
    Americans are fast losing what scrawny critical thinking skills they had. Evangelical churches aren’t helping.

    1. Julia, I agree that our modern, Western culture does nothing to teach us why narrative is important (Joseph Campbell was a big epiphany for me too). I also agree that many evangelical churches take it a step further and imply that narratives are, at best, unimportant, and, at worst, dangerous.

      I do think, however, that even people who shiver at the thought of anything other than a list of propositional statements intuitively react to narrative at an instinctive level. Our job is to gently, gradually, and inch by inch, get them to consciously realize what they intuitively already know. It is really, really hard sometimes, but I do think it can be done. Especially now that there are more and more of us starting to do it.

      Thanks for the comment

        1. I spent a three-hour car ride thinking about your question. In my humble, non-expert opinion, I don’t think that narratives are actually less important to us than to a more community-based culture; I would say that we (the United States) are a less community-oriented, more individualistic culture BECAUSE of our shared narratives. (This is a great opportunity to say that the word “narrative” does NOT imply that something did not actually happen; only that a series of events FUNCTIONS as a story).

          The “story” of America includes the images of the backwoodsman fighting against the British for freedom, the poor farmer risking his life for land in a covered wagon, and the lone cowboy fighting for justice then riding off into the sunset. These are narratives which have created a culture that stresses individualism, not community.

          I think it may be the case that narratives are not, in fact, less important to Western Christians (as demonstrated above), but that many Christians don’t understand how they can be as “true” as a propositional statement. And this, I think, probably has more to do with scientism, rationalism, and modernism, than anything else.

          Anyway, just a thought…

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