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Posted by on Jul 9, 2013 | 6 comments

Engaging a Storied Text

Long before smartphones were the standard cell phone, I enjoyed the navigator feature on my dumb phone. GPS is helpful because it is straight-forward; it tells me what I need to know to get me from point “A” to point “B.” Tonight, I stumbled upon a different category of navigation systems. A well to-do church advertised this to every passerby on their marquee:

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Though a bit confused at first regarding why God would need a GPS, I think I know what this church was trying to get at: “The Bible: The Church’s GPS.” (I am going to assume for the rest of the post that this is what they meant.) This would mean, that Scripture tells us where to go; when to turn left, when to turn right, when the figurative next coffee shop is five miles away, etc. etc.

This all sounds well and nice until one actually begins to read the thing.

Scripture is simply not that straight-forward. The Bible is full of lot stories. Stories and storied lives do not give us propositions. Think about your own life and the stories embedded within it. Yes, sometime there is a clear moral to the story, but more often than not our stories are complex and far from clear-cut.

Reading stories gives us alternative horizons for viewing our world, ourselves and our Creator God. Stories challenge our assumptions, baffle us, spark hope in us when all seems lost, says in winding prose what cannot be said in clear statements (alas, the Book of Proverbs does not and cannot say all there is to know about living a life of wisdom). Stories are messy, just like us. Stories are located and perspectival, just like us.

The biblical stories provide us with a framework for understanding who we are and who our Creator God is.

Sadly, by making Scripture a navigational tool, I believe that incidentally (and accidentally) the authority of Scripture is being undercut. When we remove Scripture from the living and active work of the Triune God, we reduce the text to simply words on a page. It runs that danger of becoming another tool for propaganda. It loses its edge to challenge, shape and transform the reader in a way that no other text can. It is like taking the helium out of a balloon and then demanding it to float.

Having recently returned to the US after living in Canada, I have been reminded of how easy it is to make Scripture a tool for our own agendas. If we approach Scripture simply as dos and don’ts — as a navigation system which makes issues of morality clear-cut without any dissonance — then I fear we miss the richness of the storied character of the Triune God evidenced through Scripture.

Hans-Georg Gadamer talks about the fusing of horizons: the place where our own horizon is stretched and shaped by another’s horizons.  There is never a point within our consciousness when we cease fusing our horizons with outside horizons. For some time now, I have found it incredibly helpful to articulate our reading of Scripture as a fusion of horizons. The stories contained within Scripture offer new narratives which transform how we see our world, our Creator and ourselves. And the beauty of all this is that this fusing is ongoing. There is never a point, I believe, when I can set down my Bible and assert that I have received all the information I need from it. This fusing of horizons is offered to us as a means of God continually speaking, challenging, affirming, rebuking and demonstrating who He is and who we are in Him.

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Rachel

Studying theology, baking bread, enjoying the company of a handsome bearded man and two adorable pit puppies.

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  • Barney

    Thanks for this clear and interesting post on biblical interpretation, Rachel! I guess when we’re trying to figure out what to see the Bible “as,” (GPS, story, user’s manual, etc.) we need to start with what most naturally fits what we see when we open the Bible, and more than half of it is stories. If they’re not less valuable than the other parts, then we need a way of understanding their value.

    I have a question, though. The one advantage to seeing the Bible as a GPS is that the analogy immediately helps you understand how the Bible shapes your life decisions. A GPS tells you where to go; the Bible tells you where to go. But if we see the Bible as a story, the connection is less immediately obvious. We read/watch/hear lots of stories, but usually for entertainment and rarely because we want our lives to be governed by them.

    So can you offer an example of how the Biblical story as story can govern our behaviour? How does it help us make decisions, whether directly or indirectly?

    • Barney,

      Thanks for this. I want to avoid completely answering your question for this reason: I think that too often the Bible is looked at as a behaviour modifier rather than an invitation to life with God. That is not to say that our lives are not to be virtuous (alas, we are meant to have FRUIT of the Spirit, right?), but it is to say that the Bible (shall I say foremost) tells us WHO WE ARE and WHO OUR CREATOR GOD IS. It is primarily about identity, not ethic.

      Is there then a way that we should live as we align ourselves with who we really are and who our Creator God is: why yes! But, I just don’t want to get there too fast.

      Sufficient response? Am I still skirting your question too much? 😉

      R

      • Barney

        No your pushback is appropriate, because you’re trying to break us out of a way of thinking that starts looking to the Bible for quick advice on ethical decisions, like an instruction manual. If we just use the ‘story’ motif as a thin cover, and then resort to abstracting ethical principles from the stories, then we haven’t really learnt the deep lesson involved in this kind of hermeneutic.

        I guess what I’m looking for is a step-by-step guide through one example of a place where story –> identity –> outlook –> one choice/belief. Kind of like what Paul W asked for in the comment below. Even if the difference that it makes to read the Bible as story is ultimately not reducible to rational propositions, it might help to picture the kind of thing that is meant more broadly if one rational instance were given.

  • This was a nice read, keep ’em coming!

  • Paul W

    Rachy Bunny! Can you give an example of what reading a text in this way would look like?

    • Paul,

      Sorry that I am only responding now.

      The immediate example that comes to mind actually comes in the form of propositions: the ten commandments. In Exodus 20, the Decalogue is introduced with this phrase from YHWH: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Before even getting to any “do’s and don’t,” the Israelites are already being asked to remember their storied past. Then, the following 10 commands fit snuggly into the greater context of who YHWH has and will demonstrate Himself to be. E.g. the idea of monotheism is storied throughout the OT, thus the warning against idolatry makes sense. Why honor the Sabbath day? Not simply because He said so (so do it!), but because the Israelites are meant to remember that YHWH is a Creator God who created a good world as a very good gift. And on top of it all, after the Decalogue is given, as you know, the very Spirit of God descends on the mountain before the Israelites. To remove the 10 commandments from their storied location — bookended by the reminder of the Israelite’s recent deliverance and the awe-inspiring (and fear-evoking) eyewitness account of God in the heavens actually dwelling on earth — I think cheapens them. And, of course, there is still ambiguity. Thou shall not murder? Well, what does that mean? Because YHWH seems just fine having the Israelites kill during the conquest narratives. We are meant, I think, to navigate even a seemingly straight-forward text like this one within the greater story. We are meant to wrestle with it, I think. To ask the “why” or “but what about” questions of it rather than assuming that to read the Bible is to pluck out our to-do lists for the day.

      Is this helpful or just a rambling rant at this point?

      🙂

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