A Story That Ends Badly

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The popular description of the biblical gospel as "the story of Jesus" and the attendant call to "make God's story part of your story" now appears to have its own tailor-made Bible translation. The newly released The Voice encourages readers to "step into the story of Scripture" by adapting biblical narratives into screenplay or narrative formats. Just watch the account of Jesus' walking on water in Matthew 14 come alive as you read: "Another Disciple: 'A ghost? What will we do?'" (I can already feel myself being absorbed into the dramatic flow of holy Writ as Judas exits stage left).

This story-oriented edition of Scripture also updates traditional plot-disrupting phrases such as "Jesus Christ" and "the Word."  For example, the new opening line of John's Gospel reads, "Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God" (cue the floor smoke!). Despite reassurances from the publisher that The Voice remains "painstakingly true to the original manuscripts," one can't help but wonder just whose manuscript they had in mind, and just who is stepping into whose story, since the whole thing appears to be a page one re-write.

On a more serious note, the "my story"/"God's story" way of speaking, even in Reformed circles, is, like so many modern trends, both old and new. In its contemporary form, it appears to have affinities with revived versions of the monastic practice of lectio divina (helpfully evaluated by Carl Trueman here) while also owing a debt to the postmodern theological approach espoused by Yale theologians Hans Frei and George Lindbeck (i.e., so-called postliberalism). In general, the postliberal school argues that the real meaning of Scripture, the meaning that ought to drive our view of "reality", does not lie in its revelation of history per se, but within its own narrative world, fallible and historically inaccurate though it may be. It is the linguistic world of Scripture that matters, they say, not whether it reflects "objective" reality. For all of their crisscrossing emphases and objectives (mystical communion vs. counter-cultural mission vs. "narratival" appeal), all of these approaches to the Bible, in one way or another, call us to forgo the traditions from which we allegedly derive our personal identities, and the project ourselves into the narrative of Scripture itself.

With apologies to the dramaturges out there, I can't help but think that this is an unhelpful way of speaking. To me, the language of story and self-projection obscures what must be made crystal clear--namely, that everyone already stands within the history of redemption simply by virtue of being God's creatures and image. Scripture tells us that, whether or not we realize it, we are those "on whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Cor 10:11) and so are even more responsible to repent and find forgiveness in Christ alone (Acts 17:31). Whether or not we believe it, the Word of God is still able to pierce to our hidden thoughts by the secret power of the Spirit (Heb 4:12) and disclose our deepest sins on the Day when we face the Judge now raised from the dead (2 Cor 5:10).

If this is all true, then it seems that the "story" of redemption is less something to be adopted as one's own "story" and more something I must acknowledge and believe, not only because it accurately reports true history, but because it discloses the divinely revealed meaning of history, the sovereignly created purpose of history, at all times and in all places. To describe repentance and faith as "God's story becoming my story," therefore, tends to present the gospel as a self-contained tradition that lies above and beyond me, but one which I may make my own if I like what I see. Such an approach frames the gospel more as an appealing context for one's personal "story" and less as that which exposes the irrationality of our denial of Christ as Lord of history and His prescribed plans for us in it.

The gospel is a story of sorts, of course, but I fear that appeals to the predilections of postmodernity, rather than Scripture itself, are leading some to refashion the gospel as a "narrative" into which we may insert our lives. The gospel of Christ crucified and raised is not just a compelling narrative, not just a story of meaning for one's life and world. It is the centerpiece of human existence and the consummate revelation of the God who defines all meaning whatsoever.

So, I submit we should keep telling the "old, old story." But let's be sure our congregations know that the Bible points beyond itself, beyond its own "story" (if we must), to the events of redemption in time and space, and to the consummation that will climax the facts of history and expose all rival fairy tales. Proclaiming the gospel this way may mean the difference between a people who see all things according to Scripture and those who see Scripture as a useful story that, for them, will turn out to be a tragedy.  
Posted April 16, 2012 @ 7:41 PM by Carlton Wynne

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