“Individual experiences make sense and acquire meaning only when seen within the context or frame of some story we believe to be the true story of the world: each episode of our life stories finds its place there.” (18)
In this book authors Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen want to show people how to see the Bible as a single overarching story, without losing the significance of the individual stories found within it. In doing this they also hope that by articulating the biblical story Christians will have a better understanding of how they can live faithfully out of that story today.
Drawing from the work of people like Alasdair MacIntyre and N.T. Wright, Bartholomew and Goheen begin this book by making a compelling argument for the importance of narrative in giving meaning and direction to people’s daily lives. They believe that people are always living out of one or more “mega-stories;” the question is which mega-story people choose to live out of. The authors are concerned that Christians are being shaped far more by stories from culture than they are by the biblical story. For them this is problematic. If Christians are to live faithfully to God’s call, it is critical for them to get a better sense for what the biblical story is and how they as 21st century Christians find their place within it.
To help Christians get a better sense of the overarching biblical story the authors draw from Wright’s acts of the play metaphor as a way of organizing the various movements within the story. The various acts of the play they include are Creation, Fall, Israel, an interlude on the Intertestamental period, Redemption (Jesus), the Church, and Consummation. Within this overarching structure the authors explore some of the more pertinent particulars of the biblical story within each of these ‘acts of the play’ and how these smaller stories within the Bible differ from alternative narratives that were around at the time. For example, in the chapter on creation, the authors show how the biblical creation story is unique from other ancient near-eastern creation narratives that were present during that time. In addition, the authors give helpful insights into the particularities of individual stories in Scripture in a way that highlights the richness of each story in its own right and at the same time adds a richness to the larger story as a whole. For example, in expositing the Tower of Babel episode, the authors give further background on the etymology of the word “Babel” and the role that ziggurats played during that time period: they signified the assertion of people’s own will against God’s desire for them to “fill the earth.” Alongside unpacking the particularities of various individual stories in the Bible, the authors also do a good job of showing how these stories relate to the overarching story that is being told in the Bible, whether it be echoes from earlier themes (e.g. the Eucharist) or alternative expressions of God’s faithfulness amidst changing circumstances (e.g. God’s willingness to give Israel a king despite His warnings of its dangers).
Perhaps one of the book’s more distinct contributions in this area is its treatment of the intertestamental period. Very few books devote much space to the significance of this time period and how it shaped Jewish thought leading up to Jesus’ arrival. Fortunately this book is a refreshing exception. By focusing on some of the pertinent events of the intertestamental period readers will find the subsequent chapters on Jesus and the Church (and their New Testament reading) much richer as a result.
Equally impressive about the book is the approachable tone in which it is written. Often people must choose between a book that has a greater focus on accessible writing and application but with less depth and a book that explores more of the nuance and richness of a subject but is done in a more specialized language. This book does an excellent job of holding this tension together and is one that is both readable and instructive to a wide audience of Christians who want to deepen their understanding of Scripture.
There is so much that I’m encouraged about in this book that I have only a few quibbles with it, largely dealing with its organization and scope. Regarding organization, my main complaint is that the authors chose to place the section on ‘how we live today’ before the chapter on consummation. I find this problematic because it signals to the reader that the biblical narrative the reader has unpacked in the preceding chapters offers sufficient instruction on how to act without one needing to have at least some sense of what the final consummation entails and where our hopes are directed.
This organization also runs the risk of including assumptions about the consummation in the ‘how we are to live today’ section without drawing out these connections explicitly from the biblical text. For example, people who think the earth will be destroyed in the future have often minimized the importance of creation care. In either case, the final chapter comes across as more of an appendix than as a central piece of the biblical story. This point is reinforced further by the rather brief length of the chapter (it’s only 7 pages). Admittedly, many groups have given undue attention to eschatology and thereby distracted readers from other significant points, but this book errs a bit too far the other way and as a result fails to give proper weight to the fact that it is largely the Christian’s hope in the coming fullness of Christ’s kingdom that gives impetus for meaningful action today.
My other comments concerning the book’s scope are mostly a desire to see the authors give further space for demonstrating how people can use the narrative framework that has been expounded in the previous chapters. Admittedly they do offer a few brief examples of this at the end and a proper treatment of such an undertaking may warrant another book on its own. However, it would be great if they would unpack the application a bit further. This addition would also give the authors space to draw out more of the dynamic and personal nature of Christian calling, something that is not overly apparent in the examples they provide.
Again, these are relatively minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent book. I would heartily recommend the book to people wanting to have a greater understanding of the Bible, not only for how the Bible coheres internally but also for the ways that it helps each of us find greater coherence between our belief and our daily lives. In fact, we in the Marketplace Institute have been using this type of narrative hermeneutic as the basis for our various efforts and are launching a small-group curriculum later this summer called ReFrame that uses this approach to help people connect faith with every aspect of life. So, needless to say, we have found the concepts in this book to be an excellent resource and think others will as well.
Source: Marketplace Institute