by John Ellis
Lord willing, I’m planning on turning these two posts into a series. In later installments, I’ll work through passages of Scripture using the method I briefly describe in this post. I’d also love to write a book about it, providing more detail about this method of Biblical interpretation. We’ll see. For now, I pray, if anything, that these two posts will prompt a greater desire in your heart to read and study God’s Word, whether you agree with my method or not.
In As You Like It, Jacques delivers Shakespeare’s famous words, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
True and truer still. We are characters written by God into His great story of His cosmos. A story that He wrote, produced, directs, and stars in. God is the grand auteur and storyteller that all other auteurs and storytellers either point to or rebel against. Burrowing even further into God’s Divine storytelling, He has graciously chosen to reveal His main plot, His primary story, in the Bible.
This is why, as God’s created Image Bearers, we respond so quickly and profoundly to stories. We are not only playing a role in God’s meta-story; we are mini-storytellers, all of us. Sadly, we often check our storytelling heritage and God’s divine role as the Holy Storyteller at the door when we enter into our Bible reading and study.
In his book What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain argues that professors who are successful at producing students who effectively engage their field of discipline are professors who focus energy on how the students construct their knowledge of the discipline’s facts. In other words, the best professors focus energy on imparting the discipline’s epistemology to their students. A history professor teaches his students how to view and interact with the facts like a historian. A biology professor teaches her students how to view and interact with the facts like a biologist. And so on and so forth.
Bain’s arguments and conclusions frequently accompany me as I interact with the variety of Bible study plans available. You see, as profitable and good as many of those plans are, I believe that the storyteller’s epistemology is woefully underrepresented.
Like all well-crafted books the Bible is simultaneously simple and complex. I’ll attempt to explain what I mean by “simple” in a bit. As far as complex, well, for starters the Bible is a Divinely inspired book.
I’m sure that most people won’t as much as raise an eyebrow at my claim that the Bible is a complex book. It’s intricately written with much nuance and deep metaphors that defy cursory exploration. The characters (true, historical characters) frequently have conflicting motives and act in contradictory ways. At times, the symbolism is so rich and so varied as to seem overwhelming to the uninitiated. But that’s not the totality of what I mean when I describe the Bible as “complex.”
It’s often pointed out that the Bible is not a science textbook nor is it a political science textbook. It’s not a lot of things, even if its principles and themes should shape how Christians interact with science, political science, and other things. However, if you ask if the Bible is a history book, the answers will be less sure and less consistent. So, is the Bible a history book? Well, yes, and, no.
It includes history, a lot of history, but it includes much more than history. The Bible includes poetry; it includes theology/philosophy. It includes ancient apocalyptic structures and themes. Letters, ancient chronologies, and incredible tales of talking snakes, universal floods, giants, and a hero who dies in order to win also help tell the Story of the Bible. It is a complex book because it seamlessly weaves together different disciplines and their respective epistemologies. Astonishingly, it does so within one Story.
Referencing Ken Bain, most Bible study programs and systems build off either the epistemology of the historian or the theologian/philosopher. Even my favorite Biblical theology books are rooted in the epistemology of the historian or theologian/philosopher. And that’s good, right, and helpful.
However, what’s lacking are Bible studies rooted in the perspective of the storyteller.
The good news is that I don’t believe that the perspective is completely lacking within Christendom. Many excellent children’s Bible story books give evidence that Christians understand the Bible as a unified story. There are theology books that reveal that theologians love God’s Story as they allow their own role as mini-storytellers to emerge in their books and articles. However, I believe that when encouraging Believers to study God’s Word, that encouragement is usually divorced from our roles as mini-storytellers as well as divorced from the truth that the Bible is God’s Story.
That raises a question, though. Is the Bible a single story?
Many Christians will quickly affirm that it’s one book; but one story? Isn’t it a collection of multiple books connected by similar faith themes?
If the Bible isn’t a single story, then the storyteller’s epistemology is rightfully undervalued for studying the book. However, I strongly believe that the Bible is one Story. And I’ll make my argument in support of that claim as I present the storyteller’s Bible study method. As such, I believe that a storyteller’s perspective and epistemology is a helpful and needed aid for interacting with the Bible and interpreting it. In fact, going a step further, I believe that without understanding the Bible’s story as a storyteller would understand it makes it more difficult to interact with and interpret it using other epistemic lenses, no matter how good, right, and helpful those other lenses may be.
Puzzling over the Christian belief that the Bible is a single book containing a single narrative, literature professor Northrop Frye pushes back on secular convention (and his own internal desire) that states that the Bible is a collection of disparate, ancient Near-Eastern mythologies. He writes,
[Narrative unity in the Bible] exists if only because is has been compelled to exist. Yet, whatever the external reasons, there has to be some internal basis even for a compulsory existence. Those who do succeed in reading the Bible from beginning to end will discover that at least it has a beginning and an end, and some traces of a total structure. It begins where time begins, with the creation of the world; it ends where time ends, with the Apocalypse, and it surveys human history in between, or the aspect of history it is interested in, under the symbolic names of Adan and Israel. There is also a body of concrete images: city, mountain, river, garden, tree, oil, fountain, bread wine, bride, sheep, and many others, which recur so often that they clearly indicate some kind of unifying principle. That unifying principle, for a critic, would have to be one of shape rather than meaning; or, more accurately, no book can have a coherent meaning unless there is some coherence in its shape.
For Northrop, who was not a Believer, the tension he felt and attempted to synthesize regarding the Bible’s narrative unity was a product of,) A. his rejection of the Bible as a divine book with one author and, hence, a rejection of a clearly set forth authorial intent, and,) B., the conflict (A) created when it clashed with his overall knowledge of the Bible informed by his expertise as a literature professor. Furthermore, his tension was born out of his belief that for his students to fully engage Western literature, they must engage the Bible. Teaching the Bible, it was impossible for him to not be affected by the book’s transcendence and Divine origin, even if he acknowledged its narrative unity begrudgingly.
Christians, on the other hand, should not feel Dr. Northrop’s tension. We believe that the Bible is inspired by God, ultimately authored by God, and that God, as author, had a reason for authoring it. And that reason unfolds as the story unfolds.
(In Part 2, which can be read by clicking here, I defend my claim that the Bible is one story, and begin to provide definitions, questions, and tools needed to effectively interpret the Story of the Bible as a storyteller.)
Soli Deo Gloria
 Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Harcourt, Inc.: New York, 1982), xiii.