by John Ellis
(If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to read Part One first. You can do so by clicking here.)
What Is a Story?
If someone were to ask you to explain what makes a story a story, what would you say?
I have taught the following definition of story to my kids, and I believe that it provides the foundation for sound literary analysis and ultimately discovering authorial intent:
In a story, someone wants something. That someone is called the protagonist. However, someone or something is standing in the protagonist’s way. That someone or something is called the antagonist. The story is what the protagonist does to overcome the antagonist and achieve his or her objective. If the protagonist succeeds, the story is a comedy (in the classical sense). If the protagonist fails, the story is a tragedy (in the classical sense).
Several years ago, while in college, friends who were taking a playwriting class would frequently come to me for help. One of their ongoing assignments was developing several rough outlines for plays – five at a time due once a week, I think. These students would become bogged down in specific actions and settings or unique character traits or plot devices – for example, a spaceship flies to close to a black hole and the resulting time-bend puts them back on earth before they left and one of the astronauts who contracted an alien disease on the flight is still sick even though he’s now back to a point in time before he came in contact with the alien.
Frustrated, they would tell me, “I have an idea for a story – a spaceship flies to close to a black hole and the resulting time bend puts them back on earth before they left … – but I can’t seem to develop it any further.
As interesting as they can be (some of what the students came up with who came to me for help weren’t interesting), plot devices, unique character traits, and specific actions and settings are not a plot and focusing on them will rarely lead to a story. Doing so fits under the colloquialism of putting the cart before the horse.
So, when they would come to me in dismay because they had failed to come up with the requisite number of rough outlines for a play, I would quickly come up with some basic stories (which was cheating, and was wrong, for the record). For example, a baker wants to bake a cake for his daughter, but the flour salesman won’t sell him any more flour.
That brief outline raises some questions that help develop and fill out the story. Why does the baker want to bake a cake for his daughter? Why won’t the flour salesman sell the baker the needed flour? And exploring character, questions like, why did the baker become a baker to begin with? Most importantly, how does the baker respond to the flour salesman’s refusal to sell him flour?
Initially, while coming up with the story outline, I ended it with, “but the floor salesman is angry at him,” complicating the plot in the basic outline. Being angry with the baker, may be the reason why the flour salesman is refusing to sell the flour, which, if so, raises another question. Why is the flour salesman angry at the baker?
A simple plot outline – someone wants something and someone or something is standing in the way – prompts a flood of questions that helps lead to honest character descriptions, interesting actions and settings, and workable plot devices, the things that help make stories colorful and compelling.
The Bible adheres to that definition of a story. The question for Christians who are engaged in studying the Bible should be, “Do I know the whole story well enough to legitimately interact with this small part?” Of course, that also raises the question, “What’s the first step in discovering the whole story?”
Well, read it. Over and over and over.
The Whole Story
A common mistake that actors often make after being cast in a play is to immediately begin scrolling through the script highlighting all their lines. Eventually, highlighting and working on lines is something that will need to be done, but it should wait until the actor has read the entire play several times.
At its core, the actor’s job is to present a cogent piece that fits coherently within the whole puzzle called the play. Without knowing, and knowing well, what the entire “puzzle” looks like, the actor runs the risk of creating a piece that is out of sync with the whole.
Besides not truly understanding and having a good picture of the whole play, when the actor begins looking at his lines too soon, the actor isn’t allowing the play’s given circumstances to shape his understanding of the character. Instead, his own life’s given circumstances are shaping the character. The problem is that the playwright didn’t take the actor’ given circumstances into account while writing the character.
That same interpretive principle applies to studying the Bible, too. Without knowing the whole story of the Bible, readers can’t say with any level of assurance that they truly understand any given passage. For example, how can you know what 1 Samuel 17 is about if you haven’t immersed yourself in the whole story of the Bible? The answer is, you probably can’t.
To be clear, I’m speaking about the ideal. If a new Christian or simply a Christian who has yet to read through the Bible from cover to cover is asked to participate in a study of 1 Samuel 17, I would encourage them to join the study. However, I would also encourage them to begin reading the Bible from cover to cover. It’s not necessarily an either/or.
The thing is, in my experience, few Christians have read the Bible from cover to cover even once. On the flip side, many of those same Christians are eager and willing to take part in a Bible study. While I applaud (and encourage) the desire to study the Bible, I believe that people are shortcutting the interpretative process by engaging in study without reading the whole thing first. As Karen Swallow Prior writes in her book On Reading Well, “Our desires as human beings are shaped by both knowledge and experience. And to read a work of literature is to have a kind of experience and to gain knowledge.”
Reading the Bible from cover to cover shapes our understanding of it and enables us to better bore down, relying on the knowledge of the whole as we examine the parts. And the better we know the whole story, the sharper our interpretive instincts become, allowing us to better study the parts. And just as importantly, reading the Bible also shapes us.
Using literary terms, reading the whole story reveals the given circumstances – the who, what, why, and how. While reading the Bible cover to cover, take note of the main characters, the major themes, and the overarching narrative movement. For example, while reading the whole, what characters continue to pop up?
Well, “God” is an obvious answer. From beginning to end, God is front and center in the Bible. That must mean something, but at this point in the study, the goal is to collect information and not to interpret that information. Remember, until we immerse ourselves in the whole text we probably don’t possess enough information yet to trust our interpretation.
Throughout the Bible, other characters are highlighted and mentioned – Abraham, Moses, and David, to name three. That means something, but, once again, the initial readings are to collect information. Also, when reading cover to cover, certain themes rise to the top. While not exhaustive, that list includes sin, death, judgment, salvation, and a garden and a city.
Throughout the whole Bible, sin brings judgment, specifically death, yet within that darkness the hope of rescue, of salvation, runs concurrently. Once again, that means something, but what that means is a question to be explored later. Because, and jumping ahead a bit, the answer to that can only be answered when the protagonist’s objective and the antagonist’s obstacle are revealed to the reader.
Thousands of words could be spilled pointing out the myriad and colorful given circumstances coursing throughout the entire Bible that tie it together. And that speaks to my larger point here, the Bible is chock full of narrative information. While it’s not necessary to have uncovered every bit of narrative information contained in its pages, reading the Bible cover to cover multiple times is essential to an effective Bible study.
Before moving on, I also want to note that engaging the historical and social context of the writer, the original audience, and the setting are all part of accumulating information about the given circumstances.
The Objective and the Obstacle
Without spending a lot of time proving this from the text, God is the Bible’s protagonist. In fact, for the sake of my growing word count, I’m going to assume that the readers agree with me that God is the Bible’s protagonist. If you disagree or are unsure, I’ll be giving textual reasons for why I believe this to be true if (and when) I write more posts in this series and/or turn the whole thing into a book. For now, I simply state that God is the Bible’s protagonist. But, like our baker in the above imagined story outline, what does God want?
Once again, for the sake of moving quickly, among the many themes that are revealed when reading through the Story of the Bible, the theme of relationship between God and His people shines brighter and brighter – created for relationship, broken relationship, and restored relationship.
At the beginning of the Story, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Later, in the third chapter of the Story, we learn that God communed with His Image Bearers (Genesis 3:8). The problem, of course, is that by Genesis 3:8 those made in God’s Image, Adam and Eve, are hiding themselves from God because they were afraid of what He would say and do. The relationship between God and His people has been damaged just a few pages in.
The fact that the relationship has been damaged resulting in being broken can’t mask that the entire text of the Bible is riddled with versions of the phrase “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” The themes of familial relationship between God and His people that we read in the Bible (Father, children of God, etc.) help us connect the interpretative dots as we seek to discover what the protagonist (God) wants. In Deuteronomy (and the rest of the Bible), it’s revealed that God wants to bless His people, with the primary and most important blessing being His presence. The Bible’s ending runs parallel to its beginning, ending in a city-garden where God’s people enjoy communing with God in His presence. Demonstrating the eternal ramifications of Adam and Eve’s actions that led to the broken relationship with God, Revelation 22:15 says, “Outside [the city with the tree of life] are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
According to the whole Story of the Bible, it is possible to end up in a negative relationship with God, like those mentioned in Revelation 22:15. As we explore these interpretive questions, how to keep from ending up in a negative relationship with God appears like it may be the most important question we need to ask, but, that’s skipping some interpretative steps. We want to make sure that we have a firm grasp on the protagonist’s objective, first. And, then, explore who or what the antagonist is and what is being done in an attempt to thwart the protagonist.
As we’ve read the Bible, again, it becomes clear that God wants to have a positive relationship with His people. It’s why He created humans. It’s why the Bible exists. Or, rather, God’s objective is why the Bible needs to exist, why God chose to reveal Himself and His objective in the Story called the Bible.
So, the answer to what does the Bible’s protagonist want is that God wants to have a positive relationship with His people. Moving forward with the next question will help us to sharpen how we view God’s objective. And that next question is, “What’s the obstacle in the protagonist’s path?”
(side note – reading the Bible reveals that God is completely sovereign over all things. Technically, nothing can stand in God’s way. The form of the questions doesn’t provide absolute statements about God’s character, but they do help us determine authorial intent.)
While reading the Bible from cover to cover it’s next to impossible to avoid picking up on the theme of God’s holiness. And, frankly, even if we don’t have a robust grasp of what it means to be holy, it’s really difficult to miss the larger and ironed out point – God’s holiness means that He can’t have a positive relationship with sin. Likewise, how God defines sin becomes clearer and clearer the more we read.
This means that when we go back to the beginning, Genesis 3 takes on a new resonance. A dark resonance, to be sure, but it becomes clear from Genesis 3 that the obstacle to God having a positive relationship with His people is sin. Most likely, looking at Genesis 3, Serpent-Satan and death should be folded into that obstacle, too. In fact, if you were to ask me who/what the Bible’s antagonist is, my answer would be the same as my answer for what the obstacle is to the protagonist’s objective – sin/Serpent-Satan/death/the rebellious hearts of God’s people is/are the antagonist.
At this point, we’ve filled out the basic outline for the Bible’s Story – God wants to have a positive relationship with His people, but sin/death/Serpent-Satan stands in the way – leaving the big question, what does God do to overcome the obstacle and achieve His objective. How can we have our relationship positively restored with our Creator?
As soon as that question is asked, Genesis 3:15 calls out.
Speaking to Serpent-Satan, God declares, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
While pronouncing the curses on those involved on the coup on His throne, God delivers an astonishing line – “he shall bruise your head.”
With that one line, a glimmer of hope still exists in the Story. God is not going to stand idly by. But, all the way back in Genesis 3 it’s hard to see exactly what that means. At the end of the chapter, God’s care and concern for His people is evidenced by His providing clothes for Adam and Eve. What’s more, in the act of God clothing His children the fact that an animal had to die rings as an important point. But why?
Obviously, those who have been to Sunday school or studied the Bible on any level can probably answer that question. But, if given a specific passage, say 1 Samuel 17, can those same people explain how 1 Samuel 17 is connected to Genesis 3:15? Because, here’s the interpretive rub – in stories, the protagonist’s overarching objective, called the “super-objective,” is the interpretive grid through which the rest of the story must submit to. That’s why I believe that if a person can’t explain how a passage is connected to Genesis 3:15, that person may not understand the passage in question.
Asking the questions, who is the protagonist? What does the protagonist want? And, who (or what) is standing in the protagonist’s way? are all vital to interpreting stories and determining the authorial intent. However, if we’re being honest, that raises the question of how do I know that I answered those three questions correctly? The concluding sentence of the previous paragraph foreshadows the answer. But that’s for the next post in this series in which I will endeavor to explain “The Through Line of Action.”
Soli Deo Gloria
 Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, MI, 2018), 21.