The Gospel is more – and less – than a story

There are different kinds of writing such as scholarly books and articles, journalistic writing, non-fiction such as history, travel, art, cooking, (auto)biography, letters, diaries, and imaginative literature such as  novels, poetry and plays. Imaginative literature is called “fiction” – fiction not in the sense that it does not relate to reality, for if a novel (a fictitious story) didn’t connect with real feelings and experiences,  readers wouldn’t add it to their Amazon cart. I focus on stories. There are fictitious stories and non-fictitious stories.

Paul Ricoeur, philosopher

Paul Ricoeur, philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, said that we tell stories because human lives need and merit to be told. Writing stories is one of the noblest employments of the mind and soul. Most good stories aim at knowledge and wisdom. This aim is most evident in life stories – biographies. Yet, unless the main end of biography is wisdom and knowledge, it is no more than any kind of study: “a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

A good story, most think, should be replete with sights, sounds, smells, feelings; it should resonate with the ‘bells and whistles’ of day-to-day life. One of the reasons for the Bible’s lack of appeal is its dearth of enticing detail. Leslie Leyland Fields writes, “Story is all the rage. Everyone pants to tell their personal narrative or to give the Bible a simpler and more relevant plot. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea.” (The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony).

We feel, says Alfred Edersheim, in his “Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,” that the scantiness of particulars here supplied by the Gospels, was intended to prevent the human interest from overshadowing the grand central Fact, to which alone attention was to be directed. For the design of the Gospels was manifestly not to furnish a biography of Jesus the Messiah but, in organic connection with the Old Testament, to tell the history of the long-promised establishment of the Kingdom of God upon earth. Yet what scanty details we possess of the ‘Holy Family’ and its surroundings may here find a place.”

On the occasion of the visit of the magi to the nativity scene, continues Edersheim, we see with what “exquisite tact and reverence the narrative attempts not the faintest description of the scene. It is as if the sacred writer had fully entered into the spirit of St. Paul, ‘Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more’ (in the flesh only). And thus it should ever be. It is the great fact of the manifestation of Christ – not its outward surroundings, however precious or touching they might be in connection with any ordinary earthly being – to which our gaze must be directed. The externals may, indeed, attract our sensuous nature; but they detract from the unmatched glory of the great supersensuous Reality. Around the Person of the God-Man, in the hour when the homage of the heathen world was first offered Him, we need not, and want not, the drapery of outward circumstances. That scene is best realized, not by description, but by silently joining in the silent homage and the silent offerings of ‘the wise men from the East.’”

Do these scenes imply that geographical and historical details are irrelevant to the biblical record? No at all, for these details generally serve not merely as the ”drapery of outward circumstances” (Edersheim), as in the magi episode described above, but as the incarnational matrix of spiritual truth. (Biography and History in the Bible).

CS Lewis has written some marvelous books on Christianity. I think, however, he – what I am about to say is not difficult to prove from the Bible; that is why what CS Lewis says is so shocking – was wrong to make the bloody substitutionary sacrifice of Christ merely one of several optional “formulas” of faith. Lewis doesn’t put much weight on this glorious doctrine. (See Penal substitution: C S Lewis and the “formula” of Christ’s blood shed for our sins. When it comes to the “story” of the incarnation, however, (which only occurred because without it there would have been no bloody substitutionary sacrifice), Lewis sparkles.

In his “The Grand Miracle” (in ”God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975, p. 80), he stresses the importance of miracles in Christianity, and the pre-eminent miracle of the Incarnation:

You could have a great prophet preaching his dogmas without bringing in any miracles; they are only in the nature of a digression, or illuminated capitals. But you cannot possibly do that with Christianity, because the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.”

The incarnation story is not much of a story as far as stories go because it merely tells us that it happened and the (glorious) reason why it happened, but not anything enticing about how it happened. There is a reason for this:

The spiritual native beauty of heavenly truths, is better conveyed unto the minds of men, by words and expressions fitted unto it, plainly and simply, than by any ornaments of enticing speech whatever; and therefore we say with Austin, that there is not anything delivered in the Scripture, but just as it ought to be, and as the matter requires.” (John Owen: Exposition of the letter to the Hebrews, Volume 1).

The Gospel stories claim to narrate events that really happened. What does our postmodernist/poststructuralist culture say about “narrative?” Everyone, it says, should be free to “construct” their own narrative. Hence the postmodern term “constructivism.” I propose another postmodern term: “narrativism” – telling stories about how the world – if not the Bible – fits or should fit into my world and others around me. (Deconstruction and the inworming of postmodern theology).

Postmodernism and poststructuralism have this, among other things, in common: Language possesses the power to recognize and shape our perceptions of reality and reality itself. The problem, I suggest, is that unless one accepts (0n faith, there’s no other way to accept it) that our perceptions generally are “faithful” (get it) representations of reality, there’s no way of telling what is really out there, for it might all be in “here,” a kind of ghost-structuralism.

If we can have poststructuralism (where structures have no objective strictures), then why can’t there be “Reconstructionism,” and why shouldn’t it be Jewish? Reconstructionist Judaism (and Reform Judaism, by and large) says it doesn’t matter whether all the Bible stories are just “stories,” myths, folklore; what’s important is that they are shared myths, and it is the sharing of a common heritage that binds a community together. What matters, in Reconstructionist Judaism, is not the Book but the binding – of communal love and joy. For reconstructionists, the Jews are indeed the people of the Torah; but the reason why this is so is that the Torah and the God who speaks there is a (postmodern) Jewish reconstruction of traditional Judaism.

Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, a reconstructionist Jew, believes that the Torah stories, even if not true in the historical sense, are central to Jewish life. The Torah, she says, is one of the “noblest employments of the mind and soul aiming at knowledge and wisdom.” Fuchs-Kreimer – who is a reliable spokesperson for Reconstructionist Judaism says much more: “Perhaps religious experiences provide no new information about the universe. Rather, they give us the emotional impetus to tell certain kinds of stories. We may indeed be nothing but a pack of neurons and our religious experiences may be neurological phenomena; nevertheless, the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences come from our higher cognitive functions. When we choose to link ourselves to a religious civilization, we opt for a narrative tradition that will shape raw experience in particular ways.” The weight of evidence, according to Fuchs-Kreimer, shows that religious experience cannot provide any new evidence – “knowledge and wisdom” – about the universe. But, according to Fuchs-Kreimer we can’t deny that we feel it in our bones that there is something else besides neurons and meat loaves. So, we tell one another stories about how those emotions emerged, but we don’t go overboard to the point of hysteria only to drown in historia. Meaning doesn’t have to be objective for “if there is nothing but matter, all the more do we need stories to make meaning” says Fuchs-Kreimer, and it’s stories – the more evocative the story the better – that make or break a religious civilisation. There’s no “core self” so we need to make up stories – based on authentic emotion, naturally – to “tell us who we are.” And that, according to Fuchs-Kreimer, is the basis of “tradition”, of Jewish tradition, of solid Jewish tradition (The Torah: shared myths and other stories in Reconstructionist Judaism).

We all have a story, part of which we’d like to tell (and part we’d like to keep to ourselves). I think theology may be able to help you tell your story. “Theology you say!” But wait; the theology I’m about describe is not the old fundamentalist variety but something that you might indeed find attractive. I’m talking about postmodern theology, which homes in not on what the Bible says about God, not on the written lifeless text, but what it says about you, the living you, the reader, and the stories in you trying to worm their way out. For example, in his “Love wins” (p. 106), Rob Bell writes “At the heart of this perspective is the belief that given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most depraved sinners will eventually give up their resistence and turn to God.”

That is the “story” that people love to hear: It’s important, says Bell ( p. 110) that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.”

James White, in his critique of “universalism,” says that Christianity for Rob Bell “is a story, and it has to be a good story. And this (story, where God inflicts unrelenting punishment; see above paragraph) is not a good story from Rob Bell’s perspective.” (James White Conference on Universalism; 20 minutes into the audio presentation).

English: Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), Austria...

English: Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), Austrian-British theologian. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I say something about the term “narrative.” In old-time theology – let’s take the canon (accepted books) of the Bible as an example – words had specific meanings, where the term “narrative” signified an account of what really happened, what described reality, truth. Michael Kruger explains:

The postmodern objection to the Christian canon (and all religion for that matter) is not what we might think.  We assume that postmodernists object to the canon on the grounds that the canon is false (what we might call a a de facto objection).  But, that is actually more of a modernist objection. In contrast, the postmodernist objects to the belief in canon on the grounds that there is no basis for knowing, regardless of whether it is true or false (what we might call the de jure objection). In other words, when it comes to the Christian belief in the canon, the big complaint of the postmodernist is, ‘How could you ever really know such a thing?  Given all the disagreements and chaos in early Christianity, it would be arrogant to claim your books are the right ones.’  Thus, the postmodern concern has to do with the grounds for our belief in the canon.”  (Can the New Testament Canon be Defended? Derek Thomas Interviews Michael Kruger. See also Deconstruction and the Inworming of Postmodern theology).

Rabbi Hillel was a great story teller. What is, and always was, asks Jacob Neusner, the Jewish interest in Hillel? One thing only: no one could tell stories like he could; he was a “model story-teller.”  Neusner distinguishes between “the history of Hillel” and “the Hillel of history.”  He says:

If we ask not about the historical Hillel’ but about the Hillel of history, that is, about how Hillel lived on in the minds and imaginations of the great rabbis of Judaism, we get exact and reliable answers. Every story then is a fact. It testifies to what people later thought Hillel had said and done. It tells us then about the things rabbis maintained all Jews should say and do: the model of virtue, the mode of correct reasoning alike. Hillel then is: he endures. He never dies. He is the teacher, he is the paradigm. That is why the stories reach us. That, it seems to me, stands then for the purpose for which the stories were made up and preserved. They are documents of culture, glyphs of faith).”

Neusner is the most prolific Jewish writer of our day, and this is how we might sum up his work: Blips about glyphs of faith. (See The history of Hillel and the Hillel of history: The Glyphs and Blips of Faith).

Here is Leslie Leyland Fields again

When we read the Bible through the lens of any single genre, agenda, or need, distortion will result. It is critical to grasp the Scriptures’ narrative unity to resist our culture’s counterstories, but we need not reduce the Scriptures to a single genre to grasp its One Story. God gave us stories indeed, but he also gave us proverbs, poetry, law, exhortation, prophesy, lament, riddle, letters, visions, genealogies, and prayers. Man lives by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. All Scripture makes us wise unto salvation. We need to say, with the apostle Paul, that “we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word” (2 Cor. 4:2, ESV).”

And her final word, the punch line: “It is not the story but the living Christ who saves us.” What about the knockout punch: … but the dying Christ who saves us, for without the blood there is no remission of sin, and without the remission of sin, no Life.

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