A guest post by Dr. Ronn Johnson
I recently heard that we see more images or pictures in one day (whether on our phone, on the TV, on a billboard, etc.) than a pre-Renaissance person would have seen over the course of their entire lifetime. Apparently our brains have been able to adjust to this visual onslaught, and we are not necessarily suffering because of it. But this is just another reminder of how much data we are being hit with (and hit seems to be the right word) every day, all day. We are victims of too much information.
Now in one sense I like this problem. Better having too much than too little. But it still counts as a problem, one that is relatively new to my way of life, and I find myself having to change the way I live because of it. For example, Susan and I now watch the evening news on fast-forward, pausing only if one of us interrupts with a “Hey, let me see that.” It is our new normal, turning something that used to be a half an hour into five minutes. I am not yet sure whether this is a good thing. It just means I have more time for more information.
For those of us who like to read and study the Bible, we could guess that this too-much-information condition would poke its nose into our tent as well. Biblical study is not immune from informational overload. The Bible is more accessible than ever, especially electronically. I have three Bible search applications just on my phone, allowing me navigate through almost any kind biblical study I can imagine, even while waiting in line at the store. So there is no excuse for not knowing Scripture. Or is there? Is modern accessibility to our Bible, at least the kind of accessibility we are accustomed to, actually putting us in a position to understand the Bible less than we did before? I think this question is worth considering over the course of several posts.
I recently spent a week in Phoenix, on business, joined by my wife. This was our first time in Arizona, so Susan took the rental car sight-seeing each day while I sat in an office building (yes, it was one of those kinds of business trips). At night, however, the town was ours to enjoy. We just typed in the address of where we wanted to go, or where we wanted to eat, and our phone map took over. I never felt lost in a huge and totally unfamiliar city.
So I “learned” Phoenix that week. Or did I? After returning home, I realized that my experience of that city was limited to, quite literally, left- and right-hand turns. I never wondered where I was because that question never came to mind. My map took away the wonder, and may I say the “story,” of Phoenix. If you were to drop me in the middle of the city today, I would be lost, guaranteed. I have since decided that someday it would be fun to go back to Phoenix and get to know it the old fashioned way—with a map spread across the dashboard, wondering where in the world we are while simultaneously wondering whether we were ever going to get where we wanted to go. That dreaded feeling of being lost would be a good thing.
I think it is the same way with the Bible. To know what the Bible is about, to know its larger story, we need to experience the stories and plotlines and themes snaking through Scripture much like we need to drive (and even get lost in) the highways which lead into and around a city. We can’t just jump in and experience a few right-and left-hand turns and say we know what the Bible is about. We need to draw back, look at our map, and even get lost.
Evangelicals and the Big Story
So let’s admit the information we receive from the Bible (and its electronic retrieval systems) doesn’t necessarily help us experience its main plotline, what I will call its Big Story or leading narrative. This problem has not been lost on religious schools and publishers, of course. They know we are suffering from biblical information overload. Even as I wrote that last sentence I received an email advertisement for a free class at Dallas Seminary entitled “The Story of Scripture” (I will try to finish the class before completing this blog; if I do, I’ll let you know how it went!). In bookstores, I am noticing that the word “story” now appears in many titles of books about the Bible. Probably the best example is Zondervan’s recently published The Story, an abridged version of the NIV translation. Its subtitle certainly baits the hook for us: “The Bible as One Continuing Story of God and His People.” Out of curiosity, I opened to the beginning of The Story the other day to see if its editors would reveal where they were headed with their project. Here is the first paragraph from the Forward:
“This book tells the grandest, most compelling story of all time: the story of a true God who loves his children, who established for them a way of salvation and provided a route to eternity. Each story in these 31 chapters reveals the God of grace—the God who speaks; the God who acts; the God who listens; the God whose love for his people culminated in his sacrifice of Jesus, his only Son, to atone for the sin of humanity.”
This Big Story sounds familiar to most of us, I would suspect: God wants us to spend eternity with him, but he can’t because of our sin. Jesus’ death paid for our sin so that we can go to heaven. In simplest terms, let’s call this the Sin Paid For story. To bring the Bible into it, Genesis 3 (the sin) is resolved by Matthew 26 (the paying). Everything between these bookends counts as extra information, at times related to the main story but not necessary to it.
“Putting it that way, I would disagree,” said a friend to me in response to that last line. “The Bible has many stories which culminate in Jesus’ atonement, with these stories coming both before and after Jesus’ incarnation. So I would say the Bible’s main story, that of sin and atonement, has many smaller stories leading up to it. I don’t see why that’s a problem to you.”
I do have a problem with it, and I will lay out why we should all have a problem with it a bit later. But first I am curious if The Story’s version of the Bible’s grand narrative could be considered par for the evangelical course. So let’s try another book. The Bible in Sixteen Verses by Chris Bruno (Crossway, 2015) caught my attention because of its title (now there’s an idea—just read sixteen verses to get the point of the whole Bible!), and from the blurbs included on the book’s dustjacket. Many evangelical leaders apparently loved the book, one even saying it was the most valuable book about the Bible he had ever read. So now I’m interested. Bruno offers a summary statement of the sixteen verses he chose to tell the story of the Bible on page 142:
“God created a kingdom, and he is the King, but he made human beings to represent him in that kingdom. Adam and Eve rejected this call, which led to sin and death. But God promised to defeat the Serpent through the seed of the woman, who is also the seed of Abraham. Through Abraham’s family, and specifically Judah’s royal seed, David, the covenant blessings would come to the world. Because all people were guilty and deserved death, the sacrifices of the Mosaic law revealed more clearly their need for a substitute—the suffering servant. Through the servant and the work of the Spirit, God would establish a new covenant and give lasting life to his people in the new heavens and new earth. Jesus is the One through whom all of these promises find fulfillment, first in his sacrificial death as a necessary and just payment for sin and then in his victorious resurrection and reign as King. This great story will find its culmination when the redeemed from every tribe, tongue, and nation gather in the new creation to live with God forever.”
I applaud Bruno’s attentiveness to detail. But I maintain that what he is describing as the main story of the Bible is the same basic story we encountered earlier, now with other plots and sub-plots simply included as filler material. Here is the giveaway: notice how the word “necessary” connects the second-to-last sentence (“as a necessary and just payment for sin”) to his second sentence (“Adam and Eve rejected this call, which led to sin and death”). Bruno’s crisis is sin, solved by atonement. Of course other stories happen and other characters are introduced between these bookends. But we are right back where we started. The Big Story is the problem of sin and the solution of payment. It could even be argued that skipping completely over Jesus’ life, all 30 years of it, would not offend Bruno’s story, provided we include Jesus’ cross. Read Bruno’s paragraph again and ask yourself if he thinks that Jesus’ ministry—his teachings, his healings, his exorcisms—have any place in the main story of the Bible. Something is missing. And I maintain it is the Big Story of the Bible itself.
I close with five concerns, with each being the subject of another post to follow:
Concern #1: Evangelicals are content to describe the Big Story of the Bible without appealing to what is actually happening in the Bible. We (and I include myself as an evangelical, so I have been part of the problem) have been so busy making left- and right-hand turns through the Bible—think of your favorite massive commentary as Exhibit #1—that we have lost sight of the big picture. The solution is not making more careful turns, either. That would just be another commentary. The only way out of this problem is to step back and notice what is linking one story to another in the Bible, even linking one book to another. I will recommend not thinking of the bookends of the traditional story (sin and atonement) as the shiny objects that demand our attention, but instead spend time looking at what is lining up on the shelf between those bookends. When we do that we will notice that the Bible does not render sin management as its main narrative. I am convinced a brief tour of the Bible will convince you of this, and so this will be the subject of my next post.
Concern #2: We have been taught to ask what the Bible means to us instead of asking what it meant to them. We are doing a good thing when we read the Bible for ourselves. But no ancient document, not even the Bible, can be understood without first drawing it through the lens of its original authorship and readership. This is the primary burden of this Naked Bible website. I believe the main narrative of the Bible is not hiding from us, but happily standing out in plain view for those who simply listen to the Bible in its original context. This will be the burden of this coming post. We will identify several key contextual elements which must be understood in the discernment of the Bible’s Big Story.
Concern #3: Evangelicalism, especially the modern American version of the movement, has concentrated on providing answers to the wrong questions. This is where I have come to appreciate the books of the British scholar N. T. Wright. If you have not read any of his books, I would recommend starting with Simply Christian and then trying The Day the Revolution Began. The first book will give you a scent of Wright’s Big Story, and the second wades into the details. Wright’s genius in my opinion is challenging the questions that Luther and Calvin tried to answer when reforming the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. He is an evangelical writing to evangelicals. But he thinks that evangelicals should basically start over when interpreting the Bible’s bigger story. I will dedicate an entire post to looking at N. T. Wright’s writings. While I do not end up subscribing to everything he maintains, listening to him challenge long-held views within the Western Christian tradition is refreshing and will lead us to think for ourselves, especially when trying to rethink our original questions.
Concern #4: We are still awaiting evangelicals to take other gods seriously. This of course strikes the nerve of this website. I would recommend reading Mike’s The Unseen Realm, at least up to chapter 14, to getting a running start for my coming post on this subject. There would have been nothing more commonsensical to the ancient Bible writer than the reality of an unseen host of gods ruling over the affairs of men from the heavens, and for this reason there is no more commonsensical place to start for understanding the larger story of the Bible.
Concern #5: We should never have described God as a payment-based being. My last post will challenge the Sin Paid For model of the Big Story, claiming that it not only fails the Bible, but fails in explaining God’s character. It is a serious thing to damage God’s character, and I believe a leading culprit in this regard is the idea that God can be satisfied with payment for sin. I look forward to explaining this further.
If you would like to respond to this post in any way, please email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.