Month: March 2015

What is the biblical narrative?

From “Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Hidden Kingdom” by Rupen Das .

Most people find meaning in life as they discover their place within a narrative that they feel explains the world and life for them. In the pluralistic world we live in, there are competing narratives about the meaning of life and about our relationship and obligations to society. Most of these narratives are usually not communicated through a comprehensive philosophical presentation, but through the exploits of heroes and role models, through parables, stories and folk wisdom, through advertisements, commercials and TV sitcoms, and occasionally through religious education. They are the tools and vehicles through which ideas and values are communicated. Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbably writes, “Metaphors and stories are far more potent (alas) than ideas; they are easier to remember and more fun to read…Ideas come and go, stories stay.”[1]

While narratives have their limitations because they tend to simplify reality rather than explain its complexity, narratives are important and powerful because they are able to embody ideas within real contexts and thereby giving meaning to events in history and in life. Canadian sociologist at the University of Calgary, Arthur Frank, writes about how stories influence and shape human behavior.

Stories animate human life; that is their work. Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided…. Human life depends on the stories we tell: the sense of self that those stories impart, the relationships constructed around shared stories, and the sense of purpose that stories both purpose and foreclose.[2]

Unfortunately narratives are viewed as an inferior form of communicating truth in our technological age. Professor of homiletics, Paul Borden writes, “Our literate technological culture has convinced us that truth cannot be communicated [through stories]. Stories may be used to illustrate truth but not communicate it…While analytical and logical presentations are sometimes required and beneficial, the assumption behind such presentations is often one of disdain for narrative as the means for communicating major ideas…However, more people in culture are influenced, not by papers and books by philosophers, ethicists or commentators, but by the artistic communication of their ideas in the media…In other words, it is the stories and ideas taught by stories that influence people…”[3] Is it any surprise that a major form of communication in the Bible are narratives and stories.[4]

When it comes to the narrative of the Bible as a whole, there are different understandings of what the larger narrative of the Bible is. Some focus on the issue of justice and the theme of God liberating people from social and economic bondage. Others focus on a God who blesses, heals and prospers. Yet others focus on the eternal dimensions, specifically life after death. Many focus on the love of God, and God wanting to fulfill us and make us everything that we were intended to be, in the process freeing us from our psychological bondages. The Biblical narrative is often understood as having four parts – creation, fall, redemption and new creation. Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen offer the Biblical narrative as a six-act drama: creation, fall, redemption started with Israel, redemption accomplished in Christ, the church, and the final consummation.[5]

Is there a larger narrative about a Creator God redeeming not just human beings but all of creation; where history and time have a purpose “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10) and that there will come a time when it will be said, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15) Is not the Biblical narrative about the eternal King who is the Creator, and about His Kingdom? The issues of justice and liberation, redemption, blessings, the love of God, hope, eternal life and wholeness in this life, are all realities of the Kingdom of God and not separate narratives. It is critical to understand this, because the narrative provides the context for the truth to be understood and then communicated. American theologian Alan E. Lewis wrote, “narrative is now being tested as theology’s starting point, in response to which, and in reflection upon which, concepts, doctrine, and prescriptions for action may subsequently be constructed.”[6]

In the midst of the discussion of the Biblical narrative, it is important to remember who the Narrator is, even as He speaks through the limitations and individuality of the human writers. The Biblical narrative is not only unique in that it addresses the issues of evil and injustice, but is all the more astounding as it gives meaning to an absolutely magnificent, incredibly beautiful and terrifying universe. It is the story of a Creator, of love spurned, redemption and second chances. It describes justice and judgment, and the intriguing possibility of forgiveness. It is a story of an eternal Kingdom and its King. This narrative is not a fairy tale or a Russian novel grappling with the existential questions about life and society. Instead, it is the history of time. Brian Wicker writes, “The claim to be able to tell such a story amounts to the claim to be in the position of God.”[7]

The Annales School is a style of historiography developed by 20th century French historian Fernand Braudel and others that studies long-term social history referred to as la longe duree. Rather than focusing on “episodic events or the public deeds of Great Men”,[8] they pioneered an approach that looked at the influence of geography, material culture and the psychology of the period on history. William Dever, professor of Near Eastern archeology at the University of Arizona writes, “They looked rather at history as the result of cultural adaptation to the “deeper swells” of changing natural conditions over the millennia.”[9] Too often the study of Scripture has focused on narrow and specific issues, or on individuals and heroes without understanding the larger narrative of God’s work, as well as the history and the context of the Bible. This book will revisit some of the biblical narratives to try and understand where the poor and the broken fit within the economy of God and why. Understanding this will provide the basis for a theology of compassion.

[1] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable, (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010), xxxi.

[2] Arthur W. Frank, Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 3.

[3] Paul Borden, Is There Really One Big Idea in That Story? In “The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching”, ed. Keith Willhite and Scott M. Gibson (Grand Rapid: Baker Books, 1998), 68.

[4] For example, Klyne Snodgrass estimates that more than one-third of the teaching material recorded in the synoptic Gospels are parables. Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A comprehensive guide to the parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 22. (Snodgrass 2009)

[5] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2004), passim.

[6] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001). 10. Lewis writes about the impact of narrative theology. “On the surface at least, this is, therefore, an inauspicious, even perilous, moment for theologians of many varieties and all confessions to agree that it is precisely the genre of the story, or narrative, upon which they should concentrate their analysis of how truth is conveyed, and with which they should begin their attempts at communication… “Stories” have recently emerged in much theology as the very means by which the truth of God is understandably received and effectively passed on by the community of faith.” Ibid, 10.

[7] Brian Wicker, The Story-shaped World: Fiction and Metaphysics: Some Variations on a Theme (Notre Dame: University Press, 1975), 101.

[8] William A. Dever, Who Were The Early Israelites And Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 133.

[9] Ibid, 113.

Reflection – The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Lenten Scripture Readings for the week: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3: 14-21

I don’t know whether because it’s the fourth week in Lent or that I have a growing awareness of the frailty of human life, I am becoming increasingly aware of grace – the need for unmerited favor from God, and going against every independent streak in my personality, the need for unmerited favor and help from others also. Mark Galli recently wrote, “To know and bask in grace is to relinquish control. To admit we’re not in charge and never have been.” Grace is woven throughout this week’s Lenten reading.

In the desert, the people rebelled against God, yet He provided them a means of grace so that they may live. The passage in Psalms describes the people as fools who suffered because of their rebellious ways and disobedience. Inspite of that when “they cried to the Lord in their trouble…he saved them from their distress. He sent out his word and healed them; 
he rescued them from the grave.” The passage in Ephesians describes a God who is rich in mercy, who saves us by grace and makes us alive. He shows us favor, which we do not deserve. Grace is not just about forgiveness. It is also about experiencing the favor, help and the presence of God in the midst of frailties and desperate times.

A true experience of grace is transformative – that when I am unable to cope anymore, somebody steps in to help, resolve my problems, and provides me a way out of the mess that I am in; when desperate prayer is answered and God steps. In that moment, the gnawing fear, anxiety and a sense of helplessness are suddenly transformed into a lightness and joy in our spirits that spontaneously burst forth into praise. The Psalmist in today’s reading writes, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind. Let them sacrifice thank offerings
and tell of his works with songs of joy.”

However, the experience of grace and God’s unmerited favor is not just a blessing that I hoard for myself, or something that we as a church limit to only people who belong to our community. Grace and compassion go together. The grace that we experience we extend to others. It is a way of living life.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells the story of Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a descendant of an old Russian noble family, who supposedly suffered from epilepsy and other mental weaknesses. As he returns home from his treatment in Switzerland, he is immersed into a society that is obsessed with power, greed and sexual conquest. Relationships are destructive and are scarred by manipulation and the abuse of power in every way possible. Maybe because of his mental challenges, Myshkin is a simple soul, in a sense naïve, and as a result trusting. His goodness and his ability to extend grace to various people have no place in the midst of the ugliness of such a society, and he is labeled an “idiot”. Jill Carattini describes the impact of Myshkin.

Myshkin’s inclination is to help rather than to harm, to give mercy rather than malice, forgiving again and again, though surrounded by people who do not.  In fact, it is this group who tirelessly labels Myshkin the “idiot” because he refuses to participate in the disparaging and destructive ugliness of their own ways but instead takes what is cruel and repulsive in them and dispels it.

Such a life is countercultural and demonstrates an alternative to ugliness, manipulation, cruelty, revenge, and death. The story of Myshkin is a parable. It is unrealistic to believe that being able to extend grace and show compassion as Myshkin did is humanly possible. It requires a transformed life for love to not be egocentric but be driven by grace and compassion. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes, “Trust in God then frees us sufficiently from self to make us cognizant of and compassionate in relation toward the other – in particular, the other who suffers, who is hungry and thirsty, who is imprisoned; the other who “fell among thieves”; the other who knocks at our door at midnight in need.”

Maybe this is what Eph. 2:10 refers to as good works, that as we experience the grace of God, we are now able to extend grace and compassion to others.