All The World's A Stage - God As Divine Storyteller

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of Story. Some of it connected to various threads posted exploring the nature of inspiration. Some connected to recent articles suggesting story as a new way to discuss science in the classroom. The human brain seems to be wired for story. It helps us remember. It helps us think. It helps us empathize.

I think this gets at the heart of our interpretive debate on origins because when it comes to Scriptural inspiration, the word “story” is scary to many because it implies untruth. Yet even fiction can convey truth that facts often obscure. And story, even before writing (which was a function at first reserved for scribes and often considered magical), seems to be the way the ANE thought and communicated. Jesus didn’t come speaking systematic theology. He proclaimed the kingdom through stories. Parables. And He himself was a living story, the living Word. Paul described Christians as “living letters” to be read by all.

I think of the craft of acting as a likeness of Incarnation (on a small human scale of course). It’s an author’s words made flesh and dwelling for a while among us. It’s story told in the medium of flesh and bone.

What do you think? Does the idea of God as Divine Storyteller using means of divine narrative, drama, story, myth, or dare I say “holy fiction” make you nervous? Or excite? What’s your story?

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I think the Bible as Story is the best way to read it. Have you read any Kevin Vanhoozer on “theodrama” or Scot McKnight on “the King and his Kingdom Story”? Good stuff. And I like the focus that God’s story continues, and we are actors in it. The Bible is not the last word on God’s mission in human history.

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I have come to agree with that position. As an older guy, I grew up hearing sermons that made three points and concluded. Some were very good (and the best also integrated stories!) but it seems that with postmodernism, storytelling became more the norm for preaching, and can be very effective in the right hands. They also can be ineffective if not well done, where you leave asking yourself what the point was or if it had a point.
I think much of the Bible is story, and that is probably why it has such power and relevance throughout thousands of years and in multiple diverse cultures.

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I like this analogy. I think that George Bernard Shaw said that all good literature is didactic; @Christy or @Laura could correct me here. That fits into the purpose of sermons well, too, I think.

C S Lewis liked it, too, as the following quotes remind me:

From “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”:

"On the next page she came to a spell ‘for the refreshment of the spirit’. The pictures were fewer here but very beautiful. And what Lucy found herself reading was more like a story than a spell. It went on for three pages and before she had read to the bottom of the page she had forgotten that she was reading at all. She was living in the story as if it were real, and all the pictures were real too.
When she had got to the third page and come to the end, she said, “That is the loveliest story I’ve ever read or ever shall read in my whole life. Oh, I wish I could have gone on reading it for ten years. At least I’ll read it over again.”
But here part of the magic of the Book came into play. You couldn’t turn back. The right-hand pages, the ones ahead, could be turned; the left-hand pages could not.
“Oh, what a shame!” said Lucy. “I did so want to read it again. Well, at least I must remember it. Let’s see . . . it was about . . . about . . . oh dear, it’s all fading away again.
“And even this last page is going blank. This is a very queer book. How can I have forgotten? It was about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill, I know that much. But I can’t remember and what shall I do?”
And she never could remember; and ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician’s Book.

“Oh, Aslan,’ said Lucy. ‘Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?’
‘I shall be telling you all the time,’ said Aslan. 'But I will not tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder.”

From “The Horse and His Boy”:

“Then it was you who wounded Aravis?”
“It was I”
“But what for?”
“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

From “The Last Battle”:
“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

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Great examples, Randy! It strikes me is how disarming story is when it works well. Whatever preconceptions one has coming to it, good stories make us forget them. It’s like we have permission to enter it in a number of different points.

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Yeah, and this is largely how I approach it from. I think there has been quite a backlash against the “story” view (in some sectors) for that very reason, that it has also been used to imply untruth. How often I have heard something along the lines of "The Bible has some great stories, but… " with the implication that stories are just stories and we have to be careful not to take them too seriously. I think Star Wars, Greek myths, and David Copperfield are great stories too but I wouldn’t rearrange my life around them. So that’s my context for “the Bible as story” – generally coming from those outside the church seeking to discount things they don’t like, rather than from other Christians. Of course, that was also my context for “millions of years,” so I have to remember how easy it it to commit a genetic fallacy.

I remember reading a “progressive Christian” article and I don’t remember much of what it said but the title was something along the lines of “Why does Star Wars resonate more with us than the Bible?” And that’s a good question. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been made to feel guilt for enjoying a book/movie/sporting event too much by comparing it to how much I do or do not enjoy the Bible. But it’s not surprising that the Bible wouldn’t be very enjoyable when it’s viewed as a book of rules, while Star Wars is viewed as an exciting story. So in that sense anyway, “Bible as story” can be a freeing and refreshing point of view.

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I haven’t but am intrigued.

Makes me think of Luigi Pirandello’s 6 Characters and people throughout time in search of their author.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with using anecdotes. But do you think when it fails that it’s because the preacher fails to use story to tell The Story? In other words, they tell story to entertain or talk about themselves, or mark time, more than to proclaim the eternal story. Good preaching has to connect us to that.

This all reminds me of something I once wrote…

I believe in magic as an alegorical representative of the invisible powers of the heart and spirit. I believe in the power of stories to reveal the unseen in symbolism and metaphor. And so it is without reservation that I can say that I believe in Santa Claus. But this does not mean that I expect to find anything on an expedition to the north pole. However, there is a kind of magical thinking, which I do not believe in at all. This magical thinking often takes the form of making deals with God (or the devil), supposing that if we do (or promise to do) certain things that we think God wants us to do, then somehow we will get what we desperately want. More generally there are all sorts of magical systems of belief that we can control our destiny by doing things that have no rational connection to the events in our life.

That is because a story typically has its own built in premises and we are practically trained by a long tradition of story telling to set aside our own premises and vision of reality to participate in the narrative. After the story we are free to categorize all of that as a fantasy or dream but sometimes the things we learn in the stories survive the transition from the premises of the story to those we accept in our own life.

I am reminded of my response to mormon missionaries as a teen when they asked what I thought of the Bible… I told them I thought it was as good as some of the science fiction novels I read. They might have been taken aback or even offended but for me that was high praise!

It’s a great question. I like how Tolkein described the idea to Lewis as true myth. And goodness, how many of us have had bad preachers turn something as exciting as the redemption of the world into the most boring thing, right? By the way, my favorite Star Wars is Rogue One. Essentially it’s the redemption story of complete self-sacrifice to save the universe from the evil Empire. The final battle brings me to tears every time.

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Stories can be very pointed too. Many of Jesus parables were very pointed with certain characters definitely aimed at a specific audience (like the prodigal’s older brother representing the religious elite - or any of us who fancy we “have it all together”), and as such the story would have not been comfortable or cozy for those listeners, but very challenging and pointed.

I think the reason some works like Star Wars (or Tolkien’s middle earth or Lewis’ Narnia, or Princess Bride, etc.) are all so fun for us compared with standard bible fare is that in those stories, we are treated to an unambiguous division between good and evil characters. And as such, the story is sweet for us to indulge in because we can whole-heartedly root for the good side and cheer on the defeat of the wholly evil characters. Sure - there are the ‘mixed lot’ like Boromir, or Edmund or the Spaniard swordsman who may be up to mischief (maybe very bad and serious ‘mischief’) at certain points in the plot, but in the end they really are good characters with good, if sometimes troubled hearts. But there is no redemptive quality allowed Sith Lords, or orcs, or the white witch or the six-fingered man. They are 100% unredeemably evil - fit only for cannon fodder.

And here is where the Biblical narrative separates itself out from the lot and does not let us rest easy, and as such, is not nearly such sweet fun to read. Because in the end we are all cast in the roles of the villains and cannot (except in our own deluded imaginations) ride the sweet feeling that we so crave of identifying with the hero.

So I suggest that is the reason we so enjoy the sweet (if less spiritually mature) fare that we get from our entertainment industry. Not to cast Tolkien or Lewis (or even Princess Bride) as being worthless - not by a long shot! They have much to offer, beyond entertainment even. But I suggest that none of them approaches the Bible (though some come much closer by way of allegory and parable) when it comes to spiritual reality.

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This is also probably one of the reasons Tolkein eschewed allegory. Sometimes the one-to-one correspondence can get in the way.

Much of the Bible is narrative - stories that existed as oral tradition long before they were set down in ink. We are more faithful to those scriptural narratives when they are shared as such. That means giving a voice to each different character. It means the narrator needs to move with the narrative and give some sense of placement to each character.

Ideally, the narrator will commit to memory the story - the entire story, not just the lectionary selection. Then, the story is not to be recited, it is to be remembered. By committing the story to memory, we participate in centuries of oral tradition that is lengthier than the history of print. By committing the story to memory, the living story will live in us. I assure you, by doing this - by letting the story live in you - there will be insights and epiphanies that cannot be gained any other way.

Our responsibility is not to give life to those narratives, they are already alive.
Our responsibility is to not kill them.

Good insight, Douglas. Welcome to the forum! We look forward to hearing your voice and getting to know you better. We try to play nice, and even the few grouches around are amusing and lovable once you get to know them!

You also make a good point about how our memory of stories is important. Few people who do not study the Bible regularly may be able to quote Bible verses instructing us to love each other, but nearly everyone can tell the story of the Good Samaritan.

What you describe is actively promoted by Christian organizations like The Seed Company, World Teams, Wycliffe, IMB, OMF, CRU, LBT and others in many areas of the world where cultures are considered “oral.” It’s called oral Bible storying.

In some places, oral Bible translations are also being done instead of written ones. I have a good friend who is working in an oral translation project.

It’s a great point, Douglas. As modern people we like things in bite size nuggets, and with technology we don’t really have a pressing need to commit things to memory. But I always think it’s a terrific goal for anyone to try and memorize large portions, even if you begin with a parable, a chapter of Romans, the prologue of John or Genesis 1 or 2. Not only does it help us not forget the story, but as it lives in us it continues to engage us and shape us. It’s formative as well as transformative. Thanks again and welcome!

And those premises aren’t static, they grow and change in the telling. To use a parable by way of example, let’s say the prodigal son, retelling it over years we engage at multiple points. Sometimes we identify with the son who leaves, at others with the son who stays, at others with the father, etc. But it breathes a little more than if it were locked down into a simple one-to-one allegory.

That has been my favorite so far of the more recent ones. It really does capture the simplicity of the self-sacrifice that happens any time evil threatens.

That’s true, and in that sense, those kinds of stories don’t tend to demand as much from us as the Bible. So it’s good that “feel-good” isn’t the goal for all stories! I have noticed though that it seems to be more common for movies to explore the complexities between good and evil – I feel like we’re seeing more flawed heroes and conflicted villains, which hopefully helps remind us of how complex our own real-life stories are too.

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