“So, what’s your story?”
“I was diagnosed when I was thirtee-“
“No, no your real story.”
“I am quite un-extraordinary.”
“I reject that out of hand.”
John Green’s novel “The Fault in Our Stars” is – so I am told – a moving and beautiful story. The above quote isn’t quite from the book: it’s from the movie trailer released a couple of weeks ago. Have a look here. I haven’t read it yet (it’s close to the top of my pile), so I know only the broad sketches of the story, and in some sense it is uncomplicated: two teenagers, both suffering from cancer, fall in love. This interaction touches on a significant aspect of The Fault in Our Stars: it engages with people and their stories beyond the obvious questions that everybody asks. Augustus, as he stares at Hazel and asks for her story, wants to know who she really is. He isn’t on about her disease, but about her.
As I have been writing about the importance of stories, I found this fascinating. Augustus here tells us something that the Christian would do well to heed – your story is important. Hazel’s cancer story is not her whole story. If stories are important in understanding and identity, then how our personal story fits in with the stories of other Christians is important. More fundamentally, what is the story of God? Our faith is built upon stories, and I would say it is impossible to be a Christian without some concept of the story of God and humanity. This works itself out in a few ways.
On the largest scale, this means understanding the big picture: How God and humanity have interacted in history, and how that influences us. This is essentially the task of Biblical Theology, which is about understanding the bible across the sweep of redemptive history. Building on the work of those like Graeme Goldsworthy, we can understand the bible as a progressive revelation, or an unfolding story. Sitting here in 2014 we have this full story: a story in which we are included, and to which we await the real “conclusion”. The end of revelation; where Jesus says “I am coming soon” resembles “to be continued”.
For theology, this story is essential. How can we understand Jesus as the true Israel without seeing the way his life matches the contours of Israel’s exile, temptation, law and so on. The New Testament grounds our own sin in a collective human story and identity from creation and fall. A proper understanding of the nation of Israel, the Passover, the law, the Jubilee, much of the prophets, the day of the Lord and many other Old Testament concepts can be achieved only if we connect them to Christ’s incarnation, obedience, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension
People who grew up in the church often say that they did not, as a young person, understand grace. They were taught moralism. I can’t help but think that in part, this comes from a failure to integrate parts of the bible with God’s whole story. When we teach the Old Testament, we are not merely conducting character studies or sharing examples of Christian virtue. No doubt, there are moral lessons and great examples for us in the Old Testament. The danger is, though, that if we are not properly accessing the story or redemptive history, then the Old Testament can become nothing more than a shallow disguise for Christianised morals. If this happens, we are not teaching the Old Testament, we are sterilising it in favour of the new testament. It is not just about finding the moral of the story, as if the bible were some abstract fable. It is about understanding how we too fit within this tradition. As a basic example, we don’t teach Abraham just as an example of faith, still less as a sort of prosperity gospel where faith means you get promised stuff. We look at Abraham as someone God made a covenant with – the covenant fulfilled in Jesus. We understand how the kings of Israel were a foreshadowing of this, the prophets predicted it, but only in Christ is it fulfilled. This means, then, that our story is linked with Abraham: we are blessed by and included in this same covenant. Many implications could be drawn, but to put it simply: rich and true engagement with God and his truth is informed by proper grasp of God’s story. For this reason, resources that help us to engage with this story at every level are great. Don Carson’s book “The God who is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story” is great for new Christians or people investigating Christ, as it outlines this story as it develops. It helps people to see who they are as humans and as Christians, in light of the biblical story. More than this: the Old Testament becomes more important, as it is some sense our history: not just our history as any part of human history, but specifically our history as part of the people of God. We can learn from our past, a past we have been grafted into by faith in Christ.
It’s important at this point to note that this is no coincidence. The bible is God’s self-revelation, and thus we must recognise that God chose the mode of storytelling to tell us of himself. Sure, he did not just tell us stories: these are the stories of God’s action. I’ll flesh that out in a moment. But first, note the huge proportion of narrative to other material in the bible. Much of the OT is narrative history, and the material of other genres also features storytelling elements: Qohelet’s recounting in Ecclesiastes, the dialogic interaction of Song of Songs, psalms that weave a picture or scene. In the New Testament, we have four renditions of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, an account of the apostolic era, and an apocalyptic/symbolic narrative in revelation. Here, then, we have a wide variety of stories across numerous genres, teaching us our own human and Christian heritage, as well as God’s character and action. The more theologically oriented style of the epistles is great: Hebrews and Colossians put things much more systematically and theologically than parts of the gospels do. Yet they also clearly emphasise the cross. Christianity is built around a story of redemption which is centred upon the sequence of events surrounding the cross and resurrection. The epistle, though less narrative, always points back to the importance of these events and understanding them. Whether it is telling us of the way that that story becomes ours as we unite with Christ, recalling and re-applying Old-Testament concepts to the gospel story, or simply recounting aspects of the story (Philippians 2, 1 Corinthians 15 etc.), these letters are a testament to the centrality of the gospel story.
Please don’t see me elevating the literary form of scripture over the reality of the incarnation or the work of the Spirit here. It is only by looking at Jesus that we really and truly see God. God has chose, though, to use literature (albeit inspired and illumined by his Spirit) as one of the primary ways for us to learn of Jesus, his place in God’s redemptive plan, and our place before Jesus. It is not surprising that God should do this, given the obsession humans have for stories. Whatever medium, genre, style or mechanism you can imagine, we will use it for stories. Stories that explain, entertain and inspire us. This is something unique to humanity, and I think it reflects something of God. There is no doubt that our ability to engage with stories is a blessing. God himself is a speaking God and a creative God. We are made in his image, and we are blessed with rationality, creativity and relationship unlike anything else in creation. I think God has geared us to love stories, and then provided us with the story of his own work to call us back to be a people for himself. Though he could have provided a mere command or statement of our need for him, or some theological treatise explaining who he is and who we are, he chooses to give us stories as well. He explains himself by what he has done.
I said before that I would return to the idea that God didn’t just give us stories. It is a little misleading. One could argue that God did not give stories to the ancient Israelites: he gave them law and he interacted through prophet. The stories are just the humanly created product of this. There is some substance to this objection, but ultimately I think it isn’t significant. Firstly, I believe that scripture is inerrant and inspired. That means not only the interactions themselves, but the records of them, are from God. Secondly, the fact that it was a true story does not diminish its impact. I think that it is valid to say that someone gives you a story when they give you an experience. When we go on holiday, have a car crash or stay out late with friends, we get the event itself, a story for ourselves and in many cases a story to share. God acting directly is not mutually exclusive with giving a story.
So, to sum up so far: the wide-angle view of a story is important. Thus biblical theology and grasping progressive revelation are important. God has used the big story of the bible, the medium of storytelling and many smaller stories to tell us about himself.
There’s an important point of balance, though. Like Hazel and Augustus, our story is bigger than just the immediate, obvious story. It’s bigger than our conversion of story, or our individual story. Yet one of the powerful things in a story is the detail, the sub-plots, the smaller stories that make sense of it. God has not just given us a history and identity, but has sovereignly worked each of our personal stories for a purpose. Just as the stories in the bible are powerful our own stories are powerful. If you are saved, then God has worked powerfully in you and that is with a beautiful and amazing story of its own. These stories are a gift from God. I don’t just mean that those stories of huge, unexpected conversions (gangster to god-botherer, rebel to righteous, etc.) but all our stories.
Recently I’ve encountered a push which recognises this to some degree: the drive for people to give their “testimony”. It’s true: your testimony is a great way to share the gospel because nobody can argue against your personal experience. Being able to give an account for the hope you have, often a story is more powerful than some sort of attempt at apologetics. It can seem more authentic and real – as the gospel is – than sterile or abstract reasoning. How amazing would it be if we were able to really understand our own stories, and tell them in an engaging way that reflects how miraculous they truly are. There can be power in smaller stories as well, though. I attended a beach mission event at the Summerlife mission at Narrabeen. They were doing some great things and having great convos, but I was really encouraged by some of the stories: not just conversion stories, but stories of just one way God had worked in their lives. I think that we often see what God is doing in our lives in a shallow way. God isn’t just answering “yes” and “no” to prayers. He is changing us day by day, and using our experiences and relationships to shape us.
So do you know your story? Not just your small story: the big story of what God is doing. Do you know how to make sense of this story? Do you learn from story of humanity, of the people of God? Do you value the stories God has left us? Do you value and learn from your own story?
God has given us an immensely precious gift in the capacity for storytelling, the love for stories, and the choice to reveal himself to us in story. I would love to appreciate that beautiful truth more and more.
There’s still one post to come in this little series. Stay tuned!