“Tell Me A Story”: Interpreting Historical narrative

CathedralWho doesn’t love a good story?  We all do.  People tell ghost stories around campfires.  Kids want a bedtime story before bed.  We watch TV shows and movies, which (with the exception of “reality” TV) allow us to escape into the story of some fictitious (or historical) narrative.  We read novels – murder mysteries, Amish romance (?!?), spy thrillers, biographies, harlequin, but…stories all.  In bygone generations people gathered around radios to tune in to all manner of narrative entertainment – from The Lone Ranger to The Shadow.  Bards and minstrels regaled Medieval courts with tales of derring-do.  In short…we like stories.

I know I do.  Reading to my kids is one of my favorite family activities.  I sometimes fantasize about life as a novelist.  I’d pursue that interest if I had the time.  I occasionally stumble across manuscripts of stories, outlines, and chapters of novels I’ve written.  I love a good yarn.

Where does our love of story come from?  It comes from our Creator.  God made us, and he made us in his own image.  God loves story.  In fact, the flow of history is the unfolding of His Story – the meta-narrative, the Big Story.  What is that story?

It is a love story.  It’s the story of God’s love for his people.  Like every good love story it contains fits and starts, moments of high drama where it seems like the whole thing can’t end well.  And yet, the narrative ends with a marriage feast, with a joyful celebration as Christ and his bride enjoy life together forever.

The Bible isn’t just the unfolding of a love story, though.  It isn’t just a “chick flick.”  There’s a lot there for the fellas too.  War, violence, greed, lust, betrayal, and all the rest (including lots of sex).  This story is not for the faint of heart, not for the squeamish, not for those who are overcome by the sight of blood.  It’s a tale with real villains (worse than anything Hollywood has ever concocted); and with the greatest of heroes (now that is a hero riding in on a white horse!).

The Bible unfolds this great story in many different forms.  There are lots of different genres of scripture.  But the most common genre, the form that the story most often takes, is story.  That is to say: the Bible tells the story of God’s plan of redemption largely in the form of a story.

Estimates are that 40% of the Old Testament and as much as 60% of the New Testament takes the form of narrative.  About half of the Bible is story.

Now, when we use the word “story” some people will automatically hear the word “fiction.”  But this should not be assumed.  Some stories are fictional, but other stories are true.  We shouldn’t necessarily attach any kind of truth value to the genre of narrative.  Are the narratives of the Bible to be understood as fictional or as true stories?

Some would argue that the Bible is nothing but a book of fanciful story telling.  Just fables, myths, legends.  Stuff not to be taken very seriously as history.  Some who take this line still value these stories in some sense. “Of course they aren’t true, but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable.  They give us great insight into the understanding of the Hebrew people.  They reflect certain truths about how they saw God, even if they don’t present real historical truth.”  I don’t buy this.  If these narratives aren’t true, then they might have value as an anthropological curiosity, a clue to learn about the thinking of a past people group, but they would have no value for knowing God.  They could be valuable for learning about how people claim to know God, but would not have any value for actually knowing God.  No Christian can accept this.

Others are even less kind to the historical value of the biblical narratives.  “I don’t believe stories about Santa Clause, or the Easter Bunny, or Dracula, so why would I accept the stories about ‘Jonah’ or ‘Noah’?”  (A certain dismissive sneer should accompany this).  “I could as soon accept myths about the Norse gods as I could the stories from the Bible! Well, I don’t believe in Loki, or Thor’s Hammer, or Asgard, so count me out on the Bible!

There are a number of responses to this.  These are statements of remarkable ignorance.  They reflect real confusion about the nature of the Bible, the Bible’s claims about itself, about genre, about history, about archaeology, and even about mythology!  In my next post I’ll highlight three arguments that prove that we should read the Bible’s historical narratives as true history, not as ‘myth.’