Biblical illiteracy is a problem, not just for the theological integrity of the church, but for the ethics of our everyday lives. You can’t have morality or justice without stories.
In a previous post, I discussed biblical illiteracy by interacting with a new book, A Concise Guide to Reading the New Testament (Baker). The introduction to this volume makes a persuasive case that many contemporary Christians no longer know how to engage with the story arc of the Bible. He goes on, though, to argue that we often forget what the Bible actually is. If not a dictionary or an encyclopedia, what is it? The Bible is, among other things, he writes, “a faith-forming narrative.”
The book further makes the case that to understand the Bible we must understand “the irreducibility of narrative.” Most of us who are conservative evangelicals rightly reject the idea that the history of the Bible is merely illustrative—stories not grounded in fact but that point to the “real issue” of some experience with God or some demonstration of the way to live. The problem is, though, that sometimes we use the Bible the same way, only with the understanding that these stories really happened in space and in time. That’s true, they did in fact happen, but we sometimes assume that the narrative is simply the way God is feeding us the abstractions of moral principles or doctrinal axioms.
Moral principles are important, as are doctrinal axioms, but they are rooted and grounded in the storyline of the Scripture. If we were to boil the Bible down to a perfectly accurate summary of doctrines or directives, we would not be improving upon the Bible. We would not be drilling past extraneous stuff. We would be losing something essential: the story.
This is what Nienhuis means by the “irreducibility of narrative.” As he puts it, “no moral or summary of a story can take the place of the story itself.” That’s because stories in the human experience, as created by God, are more than just hangers on which to place abstractions. Stories speak not just to the cognitive capacity but to the imaginative as well. As he explains, “Stories immerse us temporally in a world other than our own, and in doing so, they provide us with a deeper understanding of our own identities, values, choices and purpose.” This is precisely right.
Russell Kirk spoke of this as the shaping of the “moral imagination.” Stories, rightly told, shape us, almost always unconsciously at first. We vicariously are delighted or surprised or disgusted or outraged. It’s not just that we cognitively connect the dots but that, at some level, we actually experience these things. That power can be used in terrifying ways—see the use of Germanic volk myths in the rise of Hitler—or in life-giving, redemptive ways.
The prophet Nathan confronted King David with his sexual predation by telling the story of a wealthy man robbing the poor of his one ewe lamb (2 Sam. 12:1-15). This was not just to “illustrate” for David the meaning of the commandment against immorality. The story Nathan told bypassed the hardened conscience and the rationalizing intellect of David to allow him to experience horror and disgust at what turned out to be his own sin. Jesus did the same, repeatedly. The story of the “good Samaritan,” for instance, is again, not just an illustration but a vehicle for a resistant conscience to experience what it doesn’t want to acknowledge: compassion for the ‘outsider’ whom culture compelled to be ignored.