This is a short blog series from me and a few of my preacher friends. Since many preachers spend Monday mornings replaying their sermons– figuratively or literally–I figured this would be a good time to reflect on the weighty and complex task we’ve agreed to undertake each Sunday. Read Part 1 on the tension between precision and simplicity HERE and Part 2 on how the congregation is a collaborator with the preacher in deciding what a sermon ‘means’ HERE.

Part 3 comes from Pastor Daniel Grothe, the pastor of New Life Friday Night. He’s a great preacher, passionate about his craft. You can find his blog HERE.

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All of us have heard of the “biblical illiteracy” epidemic. Unfortunately, much of the tone of that conversation squarely places the blame on “the parishioner’s lack of interest” in reading the Bible. But what if we preachers are partially responsible for the problem? We have to ask ourselves if we’ve built a narrative framework within which our congregations can live.

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My grandfather is 84 years old. For the last many years he has spent his time giving all of us, his descendants, a great gift: an incredibly detailed genealogy dating back to the early 1500s. He owns all the genealogical software and has called and emailed many county courthouses—both in the United States, and all across Europe—to have documents mailed to him. In his research, we’ve discovered interesting historical figures from which we’ve descended, like Sir George Calvert, 1st Lord of Baltimore, and his son, Sir Cecil Calvert, the heir to whom Maryland was granted on June 20, 1632.

Grandpa Dan has served as a sort of unofficial keeper of our family story, the one helping us all understand where we’ve come from, what we’ve been through, and where we all fit within the dynamically unfolding story that is our family. He has, in a sense, created a narrative framework for our family to be able to understand the character, and the characters, of the story.

Preachers, I want to suggest, do much the same work. Preachers are called to keep the story of the faith in front of the family.

But what exactly is our story? Are there identifiable movements within the drama of creation and salvation that can be distilled into a coherent narrative framework? Another way of asking it would be, if someone was sitting next to you on the train and asked you to tell them the story of Christianity in 3 minutes, could you give them a sensible re-telling?

I think there’s a way to do it. I’ll call it The “Big Story” in 6 Movements:

  1. Creation
  2. Fall
  3. Israel
  4. Jesus
  5. Church
  6. New Creation

But why does this even matter?

I’m pretty convinced people stay away from large portions of the Bible because they simply don’t know what to do with them, they don’t know how to “locate” this particular text within the whole sweep of God’s Big Story of creation and salvation. I mean, why should I read Leviticus or Numbers? Why familiarize myself with Israel’s sacrificial system? Who needs a genealogy anyway?

This is why you hear people talk about “the God of the Old Testament” as if he can be juxtaposed against the “God we see in Jesus in the New Testament.” They’ve split the One God in half, assigning him a past as the old, mean god that (thankfully!) finally got over himself, softened up, and sent Jesus.

These people need someone to stand up in front of them every Sunday morning with the conviction that “the Lord our God is one.” These people need someone to stand up in front of them with an understanding of how everything in the Old Testament builds toward Jesus, and how everything in the New Testament and beyond conforms to Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t show up in the middle of history to get rid of Israel’s story. No, he shows up to live that story to the full, to consummate it, to bring humans, through his faithful life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection, into the covenant faithfulness that the Father has always intended.

If this narrative framework of Creation-Fall-Israel-Jesus-Church-New Creation gets embedded within the lives of our churches, the whole of the Bible becomes “preach-able” again. There are no pages that are “off limits.” Everything has its place.

Commenting on his own preaching ministry, St. Paul refers to himself as a “skilled master builder.”

1Cor. 3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.

Every preacher that steps into the pulpit becomes the one “building on it,” and “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (3:13). Sobering stuff for any preacher.

But, by the grace of God, it can be done! We preachers have all we need at our disposal to faithfully proclaim The Big Story. We can help people develop a sort of 30,000-foot “Google Earth” view of scripture, where the whole of the story is not missed by any one seemingly esoteric part.

Like a puzzle with a thousand little pieces, all these canonical stories fit together, interlocking to form a coherent and stunning portrayal of the God who by his Spirit keeps coming at us in the face of Jesus Christ, very God, very man, the consummation and climax of all of Israel’s subplots and minor tales and the Door through which every previous “outsider” walks on their way to covenant participation and new creation.

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3 thoughts on “#PreacherProblems, Pt. 3: “Biblical Illiteracy and the Narrative Arc”

  1. I think the primary narrative framework I was most influenced by was Dispensationalism. Best I can recall, for the pastors and lay leaders who had explicitly, and more so implicitly, taught it to me, it was the only narrative arc to which they had been meaningfully exposed. Thus, I think they considered it, and nothing else, “Biblical.”

    Maybe we laypeople have been guilty of “biblical illiteracy,” sure. Often, I think we cherry pick inspirational verses out of context and build up beliefs more through study Bibles’ aids than grappling directly with the complexities of an ancient, layered text for ourselves.

    But I’d caution you and your fellow pastoral readers before you concentrate too much blame on the pew rather than the pulpit on this specific topic. I’d offer that with regard to Christocentric narrative arcs becoming forgotten in much of American Evangelicalism, it’s been significantly, in my lifetime at least, contributed by a clergy-directed response to the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. It seems that in reaction to modern Biblical scholarship and other threats of modernity, a kind of Biblicism won as the language of rebuttal and, in doing so; Biblicism, literalism, and love of certainty took center stage, and did so at the cost and consequence of deemphasizing the Christocentric. Consider statements of faith, justifications of the faith, Sunday school materials, popular End Times fiction, and more. Not only have Christocentric forms of interpretation been substantially forgotten, so have Christocentric orders of the worship service that shape belief in psychologically strong but silent ways. Whether or not everyone knew we were the Lamb of God’s disciples by our love, they certainly knew us by our “Biblical worldviews.”

    Personally, I’m glad to leave behind Dispensationalism to return to something older and broader in the history of the Church. Practically, popular Dispensationalism was more about escape than Incarnation. This world and our role in it seems to have substantially suffered from neglect caused by the emphasis of “this place is not my home” over living “for the life of the world.” Theologically, it was more about the Bible than Jesus. Here, I think we’ve been able to see the consequence of centering in certainty instead of humility. Methodologically, it was more about top-down power than bottom-up trust in the power of cruciform kenosis. To me it seems something was lost of the essence, if not the very Essence, of God-as-man. Something was lost of *how* He came into the world. Something was lost of how we identify with Him, to participate in his suffering, so that we might have the joy of seeing his glory, when it is revealed. It’s not that all of this or all of that was or is categorically wrong, it’s more a matter of a nuanced awareness and wisdom of the consequence that comes when one thing is made primary and another thing secondary and vice versa.

    My grandparents have passed away. I no longer have an direct ancestral equivalent of Grandpa Dan to ask the questions of faith of the generations. I do though have an Uncle Asher remaining (incidentally named after a different son of Jacob). A few years ago, I asked him how our family came to have the type of faith we do. One of the implicit questions I wanted to understand answer to concerned shiftings of the overarching narrative arc. I got the impression that he read his personal faith into generations before him, into his own life, and projected it further into the generations after him. While I didn’t really learn anything, I did learn much.

    People offer to others the only faith they have themselves.

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  2. in Michael Goheen’s a Light to the Nations there is one if the best, consise presentations of the narritive arch I have seen.
    Also, The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones takes this approach and the opening section about the nature of a story would be good for every sunday school class (I’m thinking of adults) to reflect on together.

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