“In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed to a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”
– G. K. Chesterton
We understand others in relation to a story.
Consider how you might explain a historical figure to someone. How would you help someone understand (if they truly had no idea) who George Washington was? You might start by offering some data to help frame his life, such as: George Washington was a general during the Revolutionary War. But that doesn’t say much without context. And to give context you need to tell a story. You need to explain what it meant to be a general in the Revolutionary army and why there was a Revolutionary army in the first place and why the Americans were fighting the British and why America’s pursuit of independence was so significant in the grand scheme of things, and so on. Then you would need to tell what part Washington played in it all and then how he went on to be President. You may want to tell of his relationships with his wife Martha or his aide Alexander Hamilton. You may want to recite some of his writings to communicate his thoughts about the circumstances he faced. All this to say, data alone does very little to explain who George Washington truly was. You need to tell his story, fit into a larger story. Then, you begin to make sense of the person.
We understand ourselves in relation to a story.
Whether we’ve ever given it any intentional thought or not, all of us live with some understanding of a larger story that our own lives fit into. It’s the story of our family, our “people”, our country, our place in world history, and so on. And inevitably, our understanding of the story that our lives fit into shapes how we live. It shapes our values, our priorities, our sense of purpose (or lack thereof). Even George Washington would have had some sense of his place in history (i.e. the true story) that caused him to believe giving his life to the causes he did was a worthwhile endeavor. He was a man of purpose; that purpose came from the larger story he understood his life to be a part of.
There are competing stories all around us.
We all live according to some larger story, but there are different stories being sold to us all the time. Consider a view that the true story of the world is that human life is a result of random chance and that life is purposeless, save for advancing our species and competing for whatever pleasure we can get before we die. That might seem grim. But it’s essentially what’s communicated in everything from songs on the radio to workout gear. It’s the story that motivates us to “wake up and dominate” because everything is competition and life is about getting yours while you can.
But is that the larger story we believe? Is that the true story of the whole world that we as Christians ought to live according to? No.
The Bible tells THE true story of the world.
A Hindu scholar once responded to British theologian and missionary Lesslie Newbigin by saying:
“I can’t understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion – and anyway we have plenty of books of religion in India. We don’t need any more! I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole of creation and the history of the human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it.”
What he understood is that the Bible tells a story, and that story makes authoritative claims on being the true, defining account of reality. The Bible claims to tell how everything began, how it all went wrong, how it is being made right, and where it is all going. As Christians, our task then becomes to locate ourselves, understand ourselves, and then live according to, the Biblical story.
The Biblical story is a six act play.
Like every good story, the Biblical story has a narrative arc, a development of the plot. In recent years, some theologians have begun simplifying the narrative arc by comparing it to a play in six acts, or a book with six chapters. This is not to reduce the true story of the whole world to a simple, flat storyline. Certainly history is a rich tapestry of interwoven lives and plot lines. But the six act framework helps make sense of the overall direction. The six acts are:
Act One – Creation | Genesis 1-2
Act Two – The Fall | Genesis 3-11
Act Three – A Promise (Israel) | Genesis 12 – Old Testament
Act Four – Redemption | The Gospels
Act Five – The Church | Acts – Revelation 18
Act Six – Restoration | Revelation 19-21
Locating ourselves in the Biblical story.
The story above has unending implications for our lives. Act One tells us that creation (the world) was purposefully created by a loving God who declared his creation good. That means there is beauty and purpose to it all and that everything is rightly placed under the authority of the Creator. Act Two tells us that the world is not as it should be because humankind chose to turn away from our Creator, disrupting the harmony of creation and bringing sin and death into the world. That explains the evil and disharmony we see in the world. Act Three tells us that despite our rebellion, God did not give up on us, but set a plan in motion (beginning with Abram) to set everything right. But as the act unfolds we are reminded that only God will be able to fix it all, humankind is trapped in sin unable to liberate ourselves. Act Four represents the climax of it all, in which the promised King (Jesus) comes to win the decisive battle over sin and death, liberating creation and assuring that light ultimately wins over darkness. Act Five tells of the King sending his followers to tell the world victory has been secured and a time is coming when he will reign forever and make all things new. Act Six is the promised resolution in which all things will be restored as they were meant to be in the beginning, only better.
Where are we? We are living in Act Five. The decisive battle has been won by King Jesus and the future of all those who trust in him is secure. We are able to live in that sure hope, starting even now to live into our liberation from sin, while we go and tell the world the good news that we will join him in his kingdom (Act Six) where ever tear is wiped away and sin and death are no more.
Locating ourselves in the Biblical story has unending implications, particularly in contrast to the competing stories around us. It means that our lives have purpose bigger than our own appetites. It means that we are meant to be aligned with our Creator. It means that we recognize sin is at work in us and around us, but good still remains, and all is not lost. It means that we are not the hero of the story, Jesus is. It means the world is not ours to save (or dominate). The worship of the church is a life-long pursuit of working out these implications and more.
In Class Two we zoomed in to look closer at the individual as a character in the story. What does it mean that we are “created in the image of God”? If creation is good, but the fall distorted it all, am I good or bad? Am I supposed to love myself of hate myself? If God is making all things new, what does that mean for me?