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Enter the Drama of God's Story

Entering the biblical narrative requires looking at the story you actually live by and pondering why God gave the Bible as a sprawling story.

It seemed like an opening from God. A youth minister was starting a Bible study with girls in her junior high youth group. Several were cheerleaders and one asked unchurched cheerleading friends to join the Bible study. “I was excited to have them join,” recalls Laura DeHaan, now a Calvin College psychology professor who researches faith and adolescence.

Then she got a call from a mom. “Her daughter, Alyssa, was upset that Sara had joined the Bible study because Sara was quite cruel during cheerleading and at school. Till then youth group had been Alyssa’s safe haven away from Sara. I understood. Yet it would be impossible for me to tell someone who’d never had the chance to study the Bible that I didn’t want her there,” DeHaan says.

So she began the Bible study by asking everyone to sit in a circle, eyes closed, imagining themselves sitting on a hill, straining to hear Jesus speak. She read Matthew 5:23-24 about being reconciled to others before coming to God in worship…requested everyone to stay quiet for awhile, with eyes still closed…and asked whether anyone had something to say to another. Sara was the first to share. She and Alyssa confessed a lot to each other, as did other girls. It became as emotional as you’d expect from early adolescents.

Yet DeHaan looks back on it as her “most gratifying time” in youth ministry. Parents saw the change in their daughters and began attending church with them. And it all came about because people imaginatively entered the Spirit-inspired Story of Jesus.

The story that makes sense

Entering the biblical narrative requires looking at the story you actually live by and pondering why God gave the Bible as a sprawling story.

The question isn’t whether we live out of a story that makes sense of human history but which grand story will shape us, Michael Goheen said in a lecture based on The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story.

Live your best life now….Free market capitalism is the global system most compatible with Scripture….The gospel is personal but never private….Humans have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives….The gospel is about individual salvation only; each individual gets his due….Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; love your neighbor as yourself.

Ironically, when we exegete a Bible story’s content but devalue its story form, we drain its power to shape our lives.

God gave much of the Bible as narrative. Jesus told open-ended stories that can linger like time bombs in our imaginations. Christians for centuries read the Bible as “the overarching story of the world, from creation to last judgment.”

Yet churches today often treat Bible storying as the milk spiritual children need before moving up to the solid food of “true meaning.” Repackaging the Bible as information about a moral code to follow or a systematic way to think implies that a passage’s meaning cannot be in the story itself. We act, N.T. Wright says, as if God has “given us the wrong sort of book.” We fall prey to belief-behavior gaps and competing stories that capture our imagination, form our habits, shape our identities, and direct our desires.

Bible as life script

If you tend to think of a story as something already completed, then perhaps drama is a better metaphor for living the good news. The biblical drama shows who God is and what God does. It gives us the opening acts and reveals the ending—the entire fallen cosmos restored so that Christ is all, and is in all. But God is still writing the next to last act.

In a lecture based on his book The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer said, “We all, as members of the church, form a great ‘company of the gospel’ with important speaking and acting parts to play.” The Bible is our script. Doctrine gives us theatrical direction. The Holy Spirit helps us stay faithful to the script while we improvise gospel performances in new cultural scenes.

Cindy Frost described subplots in God’s redemptive drama during her “Sharing Abundance” sermon at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Collins, Colorado. Paul’s invitation for the Corinthians to send money to starving Christians in Jerusalem was like Jesus’ suggestion that the disciples feed 5,000 people, Frost said. Feeding hungry people fits into God’s big story of ending suffering and redeeming creation. God could accomplish all this without us yet chooses to involve us in demonstrating his generous love. These roles stretch us beyond what seems humanly possible.

Frost recalled that while on a church mission trip to produce food for Liberian kids with AIDS, she was very aware of God removing obstacles. However, once back in “the real world,” she stressed out about project challenges. Then she realized she was “living the same old story” of self reliance and “not much abundance.”

Sanctified imagination

Recognizing our roles in God’s ongoing plot of salvation history takes imagination.

“It is by seeking to live by the word in the power of the Spirit that our imaginations become sanctified. I need a sanctified imagination as I seek each day to improvise my life to the glory of God,” Vanhoozer said in a blog interview. He recommends reading widely to inhabit the cultural world of meaning and “employ metaphors that connect ordinary life to the wonderful real world of the Bible.”

This type of graced connection happened to Tom Arthur in college. He’d left the faith because he doubted the resurrection. A friend (now his wife) suggested he read The Chronicles of Narnia. Arthur has blogged and preached about how reading The Silver Chair gave him “new ways of thinking about who God is and what that means for us.” He is now pastor of Sycamore Creek Church in Lansing, Michigan.

Sarah Arthur speaks and writes on spiritual formation and imagination. “The limitlessness of imagination scares churches. But the Holy Spirit often slips through the back door of imagination without our permission. Imagination weaves together what is seen and unseen. It helps us engage an invisible God who speaks through prophets and poets, dreamers and seers…empathize with strangers…and pray for people not in our midst,” she says.

Finding the good news

God’s work of restoration happens in surprising ways when dissimilar people enter a Bible story together.

Missionary Joel Van Dyke tells of visiting women who were in a Guatemala prison because they were girlfriends, wives, sisters, or moms of gang members. They had to sleep on and under tables in a dining hall, separated from the men’s cells by hanging bedsheets. The Genesis 16 story of Hagar captivated these women. “They could relate to being unnamed and used as property by people in positions of authority and power…to living in ‘deserts’ of loneliness,” he writes in a Word from Below column.

What really impressed them was that Hagar, an Egyptian slave, was the first person in the Bible ever to name God. She called him El Roi, the God who sees, and grasped something about God’s care long before Abraham did. A few weeks later a prison chaplain found money to replace the bedsheets with a wall. A muralist volunteered to work with the female inmates. They unanimously chose to paint the Hagar story on their new wall and titled it “El Dios Que Me Ve” (The God Who Sees Me).

The experience impressed Van Dyke as yet another example of how the very people and places marginalized by the institutional church “have the potential to bring about the vision and sight the church so desperately needs. We need the vision of Hagar to see God at work in hard places,” he says.

Learn More

Read Barna research on how various generations use the Bible. To enter the Bible story means to see, feel, and act—“putting passion into your compassion,” as Wes VanderLugt writes in byFaith magazine. Nine theses underlie The Scripture Project that produced the book The Art of Reading Scripture

The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen is one of the most accessible books on this topic. Others who’ve used drama as a metaphor for worship and living the gospel include Dorothy Sayers, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Christopher Wright, N.T. Wright, Gerard Loughlin, Michael S. Horton, and Samuel Wells.

Listen to Richard Lischer’s sermon on the resurrection. He says Christians have nothing to say to prove the resurrection if we’re not already being the proof of the resurrection. Read Laura Truax’s Pentecost sermon about how the Holy Spirit helps people helps us re-imagine power and re-imagine change. People leading worship for all ages will find good ideas in Sarah Arthur’s The God-Hungry Imagination: the Art of Storytelling for Postmodern Youth Ministry.

Read N.T. Wright’s lecture on biblical authority. This 1996 Christianity Today article explains why narrative theology deserves an evangelical hearing.

This exchange on The Network discusses how church school teachers can use Michael Novelli’s book Shaped by the Story with youth who have aged out of a Children and Worship program. Liz Tolkamp, the children's pastor at Willoughby Christian Reformed Church in Langley, British Columbia, took the Easter story and split it into small portions for the children of the church to illustrate. Each piece of art tells a snippet of the story, and Tolkamp created a video to display each scene in sequence during the congregation’s Easter Scripture reading.

This brief reader’s theatre on reconciliation is based on Matthew 5:21-26. Since music lingers in memories, you might want to use songs from Singing the New Testament to embed Bible stories in worshipers’ lives.

Read Reformed Worship stories on how to read the Bible in worship and Bible plays.

Start a Discussion

  • What are the pros and cons of reading the Bible as one overarching story? How do ethical, legislative, poetic, prayers, or other non-narrative sections fit into a story framework?
  • Which metaphor or description of the Bible is your congregation most familiar with—authority for life; the Church’s story; game plan for life; history of the world; inerrant, infallible, literally true; legal constitution; library; ongoing story or drama; revelation; something else?
  • In what ways do your worship services get the Bible “into” worshipers, help them practice being members of Christ’s body, recognize the Spirit working through the text today, or help them connect the Bible to congregational, family, or personal life?
  • If your church hosted or went on a mission trip that made a lasting difference, what role did the Bible play before, during, or after the trip?
  • Which worship habit or change has worked best (or not) to help worshipers look at the master narratives that actually drive their lives?