Singing the True Story of the Whole World
Knowing how the Bible hangs together helps Christians join God in the drama of redemption. The new Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal helps worshipers sing the biblical meta-narrative.
Our culture trains us to seek knowledge by paying attention to ever-smaller things more quickly. Scientists smash atoms to study subatomic particles. Broadcasters compress news into sound bites. You probably shop online to drill down by brand, style, color, average review and price to find what you want right now.
Christians around the world express their faith in bits and bytes, digitally sharing songs, sermons and worship clips. Even the Pope has begun tweeting.
This break-it-down trend is not adding up to greater awareness of God at work in the world. Instead, fragmenting everything, including the Bible, “is not just a mistaken way to read the Bible. It’s far more serious than that. What happens is that those bits get absorbed into the bigger cultural story,” Michael Goheen said on Shine TV in New Zealand. He is a professor, pastor, and church consultant based in Vancouver, B.C. Goheen also teaches missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“My own students couldn’t tell the story of the Bible or why it was important or how one lives in it,” Goheen said. He explained that Christians can be “warmly pious, theologically orthodox, and morally upright”—yet lead lives “dominated not by seeking first the kingdom of God but seeking first the idols that dominate Western culture.”
Goheen and others say we need to understand and sing the biblical meta-narrative, so we can live faithfully without being “conformed to the world” (Romans 12:2).
A meta-narrative is an overarching story that offers identity and meaning. It explains where history is going and shapes what people hope and work for.
The term “biblical meta-narrative” surfaced in the 1970s through the work of missiologist Lesslie Newbigin and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. “Biblical meta-narrative” is an academic way of saying that the Bible is God’s story of the way our world actually is. The term is newer but the idea exists already in Psalm 105 and Psalm 136. Both are congregational songs that help worshipers recount God’s mighty deeds and enduring love in their lives.
In his book The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama, Goheen says that people make meaning by asking and answering questions: What does it mean to be human? Where did our world come from? Why does the world seem to be so troubled? Can humans alone fix world problems? Where do we belong in this story?
Goheen isn’t saying that the Bible answers these questions in the form of a nice neat novel. Rather, all its parts, from law, wisdom, and prophecy to poetry and narrative, fit into a grand framework that interprets the real world. “The biblical drama of redemption unfolds in five acts: (1) creation, (2) the fall into sin, (3) Israel’s story, (4) the story of Jesus Christ, and (5) the story of the Church, leading to the consummation of God’s plan for redemption—Act 6, which is not yet complete,” he writes.
What we sing in worship forms our big pictures of who God is, what God is doing, and how we fit in. “Story and meta-narrative are so important now, because, in a biblically illiterate culture, people hear Bible stories but don’t know how the stories fit together. Singing the true story of the whole world is absolutely crucial in this missional moment,” says John D. Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.
Chuck Fromm, CEO/publisher of Worship Leader magazine, describes worship leaders as song curators. In his September 2012 column, “Set list or Hymnal?,” Fromm says that churches gather their own "great living hymnody" from printed hymnals, recordings, and Google.
From the Psalms to early Christian hymn collections, “the tradition of Christian curation of hymns has been the bedrock for nurturing faith and sustaining community….Worship leaders carry the pastoral responsibility to steward the community’s hymnal…and to curate songs that not only soar musically but resonate truthfully with the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Fromm writes.
Pastor Paul Thé says his church, The Bridge in Chino, Calif., ministers to the typical Southern California “pastiche of religious and Christian beliefs and individualism. Many do not know the whole story of the Bible.” He adds that few contemporary songs cover the whole Bible or include lament, prophetic word, or the Holy Spirit’s work.
Designed to sing the whole story
Thé, who is also a recording artist, served on the advisory committee for the Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal (LUYH) due out in June 2013 from Faith Alive Christian Resources. The hymnal’s first section goes from creation to new creation and includes Christ’s life and the Christian year. The second section follows the order of worship, from God calling us to worship through to God blessing and sending us out.
Carol Bechtel appreciates that LUYH begins with Genesis. “Neglecting the Old Testament would make as much sense as starting a mystery novel two-thirds in. You’d miss out on themes like creation, creation care, covenant, faithfulness, and prophecies that Jesus said he came to fulfill,” says Bechtel, who teaches at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich.
“One hymn that beautifully expresses the whole arc is ‘What Adam’s Disobedience Cost’ by Fred Pratt Green. I wrote a final verse pointing to final consummation: ‘Renewed, restored we look ahead to glimpse that glorious day when in the new Jerusalem all griefs will pass away. Amen. Hallelujah!’” (Carol Bechtel © Hope Publishing Company; 400063)
Because God redeems people in all eras and cultures, LUYH has music in many genres. Its 800 songs span 17 centuries, come from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox communities around the world, and include text in many languages.
“This is a new hymnal for a new generation. It retains timeless classics yet reflects how the church has become more diverse, more globally aware. There are more songs about social justice, authentic emotion, and creation care,” says Joyce Borger, Lift Up Your Hearts editor.
- Apply for a Hymn Festival
- The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama by Michael W. Goheen
- Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
- Video: Goheen: “We all live from a story”
Gather a group to read and discussThe True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama by Michael W. Goheen. You might open your first meeting with this brief video in which Goheen explains how we all live from a story.
Order one or more copies of Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (LUYH). It comes in print, projection, and electronic formats. Find out which churches and seminaries have ordered 20-plus copies.
Learn how pastors, teachers, and church musicians expect to use Lift Up Your Hearts.
Read Dale Cooper’s meditation on the Christian practice of singing together. In this brief video, N.T. Wright explains how to read the Bible. In this 1997 academic journal article, N.T. Wright describes how the biblical meta-narrative challenges and subverts other worldviews.
Start A Discussion
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, music, or church education meeting. These questions will help people think about how much of the Bible you actually sing about.
- Which biblical books, passages, or themes appear most often in your congregational worship and singing?
- If you rarely use or sing from the Old Testament, why not? How might this omission affect worshipers’ big pictures of who God is, what God is doing, and how we fit in?
- What is the same and different between how your congregation and biblical meta-narrative champions explain the salvation story?