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The Bible As Story

If I were to say to you these days, ‘Of course the Bible is just a story’, you would probably be highly offended, thinking that I was claiming that it is untrue. ‘Don’t tell stories’, we say to a child, meaning ‘Don’t tell lies’.

But imagine yourself back in childhood for a moment. And let us assume (at least for the purposes of this post) that it was at that age, at your mother’s (or father’s!) knee,  you first learnt of God. It was also at that age you would have learnt about Father Christmas, nursery rhymes and stories of dungeons and dragons. All mythical – except the story that isn’t. And somehow over the next few years you (fairly easily) learned to distinguish between the two. But you still (again for the purposes of this post) continued to read stories, only now you called it fiction.

Why is that so? Why do people read fiction (or watch films) which they know not to be a real depiction of events? Isn’t the answer that fiction very often is true, even if it isn’t real. If you want to understand the human heart, read the novels of Dickens. Or Balzac. Or Trollope. Or…

The Bible is full of stories, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. I expect you know the hymn, ‘Tell Me the Old Old Story’, which  was written by a member of the Clapham Sect, born just before Queen Victoria came to the throne. And now I will tell you a story about that:

This ex­cel­lent hymn by Miss Hank­ey, of Lon­don, has been trans­lat­ed in­to ma­ny lang­uage­s, and has been set to sev­er­al tunes. Dr. Doane has this to say re­gard­ing the mu­sic by which it has be­come pop­u­lar, and the oc­ca­sion on which he com­posed it: “In 1867 I was at­tend­ing the In­ter­na­tion­al Con­ven­tion of the Young Men’s Christ­ian As­so­ci­a­tion, in Mont­re­al. Among those pre­sent was Ma­jor-Gen­er­al Rus­sell, then in com­mand of the Eng­lish force dur­ing the Fen­i­an ex­cite­ment. He arose in the meet­ing and re­cit­ed the words of this song from a sheet of fools­cap pa­per—tears stream­ing down his bronzed cheeks as he read. I wrote the mu­sic for the song one hot af­ter­noon while on the stage-coach be­tween the Glen Falls House and the Craw­ford House in the White Mount­ains. That even­ing we sung it in the par­lors of the ho­tel. We thought it pret­ty, al­though we scarce­ly an­ti­ci­pat­ed the pop­u­lar­i­ty which was sub­se­quent­ly ac­cord­ed it.” Sankey, pp. 256-7

Human beings love stories. Mark seems in no doubt in his gospel that he is telling us a story. He gets off to a cracking start, not with the birth of Jesus, but his baptism by John. John, as it were, is the warm-up act for Jesus, who appears in verse 9. He is baptised (v9); the Spirit descends on him like a dove (v10); a voice from heaven says ‘thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased(v11); the Spirit drives him into the wilderness (v12); he is tempted by Satan during 40 days in the wilderness (v13); he comes into Galilee and begins to preach (v14). How’s that for narrative pace!

What are the miracles if not stories? At this point I want to persuade you to read, if you have not already done so, Jeffrey John’s book ‘The Meaning in the Miracles‘, published 10 years ago. Poignantly, it was chosen as Archbishop Rowan Williams’ Lent book for 2002, when he was still in Wales.

Jeffrey John brilliantly explains the layers of meaning in the miracles in a highly readable way, a page-turner in itself. He enables us to peel off the layers, as in an onion. But a special sort of onion, as described by the faun, Mr Tumnus, in ‘The Last Battle’: “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

C S Lewis ends ‘The Last Battle’ with his idea about the story that we are all caught up in:

“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”


This post is based on a contribution as a digidisciple to the Big Bible website dated 5 October 2012, ‘Tell Me The Old Old Story’.

The main, Magritte-like, illustration is by Bruce Rolff, via Shutterstock. I chose it because of its mystery, and hint at hidden worlds yet to discover.

8 comments on this post:

Harold Gardner said...

Someone ask me if I thought the miracles in the Bible were ‘really true.’ My reply was that I wasn’t sure if that made any difference to me; since they were ‘really truthful.’ What I tried to explain was that I had no idea what happened when the Jews fled Egypt and found themselves with the Egyptian army on one side and the sea on the other. Whether it was the movie version of the Red Sea parting or the chariots stuck in the Sea of Reeds, I wasn’t there.

What I do know is that I have been caught with no reasonable way out, and found hope & help. That is the Gospel. That is the Miracle. God is with us. We are not alone.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Harold, that is such a central point for us all, and so beautifully expressed.

John said...

Now where did I see the story recently of non-literalist Sunday School teacher tells Johnnie that the parting of the red sea wasnt really a miracle because research says it was the Reed Sea which was only a few inches deep. And Johnnie shouts ‘Praise the Lord… it is a miracle.’ Exasperated Sunday School teacher ‘Oh for goodness sake Johnnie how on earth is it a miracle?’ Johnnie, ‘God drowns Egyptian Army in inches of water… its a miracle… praise the Lord’.

Lay Anglicana said...

I love it!

13 October 2012 07:41
12 October 2012 23:13
12 October 2012 19:13
12 October 2012 17:50
UKViewer said...

I once thought that the bible was a big adventure story with lots of sex, violence and all sorts of behaviour that we shouldn’t be doing, if we actually believed in the 10 Commandments.

Going from being a pretty superficial Christian, I than became thoroughly convinced that it was just a historical book, written hysterically by people who wanted to create their own niche religion with a view to attracting and controlling others. In other words a script for a power game over others lives.

When I became an Anglican I suddenly realised how ignorant that I was about the Bible, particularly the Old Testament (apart from those stories I remembered from childhood) and in particular the way that the OT signposts us to the New Testament and the Incarnation.

I’m still pretty ignorant about the bible, but I’m comfortable with that. I can now find my way around, know where to look, and possibly even quote from it. I’m about to embark on a crash course with my SD on the bible because I feel the need to get more insight into it and how it, as the Word of God actually is a story, a Love Story between God and his Creation and how we have spurned that love over the generations. In that context, it really makes sense to me.

As for miracles, I am convinced that they were real and not imaginary, although I appreciate that we only have the descriptions of the authors over thousands of years to trust.

I’m not so sure about so called modern miracles, I prefer to consider them signs to us of Jesus at work in our lives and the world – if they seem miraculous than that is a blessing as it adds to the mystery and mystique of God which remains central to how I see him. Knowing that all will be revealed when we come into his Kingdom.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for this – I do urge you to read the Jeffrey John book, if you haven’t already done so. He made me look again at the miracles, and also made me see the importance of the Old Testament, which I tend to skate over when it gets difficult (like Amos)!

12 October 2012 19:16
12 October 2012 19:11
James Mac said...

If I were to say to you ‘Of course the Bible is just a story’, you would probably be highly offended

Damn right I would. And you know why, you know what the heart of the insult is? It’s a four-letter word: just.

Stories give us meaning. Stories take us from nowhere to somewhere. We learn from other people’s stories not to make the same mistakes. And people talk about just a story??!!

Lay Anglicana said...

Thanks James. I agree with you (I think!)

12 October 2012 20:42
12 October 2012 19:39

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