Inhabiting the Biblical Narrative: How I Learned to Stop Doing Bible Studies

October 9th, 2009


There’s a fierce belief among secular postmodernists that no metanarrative exists. That is, there is no over-arching, all-consuming story for humanity. In fact, the European-white-male narrative was pushed on the rest of humanity for a long time under the guise of meta-narrative with only demeaning and oppressive results.

On the other hand, you’ll hear lots of proponents of postmodernism tell you to quit your propositional and expository preaching/teaching and “get back to the narrative.” I suppose this means we should tell more stories, or, better yet, let God’s story tell itself. We should get out of the way and let the story do the talking, and I agree that this is a necessary and humble move that should be taken by many youth workers.

However, this is one of those places where followers of Christ confront the thought du jour with a mixture of acceptance and rejection: yes, we believe that many of us who communicate God’s word to teens should get out of the way, do less propositioning to our audience, and allow the beauty of God’s story to speak for itself (without our often hokey and sometimes trivial anecdotes); yes, we should allow those people (women, persons of color, persons of lesser economic means) who’ve been sidelined in the past speak up about how God’s story affects them; and yes, contrary to postmodern theory, we do believe that there is one, over-arching, all-embracing story for all of humanity. We believe, of course, that this is God’s story, revealed in the Bible and ultimately revealed in Jesus the Christ.

Let’s Be Honest

A couple of years ago, I approached the high school juniors I would have in a small group the next fall. “What should we study next year?” I asked, presuming I already knew the answer. They wanted to know what they believe, to know what Christians believe, before they went off to the secular colleges and universities that many of them now attend.

Instead, this group decided they wanted to do a Bible study.

I couldn’t believe my ears—this group of seventeen-year-olds wanted an old fashioned, honest-to-goodness Bible study?

Maybe they’d forgotten to take their Ritalin, I thought, so I pressed them further. “What kind of Bible study?” I asked. They didn’t really care, they responded, as long as they got to know the Bible better. They felt they didn’t know the Bible well enough to be ready for the rigors of college.

You see, in our upper class, suburban, white context, 98 percent of the high school graduates go to college, most of them to secular schools. But the attacks on the Christian faith that these students were anticipating are only one version of what any of our students will experience in a postmodern world. That is, the secular university campus offers one type of challenge to the faith we’re attempting to instill in our students; but the working world, high school, and life in general pose similar challenges in a postmodern world.

So I questioned the students more, and I told them that my experience with Bible studies among high school students had often been frustrating. Some didn’t do the reading, others only did part of it, and those who did it all began to resent those who didn’t. And then they caved in—I’d found their Achilles’ heel. In a fit of self-purifying confession, they admitted that they found the Bible boring and strange, difficult to read and even more difficult to understand. They confessed promises broken and resolutions forgotten to read the Bible more, copies of the One Year Bible given up on after falling two weeks behind, and having little patience for the long, ponderous sections of Pauline theology or Old Testament genealogy.

They wanted to know the Bible better, but they didn’t want to read the Bible to get there. And they sure didn’t want to fail at reading the Bible again.

Let’s Be Really Honest

As I went away, I was confronted with a quandary: how could I best make the truth and reality of God’s story available to these soon-to-be seniors? How could I get them into it? To answer these questions, I had to ask myself, what gets me into God’s story? (I’m of the philosophy that what you’re teaching is more intriguing to kids if you really love it yourself.)

The problem was that the Bible didn’t hold much life for me, either. At the time, I was about seven years out of seminary, and all those tools I’d learned had betrayed me in some way. I really liked and did well in seminary, and I mastered the required skills: Greek and Hebrew, exegetical methods, historical-critical theory, redaction criticism, etc. And I still have four shelves of those really expensive lexicons, interlinears, and commentaries that they make you buy. I even use them sometimes (and not just for pressing leaves).

But I’d become a scientist in a lab coat. I’d been taught to take a piece of God’s story and put it in a Petri dish, then to put it under a microscope and get it down to its smallest part, from selection to sentence to phrase to word to syllable. After this process of reductionism (now that I knew every way that verb was used in the Greek language between 500 BC and AD 300), I could begin putting the pieces back together again, place the selection in its context and genre, and come out with a preachable thesis.

The problem was that this approach to God’s story is, like most laboratories, sterile. Having been in full-time ministry for several years, I found myself reading the Bible either a) because I had to preach or teach on a passage, or b) because I felt like a goon asking the students to read the Bible devotionally if I wasn’t.

Though for different reasons, I, like the students I interviewed, needed a fresh and new approach to God’s story. Over that summer, I reread a book I’d been assigned in seminary, one that I knew had some challenging things to say about the way many of us approach the Bible. It’s called The Nature of Doctrine, and it’s by George Lindbeck, a theologian at Yale who, along with Hans Frei and others, developed post-liberal (some call it postmodern) theology. I underlined this passage when I read the book in 1992, and I photocopied it and put it above my desk when I reread it in 2000:

“Biblical literacy, though not sufficient, is indispensable. This literacy does not consist of historical, critical knowledge about the Bible. Nor does it consist of theological accounts, couched in nonbiblical language, of the Bible’s teachings and meanings. Rather it is the patterns and details of its sagas and stories, its images and symbols, its syntax and grammar, which need to be internalized if one is to imagine and think scripturally.…What is to be promoted are those approaches which increase familiarity with the actual text.”

Lindbeck’s critique is primarily of the mainline Protestant practice of higher criticism, but similar and even more scathing charges could be brought against the evangelical habits of proof-texting and memorizing single verses out of context (think for a minute of all the youth group t-shirts you’ve read that say something like, “2001 Summer Mission Trip—Ps. 22:2.” How many people who see that shirt know what “Ps.” means, much less what Psalm 22:2 says. I’d be willing to bet that most of the kids wearing that shirt didn’t know that verse. And if you think that putting a verse reference on a shirt causes people to rush back home and look it up, you’re as sadly mistaken as that guy with the sno-cone afro wig who sat behind NFL goal posts with a “John 3:16” sign in the 1980s).

So my assignment that summer was to come up with a way that these seniors could engage the story of God during their senior year, to internalize the “patterns and details of [the Bible’s] sagas and stories, its images and symbols, its syntax and grammar.” I wanted them to “imagine and think scripturally.”

I wanted them to inhabit the biblical narrative.

In the Basement

When the next fall rolled around, there they were—about ten high school seniors, in my basement on Monday night at 8 p.m.

We made a few decisions right off the bat: we wanted to get through the whole Bible between September and May; we wouldn’t use versions of the Bible with verse numbers, since they tend to distract from the story, and we’d avoid versions of the Bible with crinkly pages, too. We settled on The Book of God by Walter Wangerin, a novelized form of the story from Abraham through Jesus. It worked out to be about a chapter a week—anywhere between five and 20 pages of reading.

We also decided to interact with the text of Scripture in other ways. We reminded ourselves that many followers of Christ for centuries didn’t have a Bible in their laps. Instead, they heard the story read and sung at church or told around the hearth, and they saw it in paintings and other works of art. We needed to have a broader definition of the word “text,” one that included all of the ways that God’s story is made known to us. Everyone in the group was encouraged to search the Internet for art and poetry and to think of movies and songs that elucidate parts of the story.

And that brings up another point: we worked very hard at not calling it “the story of Abraham” but “the Abraham part of The Story.” That is, none of the individual narratives stands alone. Each is a part of the cosmic story that stretches from the creation of the universe to its consummation.

Here are some of the ways we interacted with parts of the story:

As we talked about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, we were focused on his role as father, because that’s where Wangerin places the focus in his retelling. But then someone passed around a painting by Peter Paul Reubens in which the spotlight is focused on the unblemished alabaster torso of a young boy. Immediately the conversation shifted to Isaac’s point of view.

We listened to Donny Osmond sing a track from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and the students were taken with how closely the words followed the biblical text.

We watched clips from The Ten Commandments (my Cecil B. DeMille inspired visualization of Moses) and The Prince of Egypt (the students’ Disney-inspired version).

We listened to “Samson and Delilah” by the Grateful Dead.

We studied a beautiful painting by Pieter Breugal of Jacob wrestling the angel.

We read a recent ruling written by a judge who quoted King Solomon.

And probably the funniest moment was when someone brought in a poem from the Internet that imagined Jacob, Rachel, and Leah on The Jerry Springer Show. (Think about it for a minute!)

And the list goes on. The seniors actually did quite well staying engaged throughout the year, and we had the same experience with a new group of seniors this year.

The Point

In the end, I’m convinced that it’s more important that my students know the grand, sweeping scheme of this meta-narrative than that they can recite this verse or that one. I’d rather have them be able to sketch out a genealogy from Abraham through Jesus than be able to find Isaiah 12:28 in record time. I want them to know that these are our grandmothers and grandfathers in the faith, that this is our story, and that we are a part of this story, too.

When I was speaking on this subject at the National Youth Workers’ Convention last fall, a youth worker raised his hand and said, “Shortly after 9/11, a girl in our group noticed that 3,000 innocent people dying when a building collapses is a lot like when Samson knocked down the Temple. Is this what you mean by ‘inhabiting the biblical narrative’?”



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