The Authority of Story

Psalm 119:33-48, Romans 15:4

Picture yourself for a moment walking along a rocky shore with a child about six years old.  Maybe you spent a day this summer in such a fashion exploring tide pools with your child, or grandchild, or niece or nephew, so imagine a day like that one — a warm relaxing day with a young child investigating the world of nature.  There you are, surf crashing in your ears, examining starfish and peering at barnacles encrusted on the rocks, when the child turns over a stone and exclaims, “Look!  A fossil!”

The small stone is striped with the markings of an ancient animal, long ago perished in a forgotten sea.

“Isn’t that beautiful,” you comment, unsuspecting of what is about to come.

“What kind of fossil is it?” the child asks eagerly.  “Do you think it’s a tyrannosaurus rex?” Fossils and dinosaurs are linked in the child’s mind, size being an inconsequential detail, so you take the rock, to attempt to explain the ancient world.

“I think it’s a trilobite,” you begin, none too confidently, but the young mind before you is alive with curiosity and the questions pour out.

“Is that a kind of dinosaur?  What happened to it?  Where did the dinosaurs go?  How come there aren’t any dinosaurs today?”  And just as you are taking a breath to launch into your science lesson, the next question steals that breath away.

“Did the dinosaurs die because they didn’t make it onto Noah’s Ark?”

What began as an innocent walk on the beach has ended in a confusing swamp of dinosaurs, arks, cosmology, and evolution.  What is the relationship between the scientific explanation of the world as we know it and the stories learned in the Bible about creation, the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Ark?
Or maybe your child has grown into a teenager and she no longer has questions for you but challenges, laced with skepticism: “The Bible says that God made the sun stand still for Joshua but to do that,” she points out, “God would have to stop the earth from spinning since the sun doesn’t really move — the earth does — but if the earth suddenly stopped spinning, the laws of motion say that everything on its surface would keep moving, including the people. Everyone would be thrown sideways at 1000 miles per hour.”

“There’s no way people could survive that,” your teen says skeptically, “let alone surviving the tidal waves from the oceans suddenly sloshing out of their basins!”

You might answer her that if God can stop the rotation of the earth, God could also suspend the laws of acceleration and pin everything down on its surface temporarily, but then you’d have to go on to argue that God would also regulate the temperature so that the side of the earth facing the sun doesn’t fry while the other side freezes, and monitor all other consequences of such a drastic change in the laws of physics but you hesitate to go there because now you are entangled not just in science but in questions about the nature of God. Is that really how God acts in the world?

Last June, when I asked people to submit their questions for a series on “Ask the Pastor,” one person asked, “How do you generally look at the Bible? Is it a history book of Christianity or legendary? Can the Bible be explained by science?”

This is a much debated question in America today, and note first of all that I say, “today”. It’s important for us to realize that for most of the history of the church, church leaders didn’t insist on reading the Bible literally. They sometimes read it as allegory, they read parts of it metaphorically — it’s only in the last hundred years, or 150 years at the most that conservative Christians have made biblical literalism a litmus test of faith. But as we all know, today biblical literalists insist that a Christian must accept every word in the Bible as scientific and historical fact or else the Bible has no authority.

I, however, along with many other non-literalists, believe that the very authority of the Bible lies in the fact that it is not supposed to be read literally but is to be read as a religious theological book. In fact, it is 66 books and those 66 books of the Bible contain a great diversity of genres. Within the covers of our Bible we can find poetry, letters, sermons, legends, court records, philosophical ponderings, and mostly lots and lots of stories. Even the gospel writers chose to use the narrative form to teach about the life of Jesus, which meant that they were less concerned about getting every fact right — where he was on any given day, for example — and more concerned about describing the meaning of his life for our faith. I’m sure you all know by now that I accept the theory of evolution, and when I read the stories in Genesis, or the other stories in the Bible, I read them as teaching stories, designed not to tell us about the physical facts of nature or facts of history, but as narratives that instruct us on how to live, how to relate to one another, and how to relate to God.

And my argument against Biblical literalism is that it in fact strips the Bible of its authority because taking away its power to inform the faith of future generations. It risks leaving our children biblically illiterate because they will be unable to find in their sacred scripture the meaning and guidance that they will need as they try to make sense of their lives in the modern world.  If our teens are learning Newtonian laws of physics or evolution in school but are told on Sunday that their faith requires denying those findings of science in order to believe in God, our teens may very well chuck the Bible along with record players, rotary phones, and print newspapers, parts of an antiquated world that they have no interest in inhabiting. The Bible becomes a dusty museum piece that has nothing to say to our present lives.

One of my favorite stories tells of a church search committee back in the 1990s that had been given the task of finding a candidate for the position of senior minister at a problem-ridden church.  After much hard work, the committee found a man they believed was perfect for the position: he was young but experienced, serious but witty, articulate but not intimidating, spiritual but worldly-wise. If anyone could turn this congregation around, they thought, he was the man.

The committee invited the young man to address the congregation from the pulpit before the final vote was taken on his candidacy.   The young man stood before the congregation, explained his vision for the church, and outlined his plans with enthusiasm.  His final line of his sermon summed up his stirring presentation: “With God’s help, I intend to lead this church forward into the twentieth century!”

Surprised and embarrassed by the candidate’s apparent mistake, the chairperson of the search committee whispered loudly, “You mean the twentieth-first century!”

To which the candidate replied, “We’re going to take this one century at a time!”

Our kids won’t wait a century for the church to catch up to science. They need to know how to read the Bible in a way that maintains its authority for us in a modern world and so the way in which we begin to do that for our children is to instill in them a recognition that “facts” are not the only source of authority; stories can also have authority for our lives by teaching us about ourselves and the most faithful way to live in the world.

Jesus knew the power of a story and he used stories all the time to confront people’s hypocrisy, stubbornness, and selfishness and lead them to new ways of thinking.  Jesus’s stories were powerful because they were stories.  People knew that Jesus had created the story and so as they listened, they asked themselves why Jesus was telling this story and what he expected them to discover from it.
Imagine for a second that Jesus had told the disciples about the Good Samaritan not as a story but as a historical happening:

“Hey, Peter, James, listen up, guess what I heard yesterday.  Some guy was going to Jericho and he got beaten up by robbers.  A bunch of ministers passed him right by but I heard that a Samaritan picked him up and took him to a local inn until he healed.”

When Jesus is done reporting the event, what are the disciples most likely to ask?  Are they likely to ask themselves, “What did Jesus mean by that?”  No, Jesus is just reporting what he heard in the marketplace, and so most likely their next question will be, “So did they catch the guys who did it?”

When Jesus, however, told the story of the Good Samaritan as a story, when the disciples knew that he was creating a story and not reporting an actual event, they had to ask themselves, “Why is Jesus telling us this story?  What is he trying to teach us?  What does the story mean?” They had to grapple with the story.  They came back to it again and again, and so we come back to the stories in the Bible again and again, trying to understand it, trying to figure out why they are in our Bible. Why is the story of David and Goliath in our Bible? What did the ancient people believe this story had to teach them and us about ourselves and about God? What does the story of Adam and Eve tell us about the ways in which we can mess up and the consequences of our disobedience? Why is the story of Jonah and the whale in the Bible? We aren’t supposed to do biological research to figure out the species of fish; we are supposed to ask, “What is it like to be in such darkness, so far from God?”

We need to reclaim the power of stories to teach us, but we can go even deeper than that when we recognize the authority of the Bible not simply as a collection of stories and poems and thoughts about God, but as one over-arching story of which we are a part. The 66 books of the Bible describe the struggles, the inspiring moments, and even the mistakes and failures of a people constantly reaching toward God and we are part of that story. We are learning from what went before — what worked, what didn’t work, where they got it right, where they got it wrong — and taking that into our very lives to allow those stories to shape us so that we may become the ongoing story of God’s people in the world.

One of my favorite movies is the movie “Galaxy Quest,” which is both a spoof and a testimony to Star Trek and its fans. In the movie, alien beings called Thermians are fleeing from the evil General Sarras and they pick up the broadcast signals of a Star Trek-like show called Galaxy Quest. The Thermians are an innocent race and they mistakenly assume that they are watching a broadcast of historical documents. They believe that the actor who plays the Captain is real starship Captain who can lead them in their battle against Sarras, so they use the information from the show’s episodes to build a facsimile of the Galaxy Quest starship and bring the actors onboard to crew the ship. The actors, of course, are just actors and the show was just a story, so much of the movie is a spoof on what happens when you read stories as history. In one scene, two of the actors, Jason and Gwen, have to run through a hallway of huge bone crushing pistons, and Gwen protests, “What is this thing? I mean, it serves no useful purpose for there to be a bunch of chompy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway….It makes no logical sense, why is it here?”

Jason says, “Cause it’s on the television show,” to which Gwen says, “Well forget it! I’m not [going to run through there!] This episode was badly written!”

The movie has fun with what happens when stories are read not as stories but as historical documents, but at the same time, the movie delivers a deeper message. The actors are thrown into the world of the show’s fictional narrative and throughout the movie, they recognize pieces of episodes from the show and they say to one another, “What did my character do in this scene?” which leads them to ask, “What would my character do in this new situation?” By the end of the movie, the actors have been transformed by the fictional world they have been inhabiting. They truly become the heroes of the characters they played.

In a deeper more profound way, we read the Bible not as historical documents or scientific treatises but as a story of which we are an ongoing part. The characters we find here — a blend of reality and legend, of fact and story — are the characters we are called to inhabit for a time. The Bible invites us to enter into a world that is like ours but not like ours, and allow that world to shape us into new people, to become the Davids, the Noahs, the Ruths, the Martha’s, the Gideon’s, Deborahs, Peters, and the Pauls of our world. We are called to be transformed by the story so that we can live it out as new people in new ways in a 21st century world.