Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Reading biblical narratives

Big percentage of the Biblical materials is narrative. Narrative is a literary form characterized by sequential action involving plot, setting and characters. The meaning of the narrative derives primarily from the actions of its characters. Rather than telling us how to live or how not live, stories teach us the same through the actions of the characters.

The purpose of these stories is theological. God uses them to teach us theology. The Bible gives us examples how to teach profound truth through stories and I believe we can use it to teach our people too.

Why did God choose narrative literature to communicate theological truth to us? Why didn't he communicate everything through essays or law? Think for a moment about these questions. Here Duvall and Hays list some of the advantages and disadvantages of using narrative to communicate theological truth.

Advantages of Using Narrative to Communicate Theological Truth
  1. Narratives are interesting, both to children and to adults.
  2. Narratives pull us out into the action of the story.
  3. Narratives usually depicts real life and are thus easy to relate to. We find ourselves asking what we would have done in that situation.
  4. Narratives are easy to remember.
  5. Narratives portray the ambiguities and complexities of life.
  6. God can include himself as one of the characters in the narrative. Thus he can teach us about himself by what he says and does in specific contexts.
  7. Narratives are holistic; we see characters struggle, but we also often see resolution of their struggles. We see the entire character.
  8. Narratives relates short incidents and events to a bigger overall story.
Disadvantages of Using Narrative to Communicate Theological Truth
  1. The meaning of the narrative can be subtle or ambiguous and not clearly stated; the casual reader may miss it altogether.
  2. The reader may get enthralled with the narrative as a story and miss its meaning.
  3. The reader may assume that since literature is narrative, it deals only with history and not theology.
  4. The reader may read too much theology in the narrative (allegorizing).
Here the pros outweigh the cons. The authors of the Bible thought the same. I agree with Duvall and Hays that God chose to use the literary device known as narrative as major way to communicate his big story precisely because the biblical narratives engage us in such a powerful way. They challenge us, interest us, rebuke, puzzle us, and entertain us. They stick in our memory. They make us think and reflect. They involve us emotionally as well as intellectually. They teach us about God and his plan for his people. They teach us about all kinds of people--good ones and bad ones, faithful, obedient ones and mule-headed, disobedient ones. They teach us about life in all its complexities and ambiguities.

Duvall & Hays, Grasping the God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading and Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, pp. 288-294

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