The Gospel is More Than a Story: A Conversation with Leslie Leyland Fields
There’s been a lot of talk lately about helping people connect the dots of the Bible’s grand narrative. Seeing the Bible as one overarching story is prominent in children’s books and literature as well as adult resources.
But there are certainly strengths and weaknesses with an approach like this, and Leslie Leyland Fields (author and columnist for Christianity Today) has put her finger on some of the weaknesses. Today we’re having a conversation about the benefits and drawbacks to seeing the gospel as a story.
Trevin Wax: Leslie, I read with great interest your article in Christianity Today - “The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony.” Since I am working on a resource that focuses on the story line of the Scriptures, I was intrigued by your words of caution regarding the “story-based” approach.
First, you say you won’t retract your enthusiasm for narrative entirely. Let’s start there. What are the benefits to reading the Bible as a story?
Leslie Leyland Fields: Let me just say that we have to recognize that the Bible as a whole is largely narrative, and it’s narrative in two senses. As a meta-narrative, one grand story of God’s redeeming love for humankind, and then that narrative is composed of many other narratives. Already, though, I want to quickly remind us all that it’s composed of equally important non-narratives that must not be ignored or diminished.
But it’s crucial for our understanding of the Scriptures that we see the sweep of the grand story. The grand story helps us better interpret the smaller stories and give them fuller context and meaning. So the focus on story and the whole narrative theology movement has been very important – to shift us away from a disembodied hermeneutic of dissection and detachment.
Also, having a grasp of the one story helps bridge the gap between theology and praxis. When we emphasize story and recognize that the Bible is about real people who walked the dirt in bodies just like ours, it connects us more tangibly to our common task: to live out the truth of God’s Word in our world.
Lastly, “story” is the coin of the realm right now. Being able to speak to our culture in the language they are speaking is not only important but necessary. So you see, I do carry at least one pom-pom (that would be just a pom, I guess) for the Bible as story!
Trevin Wax: So you’re cheering for the narrative approach, but – as you point out in your article – there is indeed a “but.” You’ve got some nagging concerns. Let’s start with whatever concern you think is the biggest. What is the biggest danger for this “narrative-focused“ approach to the Scriptures to go horribly wrong?
Leslie Leyland Fields: The Huffpost piece “Why Faith Is a Story, Not Doctrine” is a perfect example of where we’re headed. In recognizing the quantitative superiority of story in the Scriptures, many have made the judgment that story is of primary importance and the other genres - prophecy, law, proverb, poetry, etc. - are of lesser importance. We’ve created somewhat exclusive categories, failing to recognize that all of Scripture is needed to interpret all of Scripture. We don’t get to pick out the more dramatic and entertaining parts and leave out the rest.
As a narrativist and a memoirist, I can tell you that the worst possible crime you can commit as a writer is to “tell” your story rather than “show” it. We have this innate preference for story that simply sweeps us along without comment or editorializing.
But we will not tell the story and the stories of Scripture right without the “telling” of the rest of Scripture, the non-narrative portions that help us interpret them. Nor will we fully understand the non-narrative portions of Scripture without the stories that illuminate them. We need to embrace all the genres that God chose to reveal Himself in, recognizing that each one has an important place in communicating God’s redemption to us. We don’t get to pick and choose and declare one form of expression superior to another. Of course story is more fun than law or even a book like Ecclesiastes, with all its complexity, recursion and seeming contradiction. But we’ve got to wrestle with those more difficult books as well and not simply gloss over them.
There’s nothing shocking about efforts to shrink and simplifying the Scriptures this way. We’re always reducing God’s Word in some way, just because it is so vast, so layered, so alive, and spans such history that we cannot contain it all at once.
But when we make story primary, and when we hoist a single sail, we’re going to drift off in a number of directions because we’ve lost the rudder of the rest of the Scriptures. We’re called to submit to God’s Word - all of it - not to submit God’s Word to our red pens.
Trevin Wax: That’s a good point. It’s one of the reasons that as George Guthrie and I mapped out a survey of the biblical story line in The Gospel Project, we made a decision to include sections of the law, psalms, proverbs, wisdom literature, letters, prophecy, etc. Reading the Bible as a story can be helpful, but only if it helps illuminate the text in a way that helps readers engage all of the Bible in all of its genres.
Like you, I’m concerned about the tendency to pit story and doctrine against each other. This is probably an overreaction toward moralizing and theologizing bits and pieces of the Bible without connecting them to the canonical framework that gives them meaning, right? How can we keep from overreacting here, without going back to the disconnected Scriptural approach?
Leslie Leyland Fields: I think we can consciously teach both, that children and adults are capable of grasping both story and doctrine concurrently. We’re capable of learning a biblical story, say, the widow who feeds Elijah from her last bit of oil and flour, and then placing that story within the larger frame of what God was doing in the world then and what He’s still doing. It all holds together without human contrivance because that’s the kind of God we have, who is indeed present throughout history and who has always been at His redeeming work among us.
There’s a children’s Bible story book that does this beautifully, Sally Lloyd-Jones’ The Jesus Storybook Bible. So you have the particular story-event and then you have a brief, lovely description of how this event pointed toward the coming Savior. There’s a sense of the whole within each of the parts. We need this same approach with adults.
But here’s where I don’t want to go with this. I don’t want to return to reducing biblical stories to their “morals” or their doctrine either, to valuing story only as it illustrates doctrine. Story works powerfully, even mysteriously upon us, engaging our emotions, our spirits, our minds. It’s crucial that we uphold the inherent value of the biblical narratives God has given us, and as part of that, that we embrace the mystery and ambiguities they present without trying to nail them all down point-by-point to doctrine. I think we can uphold the value of story as story but also provide a larger canonical and doctrinal context to the stories without reducing or eviscerating their power.
Trevin Wax: It’s interesting that postmodern thinking chafes against the idea of a meta-narrative, one overarching explanation of the world’s story. But at the same time, postmoderns love a good story. What’s the danger of people seeing all the Bible as story and failing to understand the fact that this story is true and therefore makes claims upon us?
Leslie Leyland Fields: I think you’ve already articulated the danger. There are many reasons our culture is in love with story. One is that they don’t make truth claims upon us.
Narratologist Terry Caesar writes, “Everything in life begs to be comprehended as a story somebody has made up.” We love the fact that stories are malleable, like putty in the hand of the storyteller, changing shape and form at will toward whatever makes a better story given the audience. Story in this sense bestows all authority in the storyteller rather than the veracity of the story itself.
So when we talk about the Bible as a story, we need to be clear that it’s God’s story, not ours; it makes claims upon us; and we’re not free to edit or change it, even when we don’t like certain portions of it. If we don’t make this distinction, we’re simply throwing another narrative into the marketplace to be judged on the same terms as we judge other stories: Do I like it? Is it entertaining? Does it work for me? Rather than: Is it true? We’re not terribly concerned about the veracity of “story.”
But there’s room for our own stories here. There’s still room for testimony, if you will, to say to someone, “This is my story of how I found God,” and to ask people about their stories, their lives. I don’t think we throw story out, but we do make a distinction between our stories, which are admittedly subjective and experiential, and God’s story, which overarches ours.
Just as we must hold story and doctrine together, I think we present our own experiential, human story of God together with God’s own story of Himself. This is what all of us are looking for in story.
Story universally provides an essential human need – to be moved outside of the confines of the self, to be placed in a larger context that gives our lives meaning, that tells us why we’re here, why we matter. We’re all looking for this. If we weaken the claims of God’s story upon us, then we’re missing the point of God’s story, and we’ll miss speaking to the deeper needs of our culture.
My hope in writing “The Gospel is More Than a Story” is ultimately to call us back to a reverence for God’s word, and even more, to a holy reverence for God himself. Through the current rage for narrative, we are taking so many casual liberties with God’s word in the name of relevance, palatability, and marketability. I understand all these temptations. I fall prey to them myself. But we can’t elevate our own love for Story above the scriptures themselves, above the God of the Scriptures.