God Revealing Himself Through Narrative

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Rembrandt_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Lake_of_Galilee
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is often referred to as the God of the Bible when He is contrasted to the gods of other religions. The Bible is the primary medium through which God reveals Himself to His people. Especially in protestant denominations, the Bible is considered to be the sole source of authority on learning about the character and will of God. To this end, it is interesting that so much of the Bible is narrative. Much of the Bible consists of stories following the lives of humans. In some instances, God seemingly plays a minor role; God is not even mentioned in the entire book of Esther. There is much to learn about the character of God through narrative. Why does God choose to teach His people about Himself through story? Narrative is a universally relatable medium that demands participation of one’s emotions and intellect, and through narrative God can most effectively call His people into relationship with Himself.

In his book “Human Communication as Narrative: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action” Walter Fisher argues that before one learns to think rationally—that is, rhetorically or logically—one naturally thinks and operates by the narrative paradigm; Alasdair writes that “man is…essentially a storytelling animal,” (Fisher 1). Fisher posits human beings are homo narrans (Fisher 4). By this, he means that human beings naturally understand the world and their lived experience therein through stories. Man both learns from others’ stories and creates his own narratives to understand his own existence and communicate to others. It is through narrative that humans answer the questions of ontology, epistemology, and axiology: reality is framed in, truth is recounted by, and meaning is delineated from stories.

Fisher contrasts the narrative paradigm with the rational-world paradigm. According to the rational-world paradigm, humans communicate and make decisions based on arguments that follow logical rules and are weighted by their validity and soundness. The narrative paradigm is not so dependent on rigid rules of logic; instead, decisions are made on the basis of “good reasons”, which are more flexible, natural, and intuitive. Determining what makes sense is an examination of narrative probability, coherency, and fidelity; put simply, narrative rationality is measured on how well a story would fit into one’s lived experience.

Fisher emphasizes the universality of rationality based on good reasons. Logic and rhetoric must be taught, and only those who have learned these are qualified to participate in argumentation. Fisher notes that “the historic mission of education in the West has been to generate a consciousness of national and institutional community and to instruct citizens in at least the rudiments of logic and rhetoric,” (Fisher 3). Determining a story’s legitimacy through the narrative paradigm requires no schooling. The narrative paradigm works across cultures and time because it is universal and inherent to humanity: “the narrative impulse is part of our very being,” (Fisher 6). Fisher goes on to write that humans not only process decisions and arguments through narrative, but in fact assess life itself by the narrative paradigm because life is experienced as a series of stories. He quotes MacIntyre again: “we all live out narratives in our lives and because we understand our own lives in terms of the narratives that we live out,” (Fisher 7).

Psalm 139 speaks beautifully of God’s intimate knowledge of man. The psalmist writes, “you [God] are familiar with all my ways,” and also, “you created my inmost being,” (Psalm 139:3,13). If Fisher is correct in saying human beings operate according to the narrative paradigm by nature, God is the one who made it be so. It would then make sense for God to reveal Himself through narrative; He would understand that storytelling is the most effective and most universal medium to teach people about Himself and His will. The common, uneducated person has as much to gain from stories like the prodigal son and the account of Jonah as the well-versed rhetorician does; both can understand the emotions involved in the stories and can conclude morals from them. A certain degree of cultural and historical context might be required to fully connect with a biblical story, but framing a story in its proper context does not require the practice of logic.

Rather than limiting learning to an exercise of one’s intellect, narrative engages one’s whole being. Storytelling incorporates more dimensions of the human experience than just the mind; narrative invokes emotion along with intellect. James Gilman draws attention to the important relationship between narrative and emotions in his essay “Reenfranchising the Heart: Narrative Emotions and Contemporary Theology” where he asks the question “How is it possible for biblical narratives to bear meaning for a particular religious community and at the same time bear truth in a way that is universally intelligible?” (Gilman 218). Gilman asserts that “emotions are neither raw natural feelings nor cognitive experiences which nevertheless cannot be trusted, but…are complex activities which are very often trustworthy guides for human thought and life,” (Gilman 220). Emotions and narrative are interdependent. Emotions must exist within the context of a narrative; otherwise, they have no meaning. Similarly, narratives require emotions to make their meaning relatable.

Gilman suggests a threefold understanding of emotions: judgements, projects, and energy. He states that emotions trigger judgements toward how the world is and projects for making the world into what it ought to be. Hearkening back to Aristotle’s term energia emotions also contain the force which motivates one to change the world from the current judgements made to the projects laid out. In other words, “emotional energy…is the spark that ignites and drives humans to actualize the projects engendered by emotional judgements,” (Gilman 225). Since emotion can only hold meaning in the context of a story, Gilman uses the biblical account of Nathan confronting King David on his adultery with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12 as an example. Nathan’s story of the rich man stealing the poor man’s only sheep to provide his guest with a meal causes David to “burn with anger,” (2 Samuel 12:5). David’s anger is indicative of his emotional judgement: the rich man has abused the poor man and has acted unjustly. David’s declaration, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb fourfold because he did such a thing and had no pity,” reveals his emotional project: the rich man deserves to be executed and the poor man must be compensated. His passionate anger is his emotional energy, which motivates him to pursue the justice the narrative demands.

However, the narrative changes. David finds himself inside the story as the rich man deserving punishment upon Nathan exclaiming, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). The universal truth that his emotions hinged on—justice; the offender deserves punishment and the offended deserve compensation—still stands true, but now his judgements and projects have shifted. His response in 2 Samuel 12:13 denotes his realization of his guilt. Psalm 51 articulates David’s need for God’s mercy and his repentance. David admits his “broken and contrite heart,” are a result of considering that “against you [God], you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,” (Psalm 51:17, 4). David’s sudden and poignant shift from burning anger to a contrite heart were the result of Nathan’s use of peripeteia in the narrative. By involving David in a story, Nathan spoke to his king’s mind and heart. David recognized with his intellect the sin that he had committed and felt in his heart the guilt that led him to repentance.

This double-involvement of intellect and emotion is exactly what God demands of His people. Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:5 as the greatest commandment and the summary of mosaic law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” (Mark 12:30). The Bible as narrative speaks to the mind and the heart, but scripture does not stop at information. God invites His people not merely to understand, but to engage. The greatest commandment calls for participation and relationship when God commands His people to love. 1 John 3:18 describes what love ought to look like: “let us not love with words or tongue but in action and truth.” Here is shown possibly the most important reason God teaches His people through narrative. God calls His people into a relationship with Himself, and relationship cannot be learned merely through study. What God aims to teach His people necessitates their participation.

A distinction must be made between different kinds of knowledge. One kind of knowledge is objective. This is the knowledge one gains through study and research and discourse. The kind of knowledge God offers through narrative in the Bible is knowledge through relational familiarity. Michael R. Langer provides the following example in his essay “Teaching the Ineffable Through Narrative”:

Consider, for example, the difference between the sentences “I know about pain” and “I know pain.” The first, which would likely be uttered by a palliative care physician, connotes a sense of objectivity or critical distance, whereby one knows the characteristics of pain but not necessarily pain itself. The second sentence, which may be uttered by his or her patient, involves familiarity; one has related personally to pain. No matter how much information one accumulates about pain, that person will never know pain personally until he or she experiences it. Similarly, the person who is familiar with pain from experience will not necessarily accumulate knowledge about pain until he or she studies it. (71)

C.S. Lewis succinctly expresses the distinction in this way: “This is our dilemma—either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste” (“Myth Became Fact” 65). How might both forms of knowledge be reconciled? Lewis believes that myth, or narrative, is where knowledge and taste come closest to meeting. Myths, he argues, are the closest man can come to joining the concrete world he lives in with the abstract, ideal world he thinks in. Myth attempts to bridge this gap by framing reality, or “universal principles”, in a narrative. In this way, myths are not necessarily recounting true historical events, but instead speak directly to reality.

Parables are an example of myth accomplishing this reconciliation. Jesus’ tales recorded in the gospels are not true stories, but are instead real stories. Parables do not teach history; that is not their purpose. A parable is like a beautiful painting of a mountain. The painting itself could never surpass the beauty or might of what it depicts, but by framing a particular angle of the mountain with it as the focus, the viewer can gain a deeper appreciation for the mountain itself by studying the painting. Parables focus the listener in on a particular aspect of existence, using the art of storytelling to frame the real. The prodigal son was never a living person who actually walked the earth, but many people are the prodigal son. Parables invite the listener into the story much like Nathan tied David into his account.

Parables are not the only type of story God uses to teach His people. As stated before, myths are often fictitious, but historical events can also act as myth. To this end, many stories in the Bible are both myth and fact. Lewis speaks of the crucifixion in this manner: “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens–at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences,” (“Myth Became Fact” 66). John makes explicit why he recorded Jesus’ miracles. He wrote his gospel so that those who read it “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that [the readers] may have life in His name,” (John 20:31). The gospels, then, record actual events for the purpose of inviting readers into relational familiarity with God.

Bruce Edward Baloian considers how the Bible fails to define faith with “propositional formulations” or “theological statements,” and instead offers stories of people having or lacking faith (Baloian 56). The book of Luke provides six accounts of people showing faith’s presence and one account of the disciples showing their absence of faith. Each time Jesus commends people on their faith, it is in the midst of that individual or small group of people taking a risk. In Luke 5, the friends who put a hole in the roof of the house Jesus is teaching in risk much by bringing their paralyzed companion before the Lord. Jesus tells a prostitute who risked ridicule and punishment by washing Jesus’ feet in the presence of religious authorities that her faith saved her in Luke 7:50. In the one account that depicts people who lack faith, the disciples are on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee when a storm threatens to swamp the ship. The disciples are at risk of drowning when Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves, and then proceeds to rebuke his twelve closest companions by asking, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25). Though each account features vastly different characters in vastly different circumstances, all of the examples follow the same general pattern: they include people who are in crisis and have “to make a choice: to come to God or default,” (Baloian 68).

The disciples’ failure to show faith is fascinating because it illustrates the difference between “knowing” and “tasting” faith. The disciples who were with Jesus when he commended other on their faith likely had a decent understanding of what faith entailed—that one must come before Jesus in their weakness despite the risks. Yet, the disciples never had to approach Jesus with their needs when they were at risk because they had not yet been in a crisis. Baloian suggests that God placed the disciples on the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the storm so that their knowledge of faith might grow from theoretical to experiential. Jesus’ questioning their faith led them to the realization that while they knew about faith, they themselves did not have it.

Today, readers look to Luke 8 and the story of Jesus calming the storm in the same way the disciples looked to Jesus during the events recorded in Luke 5 and Luke 7. Watching Jesus’ closest and most loyal followers fail to have faith serves to wake up the reader. Baloian notes “In a fashion, Luke invites his readers to experience the disciples’ failure on the lake. As the reader gets in the boat with Jesus, he or she can, like the disciples, relate their story to the disciples’ need for more faith,” (69). It is as if Jesus also asks the modern reader, “where is your faith?” This is simply one example of narrative in the Bible teaching active participation. Faith is one of many biblical topics that cannot be learned passively. To know faith—to taste it—one must observe what it looks like lived out, and then live it out oneself.

Perhaps the most clear example of the Bible defining a concept with narrative is in 1 John 4:10 “This is love: not we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” As mentioned before, the greatest commandment and the summary of mosaic law is to love God. Yet, this verse is the only passage in Scripture that attempts to clearly define what biblical love is. What is the definition offered? Quite simply, it is the Gospel. The very definition offered to readers of the Bible for the single most important concept in Scripture is the story of Christ’s death for the sins of His beloved. Consider this story. The Son of God comes to earth as a man, not counting His own glory as something to be grasped, to die a sinner’s death He does not deserve and suffer the full wrath of His Father. All of this He endured so that those who He loved would not have to receive their deserved punishment. Paul reminds the church that Jesus died on the cross “while [Jesus’ beloved] were still sinners” and “by nature objects of wrath,” (Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:3). Still Christ bore the full weight of sin’s punishment.

The story as I have summarized it is bland and tame compared to how it is told in the four gospels. The Gospel is a full fledged myth; it contains characters and character development, tension and conflict, irony and intrigue. The flare of Mark and the passion of John draw readers in. As a story, any one of the gospels elicit a range of emotions: joy, sorrow, anger, peace, puzzlement. It is a story on par with any novel, and yet it is so much more.

As a Christian, one of Jesus’ beloved, I claim to know God with relational familiarity. Being a student of faith sometimes frustrates me because I spend a great deal of time learning about God, researching objective truth, reading theology books and listening to philosophical debates. I find that my intellect is rarely neglected, while other aspects of my being are rarely satisfied. That is why it is so refreshing to pour myself into the narrative of the Gospel. “Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics” by John Murray may provide biblical support for Christian ethics, but Murray’s book will never inspire me to love my brothers and sisters in Christ in truth and action like John 17-20 does. Watching lectures on apologetics cannot stir my emotional energy that fuels evangelism like reading Matthew 28 can.

An unfortunate thing can happen when the focus of my studies is the Gospel itself; I become so used to the biblical narrative of Christ’s death, resurrection, and union, that reading the Bible causes no stir within me. This is why I am so thankful for the works of C.S. Lewis. Even when the Word of God itself has become too familiar, I cannot read the Chronicles of Narnia without weeping. Aslan’s sacrifice in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” evokes all the same emotions that I feel when my heart is softened to Jesus’ crucifixion. By far Lewis’ most moving works to me are his stories that depict Christ’s return at the end of days and the establishment of New Heaven and New Earth. As I read the last chapter of “The Last Battle” for class, I remember having to put the book down several times because I was so overwhelmed with emotion. It took me more than an hour to read one chapter simply because I was constantly crying out to God, “how long, O Lord? When will you return?” My reading of the seventeenth chapter of “Perelandra”, where Ransom participates in the year-long vision of the Great Dance, was similar. Lewis’ fiction writing, which is so heavily influenced by biblical narrative, revives my being as I reduce Scripture to a research topic.

I do not mean to say that theology or academic study of the Bible is wrong. These are necessary for the Christian life, but they are by no means sufficient. Reverend Scott Sauls from Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee says that “sound doctrine is the skeleton of one’s faith.” However, skeletons by themselves are not alive; they require animation. Narrative is the breath that God breathes into dry bones to bring life. It is through story that bones take tendons and flesh. God invites all to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” (Psalm 34:8).

Works Cited

Baloian, Bruce E. “Teaching the Ineffable Through Narrative.” Evangelical Quarterly (2016): 56-70. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.

Fisher, Walter R. Human communication as narration: toward a philosophy of reason, value, and action. Columbia: University of South Carolina Pr., 1989. Print.

Gilman, James E. “Reenfranchising the Heart: Narrative Emotions and Contemporary Theology.” The Journal of religion (1994): 218-39. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.

Langer, Michael R. “The idolatry of certainty: Kierkegaard and Evangelical Covenant faith in a postmodern world.” The Covenant Quarterly 71.1 (2013): 57-75. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.

Lewis, C.S. “Myth Became Fact.” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. 63-67.

The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984. Print.

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