Intro:Phil Norris is the Apostolic Team Leader of the South Central region and Basingstoke group of churches. He lives in Basingstoke with his wife Helen and has three children. This article was written as a book summary and review for the Salt and Light Theological Forum in March 2013. It forms a useful précis for anyone interested in the themes of the book, biblical metanarrative, the Big Story and how to read scripture.
Book Review of ‘The Drama of Scripture: finding our place in the biblical story’
By Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen (SPCK 2006)
First published in 2006 as a revised version of a 2004 publication, The Drama of Scripture is a useful introduction to approaching the bible as an integrated narrative. The title chosen by Bartholomew and Goheen aptly describes their subject matter as how to read the scripture as one coherent drama and how that drama informs Christian living. The style is popular rather than deeply exegetical, but is not lacking narrative insight.
The book begins with a preface in which the authors describe their motivation and intent for writing as helping people read the bible as it ought to be read. For them that is as one unified coherent salvation story. They write, ‘It is a unified and progressively unfolding drama of God’s action in history for the renewal of the whole world’ and suggest in reading the bible ‘each event, book, character, command, prophecy and poem-must be understood in the context of the one storyline (ix).’ To miss this reading approach is in their words to ‘ignore (the) divine author’s intention to shape our lives through its story (ix).’ They suggest without this narrative approach the bible will be fragmented and therefore absorbed by the alternative stories or worldviews in which we live. To enable the scripture to shape our lives we need to understand the unity of the biblical story and our place in it. This is their invitation to their readers.
They describe three emphases that come through the book: first is the comprehensive nature of God’s redemptive work that seeks restoration in all aspects of creation; second is understanding our place in the story or the era of history in which we live; third is the central place of mission to the whole story which begins with God’s mission, flows through Israel’s mission into Jesus’ mission and finishes with the Churches’ mission. They acknowledge N.T Wright’s influence and his use of ‘drama’ to describe the biblical narrative. But in addition to Wright’s five act depiction of scripture-creation, sin, Israel, Christ, Church-they add a sixth act, namely the coming of new creation.
It is these six acts that provide the content for six chapters, with an additional prologue and an interlude that deals with the inter-testamental period. The book is written to be useful as a study guide, and each chapter is concluded with both contemporary reflections and questions to facilitate how the story has meaning in the readers’ lives. It is also supplemented with a website in which many more resources can be accessed.
Prologue. The Bible as a Grand Story
In the prologue the authors argue the case for life and decisions being shaped by story and how individual events can only be understood faithfully if the story or context in which they take place is known. They suggest it is possible to limit the explanatory story to simply a story of one’s own life, family, or town, but that the more anyone probes for a greater and deeper sense of meaning the larger the context needed. This ultimately results in needing to answer if there is a true story that encompasses the whole world. They argue that although many in a pluralist society tend to answer negatively about finding one over-arching story, there are many others who still believe in the same; namely Muslims, modernists, Christians. These kind of stories are foundational and comprehensive and are sometimes known as ‘metanarratives.’ What is challenging is that only one can be true; they are competitive stories. They present the bible as the one true story and that ‘The Bible’s claim to tell the true story of our world’s history and meaning is its fundamental structure (3).’ The prologue ends with a description of the book’s structure and an explanation of the use of ‘kingdom’ as the most comprehensive image found in scripture, before finally giving some questions as ways into finding ourselves in the story.
ACT 1 God Establishes his Kingdom. Creation
This chapter considers the opening chapters of Genesis as scene setting for the whole biblical story. The main characters or subjects are introduced starting with Elohim. He is identified as Yahweh thus unifying the personal redeeming God of Israel with the creator God. Particularly of interest is the way the authors draw contemporary lessons from this narrative. For example they note the way in which Israel, who first meet God as Yahweh, are drawn into the bigger picture of God as creator, and parallel that with anyone who becomes a Christian through personal encounter with God as saviour and redeemer then being drawn into recognising there is a bigger story going on which begins with God as creator of everything.
The authors set Genesis in its cultural context, namely seeing it as a polemic against competing creation stories of the ancient near east. Their point is that locating a story in its context helps glean its meaning. However, they don’t limit the meaning of Genesis simply to its polemic nature. Instead they consider the kind of literature that forms Genesis 1 and suggest the account is also given so that we may know ‘what faith in God means for how we think about the world he has made and how we live in it (10).’ They state this is done in story form and emphasise the need for sensitivity to avoid misinterpretation.
In considering the kind of literature being employed in Genesis and the various views available, the authors claim there is clarity in a general outline for this opening act; namely the need to see God as source of everything, who exists in a unique creator/creation relationship. This, they suggest, reaches a high point in the creation of humanity with whom God has a uniquely special relationship. They write, ‘The Genesis story is …given so that we might have a true understanding of the world in which we live, of its divine author, and of our own place in it (10).’
The authors spend some time describing the interplay between the various relationships described in Genesis. For example they discuss how people are understood as the culmination and highlight of God’s creative activity and made to live in relationship with one another, with God and with creation. As unique image bearers people partner with God in stewarding the good earth.
The authors also conclude that the motif of kingdom is present in the narrative, as God utters his powerful word and creation comes into place. This authority is vastly superior to that of earthly Kings and sets God up as the great King worthy of all worship and honour. Yet this great King is not aloof from but intimately involved with His creation.
The chapter approaches its end with reflections for today. In this the authors suggest Genesis has three important spotlights that focus on God the creator, what he makes and humanity. The issue of relationship comes to the fore in these reflections as does creation care and what ‘normal’ looks like from Genesis’ point of view. Finally the chapter ends with a set of questions that usefully facilitate locating ourselves in the story.
ACT 2 Rebellion in the Kingdom. Fall
This chapter describes the entrance of sin as the cosmic conflict that sets the agenda for what needs to be fixed in the rest of the story. The origin of evil described in Genesis 3 portrays the rebellion of humanity towards God. The authors contrast the original goodness and intimacy of humanity with the deceit and evil of the serpent, the testing of temptation and the subsequent seeking of autonomy. The authors acknowledge the mystery that surrounds the origin of evil and that the narrative does not answer certain questions we would like answered! For example, no mention is made of the origin of the serpent. Significant space is given to the discussion around humanities freedom to love, the quest for autonomy, the choice of obedience and the consequences of sin. However, the authors draw out well the injection of grace into the story, recognising that the instant mortal death the text seems to imply is not enacted. Instead ‘death’ is seen to relate to the relationships of the first human couple, with themselves, God and creation, before physical death occurs. They write, ‘Just as Genesis 2 shows humankind in our created and unfallen relationships, so Genesis 3 focuses on the breakdown of those relationships following the human mutiny against the divine king (24).’ They also note how God graciously seeks out Adam & Eve, clothes them, judges the serpent and promises the destruction of evil through the seed of the women. In this way the story is pointed forward despite the consequences of Adam & Eve’s sin.
The chapter moves into reflections for today. It begins by highlighting the original closeness of humanity to God and the subsequent privilege and responsibility of this. The authors emphasise that following God’s rule is for peoples’ good and happiness. In contrast the misjudgement of humanity seeking self-rule is insightfully highlighted. The result of humanities search only results in coming under the rule and authority of the serpent. The authors draw from this insight to challenge our own attempts to seek life outside of God’s ways and how often they simply taste like death.
A discussion and challenge then follows that describes how we so easily see sin as ‘normal’ rather than as an aberration on God’s good creation. They describe sin as rebellion, idolatry, and an attempt to be autonomous from God, defining life for oneself. Its effect is destructive and trapping. Yet the authors argue sin doesn’t normally completely destroy creation but instead taints and distorts everything. All parts of creation are now corrupted by the sin and rebellion of people. They write, ‘sin doesn’t destroy sexuality but perverts it…sin doesn’t destroy the state, but twists it away from public justice. Sin does not destroy human reason, but distorts it to embrace falsehood…(28).’
Finally the chapter ends with the same helpful approach of leaving questions to help us locate ourselves in the story.
ACT 3 The King Chooses Israel. Redemption Initiated
This chapter is divided into two scenes:
Scene One: A People for the King
In the first scene Bartholomew and Goheen walk us through the narrative of the Pentateuch drawing out lessons and insights as they go. They begin with the increasingly negative consequences of sin seen in Adam & Eve’s descendants that reflects the change that has taken place in the human heart. They contrast this with the original intent of creation increasingly developing to God’s glory. This is followed by tracing the negative effects of sin on culture, illustrated with a discussion of Cain’s city and Lamech’s poetry. Both, they suggest, should have been good cultural developments but are instead distorted. They draw out the continual search for autonomy that ushers in the ‘uncreation (32)’ event of Noah and the flood. However, here as frequently, the authors draw out the redemptive aspects of the narrative: Noah, they say, will be like a new Adam; the Ark demonstrates God’s continued commitment to the whole of his creation; the Noahic covenant is a renewal of the creation covenant with Adam. The dual roles of God as both judge and redeemer are thus emphasised.
As the narrative continues the authors continue to highlight the effects of sin on what could otherwise be positive developments. For example the population growth of Genesis 10 which is a fulfilment of the command to fill the earth results in a further attempt for independence from God as they build a tower. Again the authors contrast the judgement of God with His mercy, here expressed through the choice of Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to the whole world. The authors then take us through a discussion about the Abrahamic covenant and God’s faithfulness to it, despite human frailty and family breakdown. God’s commitment is further demonstrated through the Egyptian narrative, preserving the nation in famine and showing His sovereignty.
The authors then draw out the unfulfilled aspects of the Abrahamic covenant, namely the lack of a land and lack of intimacy in Israel’s relationship with God. The events of the Exodus are portrayed as the antidote to this in which Israel leaves Egypt and inherits their own land, and in which God’s interest in the whole of their lives is clarified. The authors describe the Exodus as a demonstration of God as a ‘great, conquering King…(who) intends to exercise his rule over every aspect of the life of Israel (45).’ They also draw out further significant lessons from the narrative; namely the miraculous preservation of Moses that shows the providence of God; the revelation of God as Yahweh, the one who will remain faithful to his own nature and is not capricious like the other gods; the battle between Pharaoh and Yahweh that shows who is really King. They then describe how this part of Israel’s narrative comes to shape Israel’s future and is commemorated in both feast and calendar.
The authors locate the remainder of the Pentateuch in this story: Leviticus is seen as ‘protocol for maintaining a right relationship with the King (49);’ Numbers tells the story of the journey to the edge of the promised land; Deuteronomy gives Moses’ sermons of instruction for how to possess the land.
Reflections follow in which the place of Christians today is located in the history of God’s people and how our mission is drawn from that of Israel. The breadth of God’s wisdom for the whole of life is discussed as something to be embodied and attractive to others. Parallels are drawn between God’s interaction with Israel and his interaction with His people today.
Finally questions follow to help us locate ourselves in this part of the story.
Scene Two: A Land for His People
The second scene takes us through the Deuteronomic history and into the prophets. The authors write, ‘God’s people have been formed. Now God gives them a land on which they can live and fulfil their call to be a display nation (56).’ They then highlight various episodes in this second scene. Joshua describes the taking of the land which is crucial for establishing Israel as a nation; Judges is titled as Israel’s ‘failure to be a light to the nations (60),’ in which the downward spiral of evil behaviour is described; Samuel describes Israel’s transformation into a Kingdom through the choice of a King. The contrast between David and Saul is drawn out before we move into the book of Kings, and look at the changing reign of Solomon. The division of the Kingdom is described along with the voice of the prophets calling back to covenant faithfulness. Exile occurs and the prophets continue to speak before Ezra and Nehemiah are given voice in the context of returning to the land post-exile.
In the reflections the authors draw out the familiar challenges of obedience and self-governance. For example, Israel, in Joshua through Judges, becomes hardly distinguishable from the other nations, with their refusal to eradicate the idols. Yet again the theme of mercy is highlighted, here located in Samuel and the provision of a King to re-kindle their devotion to God. However, autonomy frequently prevails and the judgement of exile ensues. What follows in this chapter is a discussion about idols and their appearance and kind in our day. They still try to draw allegiance away from the true King, and result in death. Yet through the coming of the faithful King Jesus, and the gift of His Spirit, we are still urged to reject idolatry and to live for God.
Questions conclude the chapter.
Interlude: A Kingdom Story waiting for an ending.
Following Act 3 the authors usefully include an ‘Interlude,’ in which they describe the intertestamental period as ‘A kingdom story waiting for an ending (89).’ In this section they briefly trace the historical developments that bring a largely peaceful existence under Persian rule to the control of Imperial Rome that sets the scene for the New Testament. In this way they help the reader locate the New Testament in its context. They describe five core beliefs that had grown from Israel’s story with God thus far and shaped their life in this period. They were the beliefs of monotheism, election, the place of the law, the gift of land and the promised redemptive future that would deal with the consequences of their sin. The authors argue it is these beliefs that are tested during the 400 year period before the New Testament, as various nations ruled and dominated. The chapter ends with reflections on the various responses of specific groups of Israelites to the historical situation and questions regarding parallel ways of responding to our world today.
ACT 4 the Coming of the King; Redemption Accomplished
The authors describes this as the ‘climactic episode of the great story of the bible (103).’ They describe Jesus’ ministry in terms of its central emphasis of the Kingdom of God, thus locating his life in the growing expectation of divine intervention in establishing this kingdom. They then proceed to unpack the events of Jesus’ life in terms of their kingdom consequence. For example they consider his early years as preparation for his kingdom mission; his ministry in Galilee as different aspects of kingdom proclamation; and his time in Jerusalem as concluding his kingdom ministry. This conclusion reaches its climactic expression in his death and resurrection in which the Kingdom of God is shown to be victorious and inaugurated. Viewing Jesus’ life and ministry in this way clearly locates this Act within the wider framework of the scriptures and helps the reader grasp the reality of the bible, and history, as one story.
Reflections centre around the example of Jesus’ kingdom activity and how we let it inform our own behaviour. For example Jesus’ welcome of the marginalised should inform our behaviour to the same.
Questions end the chapter and again help the reader see how they can live from within and impacted by this part of the story.
ACT 5 Spreading the news of the king, the mission of the Church
The authors write, ‘This in-between time, after Jesus’ first coming and before he comes again, is a time of mission for the exalted Christ, the Spirit and the Church (134).’ The authors break this act into two scenes.
Scene 1: From Jerusalem to Rome
Scene 1 draws us into the story of the early church, uniting our purpose with theirs and emanating from the coronation of the now ascended Jesus Lord who pours out His empowering Spirit at Pentecost. The newly formed Church becomes witness of and witness to the kingdom of God as they live in the life of the outpoured Spirit. And this witness moves beyond the borders of Israel into the gentile world, sometimes through missionary activity, sometimes through dramatic Spirit inspired leadings, sometimes through the scattering of persecution. Whatever the apparent cause, God continues to use the empowered community to spread the message of the kingdom wherever they go. The authors give considerable space to the person of Paul and his role in spreading the news of the kingdom and establishing kingdom communities beyond the borders of Israel. They also describe his desire to see these communities established and mature so that their witness is effective. The scope of Paul’s instruction is broad because he understands ‘the witness of the church is to spill over into the public life of culture, demonstrating that the salvation of the age to come is comprehensive in scope (150).’
Scene 2: And into all the world
In scene 2 the authors emphasise our place in this continuing story of kingdom mission, and appeal for knowing this story ‘in our bones (151).’ They list the questions that shape our lives and need to be answered by whichever story we live by. They are ‘Where are we? Who are we? What is wrong? What is the remedy? What time is it? (151).’ In this scene the authors attempt to explore how we play our part in this continuing story, detailed in Act 5, whilst we await the culmination in Act 6 that we know is coming. They describe the call of Israel to be the light of the world, how their failure meant Jesus picked up this call and how this call was transferred and remains with the Church. The mission of Israel, Jesus and the early Church remains our mission. It is a mission that is broad in scope, in which salvation touches the whole of life and seeks restoration and recovery for this world, not an escape into another spiritual existence. However, the authors recognise the imagination needed to translate this task into our culture and history. They seek to answer this challenge by urging the church to be the preview of the future kingdom that has not yet been fully realised. They draw on examples of community life in the book of Acts as successful previews and examples for us. And they also focus on the mission of Paul to establish these same kind of communities elsewhere, seeing this as indicative of the kind of local and far mission in which the church today should be involved.
The authors maintain their broad understanding of the gospel writing ‘to ‘witness’ truly will mean to embody God’s renewing power in politics and citizenship, economics and business, education and scholarship, family and neighbourhood, media and art, leisure and play (155).’ This chapter draws towards an end with two illustrative stories of people who have sought to live creatively within this story. Finally a brief discussion regarding the vital place of hope in Christian living takes place that shapes our mission.
As ever useful questions end the chapter.
ACT 6 The Return of the King; Redemption Completed
This short chapter in the book paints the hope of the complete restoration of the good cosmos God created at the beginning. The authors acknowledge that glimpses of this future have been seen throughout the biblical story, especially clearly in the person of Jesus. Yet they draw from John’s Revelation to describe the ultimate purpose and coming of the Kingdom as the ‘re-joining of heaven and earth (162).’
However, they recognise John’s Revelation also reveals what has already been taking place in human history, the spiritual battles that will eventually be seen to be won as heaven and earth are joined and God’s kingdom fully comes. These revelations carry significant import for the churches to whom they were written, encouraging steadfastness in the face of severe testing until ultimate victory is established.
Some time is spent focussing upon the Lion/Lamb through whom the Kingdom is established, and through whose suffering life the spiritual battle that was always taking place was guiding history to its inevitable conclusion.
The authors conclude by emphasising again, what they have emphasised a number of times, namely the cosmic extent of redemption that seeks to restore God’s good creation not destroy and re-make, and that this trajectory of undoing the work of Satan was always the way. And this cosmic redemption is also personal, as people are invited to satisfy their thirst in the water of life.
As an introduction to the scripture as narrative this is an excellent book. It gives the broad-sweep content of each act in the drama, helping you follow the story line plot to its conclusion. For those new to the scriptures or trying to understand the bible as one book, this is an excellent beginning. It is also very helpful in suggesting contemporary reflections and questions at the end of each chapter as a means to letting the story impact your life. What the book lacks for those who preach and teach are the description of tools and or useful questions to bring to the text that help align you with the narrative skill of the authors and discerning the dramatic meaning they imply. For example there is no discussion of how plot works, drawing out symbolism, understand the idealised reader etc all of which are helpful in preparing narrative material for teaching. Nevertheless it does help you locate each book of the bible in a wider context and help you relate it to the wider story, and the questions and reflections give you some good touch points for encouraging changed living.