Story, Structure and Scripture: Reading the Bible in the 21st Century

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KURT NOTE: The following is a guest post by Ryan Furlong. Deep stuff here!

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I suppose stories are vehicles for far more than we give them credit. Far from the typical plot diagram one’s high school English teacher delineated on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter—outlining the discrete plot elements of exposition, complicating action, climax, declining action, the denouement, and some sort of resolution—stories produce infinite possibilities for meanings and interpretations of those meanings when all of these plot elements come together.

Now, narrative structures do not always follow this form and often deviate in genre variations, authorial license, or cultural considerations. However, stories generally evoke within humans a desire to achieve a sense of “wholeness,” where each element of the plot works to complete the narrative’s goals, resolve its conflicts, make sense of character developments, and restore an equilibrium to the reader’s mind and the text’s “completeness.” We seem to be drawn to stories that contain all the necessary plot elements that contribute to a story’s “completeness,” “wholeness,” and psychological satisfaction.

As recent psychological research corroborates, humans are purpose-based creatures. As a species, we seek explanations for our existence, pose questions on the nature of our own natures, investigate the how and why of natural phenomena or philosophical queries, and most curiously, we desire meaning for our own lives transcendent of material reality. We, regardless of background, have an inherent, biologically-evolved drive to find meaning and purpose, no matter what life one lives, no matter where one finds it. I believe this evolved feature, the desire for meaning, the urge to seek purpose, is unequivocally divine.

To recap, we are first a highly-evolved species who produce and reproduce structured stories with a desire for narrative “completeness.” And second, we are purpose-based beings that possess a divinely inherent drive, as I argue, to investigate meaning and purpose through a variety of means. In sum, what interests me is the link between our fundamental push for meaning and purpose and the necessity of a story’s full structure to create a sense of “wholeness.” More precisely, when humans fail to tell stories with all the necessary parts, they sever off an important component of what it means to be human, and ultimately leave the audience with a longing for meaningful “completeness.”

For instance, what would a cinematic story like Titanic be without the romantic relationship between Jack and Rose, including their social and economic disparities which both complicate the plot and enhance the tale’s richness? What would F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby, be like without the elusive green light symbolizing both the American Dream and the woman he cannot possess.

Just as these stories are missing necessary plot elements and the important meanings we derive from them, so too do many of our narratives about God’s story become devoid of any real substance with any real purpose. I think for too long, particularly in American evangelical circles, “bits and pieces” of God’s story have been told. But, these fragments inadvertently rob us of the Bible’s beautiful, messy, complex storyline, which in turn renders us without a larger sense of purpose, a deeper sense of meaning, and a clear vision of how to act. For example, when we tell our Christian and non-Christian friends alike that the primary purpose of life is solely to mentally accept (and pray into their hearts) a “sinner’s prayer” to escape the weary world for heavenly bliss, without any understanding of God’s kingdom purposes on this earth to eliminate violence, greed, poverty, distorted sexuality, and broken relationships, we have failed to tell the full story that gives meaning and purpose to our existence.

Or, when we tell our Sunday-schoolers about the isolated tales of Noah’s Ark, the Genesis creation, or Jesus’s walk on water, without any understanding of how these stories interrelate with the God revealed in Christ on the cross, we have failed to tell the complete story. Or, when we outline legalistic lists of no sex outside marriage, no drunkenness, no avaricious lifestyles, no hostility, without any understanding of the psychological, emotional, social, and logical purposes behind why we as Christians choose not to participate in those ways, we have failed to provide a story worth our Scriptures and the Resurrection.

To be a storyteller who tells “complete” stories is divine. To long for meaning, purpose, and “wholeness” is heavenly. And when we fail to do the former, human beings lose interest in God’s story because they feel there is no latter. As missionaries to a post-Christian culture, I implore us to tell the full, breath-taking, poetic, awe-inspiring narrative that we carry around in our Scriptures and hearts. I ask us to consider that God’s story deserves to be spoken with a beginning, middle, and end.

I pray for us to create succinct, yet powerful ways to be good storytellers of God’s full, kingdom-based narrative (not arbitrary anecdotes). And, most paramount, I urge us to see that meaningful, purpose-based, holistic storytelling leads to meaningful, purpose-based, holistic living. For once we know the full story, we belong to its divinity, cannot escape its purpose, become participants in its completeness, and truly begin to experience a life of meaningful, Spirit-filled love. We are created for good stories. We are created for purpose. God gives us both. May we tell the Story in full, because in an American culture where many have heard “bits and pieces,” few have heard it all.

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david furlong Ryan D. Furlong is a graduate student pursuing his M.A. and Ph.D. in English and American Literature at the University of Iowa. He researches the intersections between American literary cultures, religion, narratological theory, and the natural environment. Moreover, he is a committed husband, arm-chair theologian, occasional creative writer, and foolish follower of the God revealed in Jesus.

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  • Joel Granger

    Kurt, We would love to see your great articles on
    http://www.CollectiveFaith.com. Please join and
    share with our Christian Social Network.

  • parishioner

    I liked this. your motivations are transparent, and nothing but good.

    the repetition of the word “purpose” made me think too much of rick warren, but that’s probably my problem. I never read his bestselling book, because I found the title to be an enormous red flag. dear sir, we are not to have a purpose-driven life, we are to have a relationship-driven life. “if you abide in me, and I abide in you, you will bear fruit.” sound familiar, anyone?

    it is beyond disheartening when evangelicals preach lifestyle rather than preaching the relationship which impacts lifestyle. it’s as if they’re saying, “we’ve got this god, thanks. we know the rules for clean living, and will say them loud. you can stand aside. what do you mean, you want to lead services by your holy spirit? no way. those instructions to the Corinthians are too scary. who knows what you might do. we’ve got a system that works just fine, thanks. what do you mean you are to be my first love, Jesus? don’t bring the emotions into it, no matter what you said about the greatest commandment, and loving you more than my mom. god, you’re just not palpable or predictable enough to my liking. I can’t sell a relationship with you as easily as I can sell fire insurance, so I’m going to tell people it’s all about a lifestyle, and if you don’t have the right lifestyle, you’ll burn. that’s the gospel, right? fire insurance! fire insurance! get your fire insurance here!”

    do you know what legions of insurance salespeople are doing to our culture? preparing it for receiving the anti-Christ. bet you didn’t expect me to say that.

    preaching lifestyle fosters pride in the individual, and humanism. there is no dependence on god, no growing maturity in discernment in being led by the holy spirit, no true appreciation of the application of the blood of Jesus for abundant life in him. the christian subculture grows in self-reliance, self-pride, and satisfaction in its own accomplishments, and then… whammo! the anti-Christ does his big reveal, and the evangelical masses in the usa who’ve been starved and starving for the supernatural wonder at his manifestations of power and think, surely this is of god! I never saw god do anything like this in my lifetime!

    don’t underestimate the problem. god wants to come in, not be told to stand aside. we need him. the predator is real, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think we don’t need a shepherd with a rod and staff. let the sheep who has ears to hear, hear. worship the Good Shepherd, and let him lead you. nothing personal, but sheep aren’t very smart, and you’re no exception.