Guest Post: The Story’s Story

Guest Post: The Story’s Story June 7, 2012

Today’s guest post is the second of two by J. R. Daniel Kirk, assistant professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary who blogs over at Storied Theology. Daniel is the author of Unlocking Romans
and Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?

Here he continues his thoughts on why the Bible should be read as story, not a theological textbook–even if narrative readings are risky.

In my previous post, I started reflecting on the Bible as “story,” and what difference that might make for how we read it.

One reason why the story image so powerful–and also, then, why it can be frightening–is that stories are much more difficult to pin down than theology texts. They are also more difficult to enact than owners manuals.

Encountering a story, five different people are likely to give five different interpretations.

Encountering a story, we discover characters and plots that develop and change.

Encountering a story, we enter into a world that we cannot control–even though we can shape how the story is read and understood by our own telling.

What this means, in part, is that if we open ourselves up to the idea of “story,” we are opening ourselves up to a Christianity, and a God, that cannot be easily controlled or pinned down. We are opening ourselves up to embracing the plurality of Christian expression and practice that we find even in the pages of scripture itself.

I was recently challenged on this. A perceptive reader of my work asked, “You’re talking about plurality and openness, and yet you speak quite confidently about any number of issues–where does that confidence come from within this more open narrative?”

Of course, part of the answer is just that I’m an 8 in the Enneagram. I am always confident about everything I say!

But besides that, there is a theological story that undergirds those things about which I am confident, and for which I argue: the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the story within the story that lends unity to the whole.

The cross itself can be interpreted in any number of ways. But the cross itself also consistently places itself before us as the measure for our own faithfulness (or lack thereof). It is not only something we interpret, it also interprets us.

When Paul is challenged by other apostles, he invites the Corinthians to measure them each against the gospel of the crucified and his own embodiment of it: “I die daily.” “Always carrying about in our body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in your mortal body.”

In Mark 8, when the climax of Jesus’ story stands on the edge of a knife, between Jesus’ self-proclaimed cross-destiny and Peter’s desire for a different kind of Messiah, Jesus not only says, “The Son of Man must suffer and die,” but also “If anyone wants to come after me, let that person deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

The gospel story is, at its heart, the story of Christ crucified. It is the story of the God who looks upon His people, and His son, as they have nothing, make themselves nothing–and blesses that nothingness with abundance.

There is a narrative dynamic of life out of death, a narrative dynamic of power out of weakness, a narrative dynamic of Kingdom abundance overcoming worldly scarcity that delineates the Christian story.

So we take up this narrative, and we interpret and it and judge our readings against the narrative by which we are saved.

When 2 Timothy says all scripture is God-breathed, that breath of God is placed in a larger context: “You have known the scriptures that are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

See? It’s not just “scripture,” as such, that is good and according to the will of God.

It is “scripture with Christ as its end and goal” that is the story of God.

I don’t worry about narrative readings of scripture leading us astray. I don’t worry, because the standard by which such tellings are judged is this: does your reading highlight our world-denying, economy-inverting call to give up all that we are in faith that God will bring abundance? Does it call us to make good on the summons we’ve said we’ll heed–to follow Christ along the road of death, trusting God to give the glory rather than seizing such glory for ourselves?

The story of the cross is the story within the story. Interpret that cross how we will, the church, and God’s people individually, are known when our own story becomes that cruciform narrative that makes us His own.


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  • The Misfit Toy

    There is a brand of wishful thinking that says, “We read the Bible so we can learn about God, and only then can we make sense of the world”. This has been a useful kind of wishful thinking for a long time, and some people still find it useful. I think the narrative approach to scripture you are advocating fits in this category of wishful thinking. I like this kind of wishful thinking, and I like hanging around people who think this way.

    There is a subset of that wishful thinking which says, “Everyone who truly reads well, will have both the same understanding of what the text means, and the same conclusions about the correct consequent actions”. Many people who I love, cherish this kind of wishful thinking. While I understand why it would be an attractive wish if it were true, I think the evidence that it isn’t true, or even good-if-it-were-true is so overwhelming that I am always challenged to figure out how to live generously and well with the people who wish this were true.

    The annoying thing is that there are many people who are wishing in this second wish, with full knowledge that it isn’t a good wish to have, because they have believed a lie told in the second wish. The lie is this, “Be careful, all wishes other than this wish for a singular and perfect truth are the same wish in disguise, and that wish is the bad wish which destroys us all. Safety can only be found by rejecting all other wishing. Without safety, we are doomed”

    I don’t think that claiming that a narrative approach is “safe” is the right answer. Arguing that it is safe gives into the lie that the best wishes are the ones that make us feel safe. The world is not safe. God is not safe.

  • Definitely, the underlying theme in many of your points is that we have to do a bit more in the way of humble listening. Whatever we think we know of the story, it is still in development. Our immediate goal is to understand our cues for action. The rest will make sense after it has all played out.

  • I am a big proponent of looking at the bible as “storied theology” and as “embodied story”, so I think these posts are quite powerful, particularly the second one. I appreciate Daniel’s emphasis on the cross as the culmination and unifying factor of the bible and the very thing that will keep us dying into Christ, so to speak.

    I recently posted on subsets of these themes at and . It seems we’re in an era of looking at the bible with less of an “artistic” eye which perplexes me for God is the Master Creator and art a vehicle for both exploring truth and seeking God. Likewise, God and art definitely are not “safe” but awesome indeed. Peter Pitzele’s explorations with Bibliodrama illuminate the intersection of story, text, self, community and God in interesting and radical ways. He is Jewish and mostly applies his techniques to Genesis but they can be applied to the Gospels as well.

    • peteenns

      Good links, Lise. Thanks for pushing us to think about this more.

  • You’re welcome. I had meant to provide a link for Peter Pitzele. His work is often referred to as “Modern Midrash” and utilizes psychodrama techniques. He has taught at seminaries and yeshivas all over the world exposing people to this type of exploration. I have dabbled a bit in it using my drama therapy training, which employs similar practices. It’s very interesting. And heck, the guy’s name is Peter and he too went to Harvard….

    • peteenns

      “And heck, the guy’s name is Peter and he too went to Harvard….”

      Strike one….strike two…