I remember the first time I saw “This is Spinal Tap.” At first, I didn’t know what I’d stumbled across.
It looked like a documentary, but I couldn’t place the band it featured. It looked familiar, but yet … I’m not sure how long it took before I finally asked the question, “Is this for real?”
I was unsettled until I knew, once and for all, that it was not a non-fiction film – it was a comedy fiction film, shot in the conventional documentary style. That distinction was important, however, because it determined how I enjoyed – and even more importantly, understood – the film.
The brilliance of “This is Spinal Tap” is the way Rob Reiner managed to play off the expectations of genre, in order to create something new and hilarious. But the brilliance of “This is Spinal Tap” is completely lost on a viewer who thinks that he or she is watching a real documentary about a real British rock band. In that case, it wouldn’t be quite so funny.
This is the point that I keep trying to make in this blog about the Bible. One of the biggest obstacles to understanding the Bible properly is grasping its true genre. This is true on a book-by-book case, of course; Psalms is poetry, II Kings is historical narrative, Paul’s writings are epistles. These books don’t make sense until you really grasp the genre.
But it’s also true on a wider level. Taken as a whole, the Bible is a narrative. It is the story of God’s dealing with the world and the people who live in this world.
I fear that too many people read the Bible instead as a law book, or reference guide, or instruction manual. As I have already said many times, including here and here, Scripture is primarily narrative.
Assuming that I’ve made this point quite clear, it’s time to move on to a new assertion – most Christians have got the storyline wrong!
Imagine that someone makes it through “Spinal Tap,” understanding very well that the film is a mockumentary, and the band members are played by actors, but believes that the story is really all about Spinal Tap’s quest to find a drummer. (A running gag of the film is that every time the band hires a new drummer, he ends up meeting his fate in increasingly hilarious tragic situations.) The drummer scenes are merely a side plot; they are not crucial to the story which is being told in the film. The plot instead has to do with Spinal Tap’s futile quest to become a relevant and popular artistic group.
Again, I fear that too many Christians read the Bible with one storyline in mind. It’s the plot they were taught as children in Sunday School, reinforced in youth group, and repeated on Christian radio. Now it is impossible to read Scripture without hearing it within the confines of the commonly-told story.
There isn’t just one Christian plot line out there, either. Let me outline the most popular Christian storylines currently in play:
This first storyline is primarily a story about paradise and afterlife. It locates sin as a failure to live obediently before God in the original paradise. The Israelite nation was called together to recreate this paradise, but failed miserably. Finally Jesus came to satisfy the punishment of this disobedience. The benefits of Jesus’ death are then God’s satisfaction, so that all who believe in Jesus can then live forever in the heavenly paradise.
As you can see, then, this is really a story about how to get to heaven and avoid hell. Lots of people out there think that this is the primary story that the Bible tells.
A second storyline was popularized by John Wesley, who borrowed from the ancient Eastern fathers the idea that the goal of the spiritual life was to become “like God.” Here’s what the plot looks like:
This story is more familiar to many of us, because it is primarily about personhood and individuality. It begins with humans being created “in God’s image,” at least until our sin shatters the likeness. We try to repair the damage by doing good works, or by trying to worm our way back into God’s good favor. But Jesus shows us, by his life, death and resurrection, that God receives us purely by grace and forgives our sin. When we recognize this, we then become a new creation, and are restored to the original image of God once again.
This story is easier to stomach than the first one for many reasons, but it also falls short of representing the true Biblical narrative.
There are other plotlines out there, of course, but I outline only these two because I think they are predominant in Protestant Christianity.
Now, here’s the way I’d chart the story of the Bible:
The first thing to notice is that it’s not a linear story. Instead, I believe it’s a little more like a song with a common chorus but many different verses. The common refrain is what I call “Beloved Community.” God’s purpose in creating everything was to create community. Sin is simply that which impedes, frustrates, destroys community – between individuals, families, tribes, religions, and nations. And God’s goal is always to bring us back into relationship with each other.
How this story unfolds, and what it means for life in 21st century America, is a topic for a future post …