A DEEPER LOOK AT THE NARRATIVE
The importance of actual events in the Bible shapes what sort of narrative it is. It is a historical metanarrative which means it is grounded in real events in the real world. In the words of historian George B. Caird,
Christianity appeals to history, and to history it must go.
The biblical record purports to give a true account of key events in the real world, which addresses fundamental worldview questions. In other words the Bible claims to be the true story of the world and not just one way of looking at things. This raises the significance of the scriptures from a seemingly arbitrary collection of documents or even just the shared beliefs of a certain group of people. It claims to be the truth, the standard by which we measure all things.
In the New Testament and the People of God, Tom Wright adapts the work of A.J. Griemas applying it to the New Testament. I have borrowed that modified scheme, applying it to this study. It updates the simple beginning, middle and end dramatic structure of stories. We have the initial sequence, topical sequence and the final sequence respectively. In the initial sequence the problem is set up. The topical sequence is where the effort is made to solve the problem. By the final sequence the problem is actually solved. When we apply this format to the fundamental structure of the Bible it tells us how the world began, where we are now, and how it will end i.e. the fundamental worldview questions I mentioned earlier.
Claiming to be the meta-story means the Bible has some peculiar features. There is an overarching story to the individual lives and histories it mentions, which means there is a grand story teller. There is a prime mover of the events that happen in human and cosmic history. This being is the God of the Bible. To use an old cliché history is his story. The scriptures are anchored in these real happenings so the author must himself be intimately involved in the story and not be a detached instigator. The author is a character in his own story and this story is reality as we know it. (It does not get any more “meta” than that.) This produces a unique theological mix of God being both transcendent and imminent.
Essentially the Bible presents the world as on going, God-driven narrative, told through the course of human history. This means there are two main characters, God and humans. There are many entities in the biblical narrative. Some are very strange and wonderful. These two, however, are the most developed, having the richest characterization. This goes to show their significance as the main cast whilst others serve as the supporting cast. God is the primary agent whose agenda is being fulfilled. Since he is deeply involved and invested in accomplishing his mission, he is also the main protagonist of the story. God is the hero of his story.
Now the role of humans in the story, as the other half of the main cast, is very interesting. God is always the hero. People on the other hand, depending on the story, are either heroes or villains. The Genesis account is very crucial in understanding the human role and setting up the narrative in general. It goes something like this: God as the creator of all things is without equal. Humans are made to be God’s image bearers. This means he chooses to use them as his primary agents in fulfilling his agenda. When humans choose to fulfil their own agenda without regard for their Maker they turn from being helpers to hinderers. Genesis with the rest of scripture contends humanity has turned away from its God-given purpose. These villainous tendencies are therefore an undeniable part of the human condition even though he did not make them that way. This duality in human nature to do good and evil means they are certainly not the main antagonists of the story. The main antagonists are therefore characterized as evil and the forces of darkness. Humans have colluded with the forces of evil so they are a part of the problem but they are also mysteriously a part of the solution. This is due to his unwavering commitment to his good original plan which maintains humans irrevocably as his primary agents.
Genesis sets up the type of story we have in the Bible. It is the story of redemption. God is the redemptive figure who executes the redemptive act to save the day. The deeply human need for redemption can be seen in all societies by the stories we tell. It is a tacit admission that there is something wrong with the world and we are are part of the problem. Some even argue that it is the universal myth: the hero who overcomes adversity and saves the day. Today’s multibillion dollar superhero movie franchises are a testament to the enduring relevance and need for redemption in a broken world led by broken people.
The biblical narrative is told through the course of human history yet it is impossible to give a comprehensive record of human history. The practise of historiography requires we choose which events we to use to tell the story. If all humanity has gone astray it is pointless to follow meticulously their corporate history since it does not further the divine agenda. It is like watching the highlights of a sporting match like basketball. No one composes a highlight reel completely made up of misses since it does not tell you who won, which is the main purpose of sporting events. In Genesis God chooses the family of Abraham as the focus of redemptive history. He selects them to be the example of what he wants and bring the rest of humanity back on track.
The scope of the biblical narrative means we are dealing with ultimate redemption. The story of Israel had triumphs but it was largely chequered by fantastic failures. This all goes to show in stark relief the seriousness of the problem and the need for a permanent solution. Ultimate redemption could not be a simple reset. Potentially the same problems could reoccur. What was needed was comprehensive restoration resulting in something new. For instance imagine you had planned a special trip with a vintage car you own. Now as you turn out of your driveway the car develops a problem so you cannot go. Since you are set on having the exact experience way you had planned, you repair the old classic and make it even better than before. Even though it is the same vehicle it has been renewed. The outcome remains the same yet something new has happened. Likewise in the Bible the end result of the divine agenda is a renewed creation.
In Acts when they preached and taught they constantly drew on the metanarrative format. This was characteristic of the entire New Testament. They saw God as the author of history and they were telling his story through their story as his chosen people. However, they had a razor sharp focus on the new creational agenda. This is because they had a startling and radical conviction. They testified that God had performed the pivotal redemptive act that began a new creation in the shape of Jesus.
I call the Bible a teleological document because it espouses a linear view of history. Linear history means events do not repeat themselves in an endless cycle but there is a definitive end in sight. The Bible works that way because it has two parts, the Old and New Testaments or as I like to call them, the former and latter writings. These two parts hinge on the Gospel narrative which is the source of Christian faith. They were witnesses to God acting climactically in Jesus allowing them to faithfully contribute to the big narrative of sacred scripture. Now a metanarrative is the story of stories. Without the emergence of the Christian faith, it could not properly be the Bible, that is, the book of books.