Growing up in a profoundly Christian context, I was surrounded by Bible “stories.” Much of my life can be expressed in terms of learning Bible stories to help me through different situations of life, as many of you can relate.
To be perfectly clear, I LOVED this about my childhood. I would not trade it for anything. None of us had a perfect past, but I am truly thankful to God for the upbringing I had, even if I could take issue with a few nitpicky details as I’ve gotten older.
I do, however, think that a change in the landscape of culture requires a slight change in the vernacular we use to think about biblical stories. They are stories; more than that, though, they are accounts of history—at least the majority of them.
The Importance of Story
“Story” fascinates me. As a marketing professional by day (Bible Nerd by night ;]) I interact with the concept of story on a daily basis. Story is embedded into the human psyche. We thrive on stories, remember stories, and crave more stories.
This is why series’ like Harry Potter or Twilight catch on and create raving fans. It’s so easy to become enthralled by the characters in these stories that fans are left wanting more. I had a friend growing up who could not get enough of the Harry Potter stories, so she spent lots of time reading so-called “fanfic” sites and even created a fanfic or two of her own.
The device of storytelling has been used throughout the centuries, and it was certainly important to those living in Bible times. I encourage you to do a search in your Bible study software for the word “remember” in the Old Testament. In so many instances, these mentions are tied to an admonition from God or God’s leader at the time to the children of Israel to look back upon where God has brought them from.
These concepts were passed down via stories. Think of the 12 stones mentioned in Joshua 4:1-7:
And it came to pass, when all the people were clean passed over Jordan, that the Lord spake unto Joshua, saying, Take you twelve men out of the people, out of every tribe a man, And command ye them, saying, Take you hence out of the midst of Jordan, out of the place where the priests’ feet stood firm, twelve stones, and ye shall carry them over with you, and leave them in the lodging place, where ye shall lodge this night. Then Joshua called the twelve men, whom he had prepared of the children of Israel, out of every tribe a man: And Joshua said unto them, Pass over before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of Jordan, and take ye up every man of you a stone upon his shoulder, according unto the number of the tribes of the children of Israel: That this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean ye by these stones? Then ye shall answer them, That the waters of Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord; when it passed over Jordan, the waters of Jordan were cut off: and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever.
But while “story” is, in itself, an important and useful concept, it has also fallen upon hard times.
Stories Get a Bad Rap
Unfortunately, stories are often misconstrued in a sense that they are not intended to be.
That is, many make the mistake of thinking that stories are necessarily false—like fairytales. This is especially true when using the colloquial notion of “Bible stories.” Some of them seem admittedly fantastic in nature, so adding colorful language that might accidentally perpetuate this false belief is probably not a good idea.
It’s no fault of the biblical writers, that’s for sure. There are instances in which we know the stories are for literary/teaching purposes only (think parables), but many of the stories we read about—including those which appear extravagant in modern thinking—are presented as being actual history.
Again, the fault here is not with the biblical writer. Our Western mindset often hinders us from being able to place ourselves in the shoes of the biblical person. Do I think the Exodus really happened? The Flood? The Resurrection? 100% yes!
But even a cursory look at the details of these stories reveals elements that are troubling for the mind of the post-Enlightenment Western reader. This is why I’m a fan of the term “account” for these historical narratives. The word has accurate historical inquiry as its focus, which has the advantage of leading with a confidence in what the Bible records, rather than skepticism.
The Story of Reality
One of my absolute favorite books is Greg Koukl’s, The Story of Reality. Perhaps the most powerful element of the biblical narratives is how story-driven they are. They speak to us at the very core, precisely because of this element, and yet are (again, in most cases) fully intended to be historical accounts.
Writing in the foreword of Greg’s book, Nancy Pearcey makes a valuable point:
Do not be fooled by the simplicity of Koukl’s presentation. He is a careful craftsmen whose clear, lucid prose sounds almost as if he is telling a once-upon-a-time story. But his point is just the opposite: The Bible is not a fairy tale crafted by ancient people to give a sense of meaning to life. It is an account of reality. He calls it a story only because, amazingly, it turns out that reality itself is structured like a great drama: It has a beginning and an end; it features a struggle between good and evil; it reaches a climax and then resolves into a denouement and a finale.1
Greg spends an entire chapter in the book making clear the notion that the biblical story is a true story. An accurate account of reality.
The story is powerful because it is the carefully-crafted and divinely-inspired account of God’s working in the real world. It’s important, then, that we make a distinction—especially when teaching our little ones—about the nature of this story. Koukl shares a personal example:
The Christian Story starts out a long, long time ago, long before Jesus. How long ago is a matter of debate, but that does not concern us here. One thing that does concern us is this: The Christian Story is different from other stories in a significant way. This story does not start with the words, “Once upon a time.” Why? Because this story is not meant to be understood as a fairy tale or a myth. When my eldest daughter was young, she read The Chronicles of Narnia. After finishing the first book she asked me, “Papa, is the story about the wardrobe and Peter and Susan and Lucy and Edmund and the lion a true story?” “No, it’s not,” I told her. “Some stories are true, and some stories are not true. The story about Narnia is fiction.” (I did tell her, though, that some fictional stories like Narnia are actually about true stories, even though the stories themselves are not true.) The Christian Story, I was careful to point out, is not like the Narnia story. It isn’t make-believe. It is a true story.2
Distinctions like this are extremely important. Our children are, every day, inundated with story happening all around them. It’s important that we learn to differentiate the Christian story in terms of how it is accurate to reality, all while capturing the wonder of the story itself.
The shift must be subtle in order to preserve the “magic” of the story, but we owe it to our kids to be very clear that we are not talking about a made-up fairytale or wishful thinking; our goal is to get at reality—the true story of humankind, and where we fit.
That’s the goal. That’s the mission. We are armed with the story of stories. The story—of history and reality—that can, and has, changed the world forever.
- Koukl, Gregory. The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between (p. 16). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.