Theology through Story: Conclusion to Genesis

From the beginning of the Bible to the end, theology is presented to us through story. This is the biblical way of imparting truth; it is incarnate in the lives of those whose drama God chose to enshrine in Holy Scripture for all time. When we look at these stories, even the rather prolonged Patriarchal Narrative that we just worked through, we stand in amazement at the concise nature of the stories, the economy of style where nothing is superfluous, every detail is relevant. Never does the narrator moralize and expand or extrapolate points to take to heart. A respect for the integrity of the reader is always maintained; readers must engage in the story and draw his or her conclusions themselves. For the most part, we cannot be told─we have to come to truth via an encounter with God through the stories.

We westerners love stories like the rest of humanity, both ancient and contemporary. But by and large, the ordinary westerner tends to look at them differently. By instinct we paddle along upon the surface of a story, following its story line to its conclusion, and take in whatever impressions that might present themselves. For serious and in-depth thinking on any subject, we look to systematic presentations of materials arranged in categories and expressed in logical progression, like textbooks. (The closest thing we find like this in Scripture is in the very small genre of epistles in the New Testament, but even a letter like Romans must not be mistaken for a systematic theology.) Systematic presentation of theology has its place in our culture in that truth can and must be contextualized to appeal to the western mind. However, the danger is that we will mistake the story as entertainment, and not grasp the fact that story is a medium of the most profound theological reflection, and that it takes certain skills and attitudes to unlock its contents.

It is truly amazing how deep and rich theology by story is. In our study of Genesis, we have pondered many of the great questions of human existence through its stories. There is nothing like it in all of human literature. Story has a way of presenting truth in all its paradoxes and complexities in a most simple way. For instance, volumes have been written in systematic theologies on divine sovereignty and human freedom, whether creation is a closed system (everything is determined) or open (the system can be influenced by wills and choices of created beings). In the Joseph story, every character is portrayed as a free agent and is self determining. This cannot be denied. At the same time God is sovereign over everything, even the free choices of the brothers who acted autonomously with evil intent, bringing the whole story to conform to His will. The famous line “…you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good…” (Gen. 50:20 cf. 45:5-8), is the closest thing we have in the story like a teaching, but it is not abstract; it is a part of the fabric of the narrative where Joseph comforts his brothers by drawing their attention to the reality of God underlying their lives.

As we connect with these ancient stories, they become ours in a highly personal way. They meld in with our own story, creating an overarching “meta-narrative” that links our story with the origins of the world and continues on till the end. Our little journey through life becomes a critical link in the cosmic drama. Doing theology is therefore a meditation on stories. It is not incidental that Luke recounts St. Paul’s story of conversion 3 times in Acts (9:1-18, 22:4-16, 26:9-18). Ideas can be argued, but no one can argue the story. One must confront the story and make a decision. Every one of our stories is deeply theological. We become aware of their depths as we ponder them in light of the biblical narratives and the great meta-narrative that builds upon it. It is shocking how many people are ignorant of these biblical stories, their own stories, and seem totally uninterested in other people’s stories. This is theological poverty.

3 Responses to “Theology through Story: Conclusion to Genesis”

  1. Father John,

    The intellectual mind looks for the systematic and logical progression in every situation, however, it also questions and analyzes the basis of the progression. That is why it is difficult to understand some of the theology as presented by the scriptures or some of the philosophy of the church’s founding fathers.

    In Faith and Friendship,

    Joe

  2. I agree with you, Joe, except I would qualify “intellectual” with “Western intellectual.” I think there are different kinds of “intellectual” thinking, some linear, some circular, some poetic, some imaginative, etc. I say this because everyone has an intellect, and various people groups use it differently. My contention is that the ancient near east used it differently than contemporary westerners. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses. Does this make sense?

  3. My definition of the “intellectual mind” is one that is chiefly guided by the intellect rather than by emotion or experience, in a word, rational. Additionally, one that is given to study, reflection and speculation as pertaining to the basis of the subject involved. It would appear that this approach might lend itself equally to both western and ancient near east culture. However, I do agree there is a significant difference in western and eastern mentality.

    In Faith and Friendship,

    Joe

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