#PreacherProblems, Pt. 3: “Biblical Illiteracy and the Narrative Arc”
This is a short blog series from me and a few of my preacher friends. Since many preachers spend Monday mornings replaying their sermons– figuratively or literally–I figured this would be a good time to reflect on the weighty and complex task we’ve agreed to undertake each Sunday. Read Part 1 on the tension between precision and simplicity HERE and Part 2 on how the congregation is a collaborator with the preacher in deciding what a sermon ‘means’ HERE.
All of us have heard of the “biblical illiteracy” epidemic. Unfortunately, much of the tone of that conversation squarely places the blame on “the parishioner’s lack of interest” in reading the Bible. But what if we preachers are partially responsible for the problem? We have to ask ourselves if we’ve built a narrative framework within which our congregations can live.
My grandfather is 84 years old. For the last many years he has spent his time giving all of us, his descendants, a great gift: an incredibly detailed genealogy dating back to the early 1500s. He owns all the genealogical software and has called and emailed many county courthouses—both in the United States, and all across Europe—to have documents mailed to him. In his research, we’ve discovered interesting historical figures from which we’ve descended, like Sir George Calvert, 1st Lord of Baltimore, and his son, Sir Cecil Calvert, the heir to whom Maryland was granted on June 20, 1632.
Grandpa Dan has served as a sort of unofficial keeper of our family story, the one helping us all understand where we’ve come from, what we’ve been through, and where we all fit within the dynamically unfolding story that is our family. He has, in a sense, created a narrative framework for our family to be able to understand the character, and the characters, of the story.
Preachers, I want to suggest, do much the same work. Preachers are called to keep the story of the faith in front of the family.
But what exactly is our story? Are there identifiable movements within the drama of creation and salvation that can be distilled into a coherent narrative framework? Another way of asking it would be, if someone was sitting next to you on the train and asked you to tell them the story of Christianity in 3 minutes, could you give them a sensible re-telling?
I think there’s a way to do it. I’ll call it The “Big Story” in 6 Movements:
But why does this even matter?
I’m pretty convinced people stay away from large portions of the Bible because they simply don’t know what to do with them, they don’t know how to “locate” this particular text within the whole sweep of God’s Big Story of creation and salvation. I mean, why should I read Leviticus or Numbers? Why familiarize myself with Israel’s sacrificial system? Who needs a genealogy anyway?
This is why you hear people talk about “the God of the Old Testament” as if he can be juxtaposed against the “God we see in Jesus in the New Testament.” They’ve split the One God in half, assigning him a past as the old, mean god that (thankfully!) finally got over himself, softened up, and sent Jesus.
These people need someone to stand up in front of them every Sunday morning with the conviction that “the Lord our God is one.” These people need someone to stand up in front of them with an understanding of how everything in the Old Testament builds toward Jesus, and how everything in the New Testament and beyond conforms to Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t show up in the middle of history to get rid of Israel’s story. No, he shows up to live that story to the full, to consummate it, to bring humans, through his faithful life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection, into the covenant faithfulness that the Father has always intended.
If this narrative framework of Creation-Fall-Israel-Jesus-Church-New Creation gets embedded within the lives of our churches, the whole of the Bible becomes “preach-able” again. There are no pages that are “off limits.” Everything has its place.
Commenting on his own preaching ministry, St. Paul refers to himself as a “skilled master builder.”
1Cor. 3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.
Every preacher that steps into the pulpit becomes the one “building on it,” and “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (3:13). Sobering stuff for any preacher.
But, by the grace of God, it can be done! We preachers have all we need at our disposal to faithfully proclaim The Big Story. We can help people develop a sort of 30,000-foot “Google Earth” view of scripture, where the whole of the story is not missed by any one seemingly esoteric part.
Like a puzzle with a thousand little pieces, all these canonical stories fit together, interlocking to form a coherent and stunning portrayal of the God who by his Spirit keeps coming at us in the face of Jesus Christ, very God, very man, the consummation and climax of all of Israel’s subplots and minor tales and the Door through which every previous “outsider” walks on their way to covenant participation and new creation.