It is a story in which, though we supposed ourselves to be seekers, we found we were in reality the sought; not the hounds, but the hares.
James McClendon, (Doctrine, 462; Ethics 352)
The Bible tells the Great Story of God’s activity in the world. It also tells of the diversity of human responses to God’s pursuit of His creation. There are many ways to tell this Great Story from the Bible, but there aren’t any ‘infallible’ or once-and-for-all versions of it because everyone tells the Story from our unique ‘social locations’ with our different ‘spins’ on it.
Here is McClendon’s version of the Great Story [Ethics, 147]:
The Christian story in its primal form tells of a God who [unlike gods of human fabrication] is the very Ground of Adventure, the Weaver of society’s Web, the Holy Source of nature in its concreteness-—the one and only God, who, when time began, began to be God for a world that in its orderly constitution finally came by his will and choice to include also—-ourselves. We human beings, having our natural frame and basis, with our own [it seemed our own] penchant for community, and [it seemed] our own hankerings after adventure, found ourselves, before long, in trouble. Our very adventurousness led us astray; our drive to cohesion fostered monstrous imperial alternatives to the adventure and the sociality of the Way God had intended, while our continuity with nature became an excuse to despise ourselves and whatever was the cause of us. We sin. In his loving concern, God set among us, by every means infinite wisdom could propose, the foundations of a new human society; in his patience he sent messengers to recall the people of his Way to their way; in the first bright glimmers of opportunity he sent—himself, incognito, without splendor and fanfare, the Maker amid the things made, the fundamental Web as if a single fiber, the Ground of Adventure risking everything in this adventure. His purpose—sheer love; his means—pure faith; his promise—unquenchable hope. In that love he lived a life of love; by that faith he died a faithful death; from that death he rose to fructify hope for the people of his Way, newly gathered, newly equipped.
Here is Duke University Bible professor Richard B. Hays’ version:
The God of Israel, the creator of the world, has acted [astoundingly] to rescue a lost and broken world through the death and resurrection of Jesus; the full scope of that rescue is not yet apparent, but God has created a community of witnesses to this good news, the church. While awaiting the grand conclusion of the story, the church, empowered by the HS, is called to reenact the loving obedience of Jesus Christ and thus to serve as a sign of God’s redemptive purposes for the world. [The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 193]
As we discussed in the first meeting together, some are hearers [spectators] of the Story and some are participants [players] in the Story. We can know a lot about the Story, but still not be involved with it. As characters, we are invited into the Story so that we can follow the Master in the on-going narrative in our different contexts. As we continue to live this Story together in community, our task is the discovery, understanding and transformation of everything about God and His world.
All this talk about Story, however, can evoke tales of fantasy, virtual-reality and make-believe. It is important to emphasize the truthfulness of this Great Story about God and his people. If it is not based on a true story, then there is no reason to be intimately and passionately involved with it [I Cor 15:13-15]!
The best setting to read the Bible is in a small community that interprets and performs the story together in its own specific context of kingdom work, witness and worship. These diverse communities each believe that the risen Jesus is present with them [see Matthew 1:23; 18:20; 28:18-20]. This is the vital ‘link,’ what McClendon calls ‘this is that’—the Christ we know in worship is the very same Christ that lived, died and rose in the Story that we read in Scripture. Our community today is linked with this same Jesus and the original band of disciples back then! We find ourselves in a continuing narrative of an active living Lord who guides, convicts and comforts our community as we read together and make practical decisions for our unique life [this is called ‘discernment’…more on this key component of community later].
The other key ‘link’ in our practice of Bible-reading is between what McClendon calls the ‘plain sense’ of a passage and its ‘spiritual sense.’ The plain sense is found when the community interprets Scripture using all the tools available in order to understand what the passage is doing. The spiritual sense is ‘the point’ of the passage—-this is where so many different brands of Christianity travel different specific paths with all the different ways they answer the key question:
How does the story of Jesus come to bear upon our world?
‘This is that’ is the pattern of how the very first Christians read the Bible together [see how Peter reads from the prophet Joel in Acts 2]. Scripture had an original message to an original audience, but later communities read and re-read these same passages together and God spoke to them, in different ways, as a new audience in a new context. It is a Bible reading strategy that takes time, effort, and an imagination to ‘link’ the Great Story with our very different circumstances today—2000 years later!
The worry of many Christians coming from the standpoint of the last 250 years of Bible readings is that this kind of ‘imaginative’ reading in diverse communities will lead to ‘relativism,’ where everyone kind of shrugs their shoulders, admitting that truth is impossible to locate and, then, goes their own merry way. However, ‘relativism’ is the last thing that the ‘baptist vision’ reading strategy is caving into. Instead, this strategy humbly admits that all our ‘readings’ are ‘interpretations’ and that every community has radically different needs, life experiences, agendas and preconceived notions that cannot be suppressed or wiped clean. In short, there is no such thing as a ‘blank slate’ or ‘pure objectivity.’ We pray and interpret the Scriptures with all the resources that we have and then seek to ‘discern’ what the Spirit of Jesus is telling our community about ‘the point’ of the passage. We interpret the passage and then take responsibility for living it. We own it.
To help us with our interpretations, the late Harvard Bible scholar Hans Frei proposed two simple ‘rules’ to guide communities—the interpretations should:
1. Be ‘Christocentric’—-how Jesus is described in one passage of Scripture should not be denied by an interpretation of another passage of Scripture.
2. Respect the universality of the gospel:
the promises to Abraham, to Israel, and to David are extended through Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, and so to all people who receive the good news. [Doctrine, 39]
Richard B. Hays, in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, more recently proposed three focal images that help shape and critique the diversity of communal interpretations [MVNT, Chapter 10]. They also provide a sort of ‘rule’ to protect us from suspect interpretations. These three images are ‘lenses’ that help us to understand, in a deeper way, how God is calling our community into the Great Story:
1. Community—a countercultural community of discipleship, and this community is the primary addressee of God’s imperatives
2. Cross—the paradigm for faithfulness to God in this world
3. New Creation—the church embodies the power of the resurrection in the midst of a not-yet-redeemed world
**However, it should be noted that Princeton Theologian Brian Blount has written a New Testament ethics called Then the Whisper Put on Flesh  that takes account of African-American communities viewing Scripture through a the lens of ‘liberation’—-God working through the Great Story, from the exodus through exile to Jesus Christ to the church, to liberate his people. These diverse lenses offer great examples of the variety of interpretations cherished by McClendon’s ‘baptist vision.’
The ‘baptist vision’ calls communities to partake in the on-going Great Story. This story tells of the riveting main CHARACTER—-Jesus of Nazareth who, at the climax, is given the death penalty and abandoned by everyone, but is raised by God after three days and his presence remains to this day through the Spirit. It also tells of other characters who are the people of the living God, from Israel to the 12 original Jesus followers to the early church. We continue to identify with these imperfect, stumbling, bumbling, sincere disciples. The PLOT [and subplots] of this Great Story focuses on the creation and redemption of these ‘other’ characters. We continue to live out this PLOT-LINE, inviting others to be a part of what God is doing in the world. And lastly, the SETTING of the Great Story is none other than the rule of God, inaugurated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and will be fully consummated we he appears once again in the indefinite future. This continued kingdom setting gives great power [through the presence of the Spirit of Jesus] and hope that the pain, sorrow, sin and shame will all vanish soon!
So, how then does Scripture have authority if ‘objective’ or ‘absolute’ Truth was just a modern mirage? Here is one way McClendon puts it:
Whenever [the Bible] speaks, its story not only supports and conserves, but challenges, corrects, and sometimes flatly defeats the tales we tell ourselves about ourselves. God’s Spirit who breathed upon the writers of Scripture breathes also on us, sometimes harshly. The consequence is that our stubborn wills are turned, our blind eyes opened, our arrhythmic hearts set beating in tempo. This is not always immediate and is never without ugly exceptions; but it happens often enough to confirm our faith in the Author of the Book. [Doctrine, 41]
1. How is this Bible ‘reading strategy’ different than other strategies that you’ve become familiar with? What do you think? What are your questions about how it works out?
2. Re-read McClendon’s version of the Great Story. What are your ‘impressions?’ Are there aspects of the Great Story from your experiences of interpreting and living the Bible that you would want to include and emphasize?
3. Explain how the Great Story from the Bible is an on-going narrative. Why is this so important to emphasize for Christian lifestyle?
4. Why do you think McClendon shies away from words like ‘inerrant’ and ‘infallible’ when describing the Bible?
For Further Reading:
Ethics [Chapter 1 and 12] and Doctrine [Chapters 1 and 11] by James McClendon
The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative by Hans Frei
The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard B. Hays
The Art of Reading Scripture edited by Richard B. Hays & Ellen Davis
Texts Under Negotiation by Walter Brueggemann
Theology on the Road to Emmaus by Nicholas Lash
The Story We Find Ourselves In by Brian McLaren
A reading strategy for communities in suburban Southern California should seriously take into consideration the early decision by the church at-large to include the four Gospels in the New Testament [Mark, Matthew, Luke, John]. In the 3rd century, there were numerous Gospels available that did not make the cut. Two important factors that separate these four Gospels from the others are (1) they are all narratives, full stories about Jesus and his Way instead of a collection of sayings or ethical commands and (2) they all include the road to suffering through the cross. The narrative form of our Gospels supports the story-formed ethic of McClendon. The story of Jesus continues the story of what God has done in Israel for the world. Like the original hearers of these Gospels, we too are invited to identify with Jesus the Master and the disciples who followed him ever imperfectly.
The focus on the cross beckons suburbanite Christians into a gospel story that entails non-conformity, humility, service and pain. Communities that live quite comfortably in the midst of wealth, technology, opportunity and sunshine must take this counter-cultural story seriously. As characters in the on-going story of the cross-bearing people of God, we must ask difficult questions about a far-more radical lifestyle than our churches are currently pitching.