Preaching through the biblical narrative may be a daunting task. But perhaps it becomes less daunting if we frame it as a grand story. At the very least it would help lend a potential structure. Eugene Peterson tells us that all stories have basic elements. I like what he says and the questions he prompts enough that from this point on, I follow his lead. In order to assist with the recognition of the narrative shape of Scripture, he punctuates the following elements.
First, there is a beginning and an ending. “All stories take place in time and are bounded by a past and a future.” Peterson proposes that the bible (as well as other good stories) has both an original and a final goodness. Eden. Heaven.
Second, Peterson says that there is a catastrophe. The good beginning hits a bump. There is a barrier. Something stands in the way. A disaster occurs. And then, “we are, in other words, in the middle of a mess.”
Third, salvation enters the plot. Peterson says that “some faint memory reminds us that we were made for something better than this .” This creates a tension. We find ourselves in between the original good and the present evil. And a plan develops to get us out of our trouble – salvation. I rather like the way that Peterson frames our situation. He suggests that we are facing opposing forces while we fight “our way through difficult and unfamiliar territory to our true home.”
Fourth, characters develop. The actions of people are important. Personalities develop in the course of conflict and journey. Character and circumstance are in dynamic interplay with each other. Some people become better, some become worse. Nobody stays the same.
And finally, “everything has significance.” Peterson places emphasis on the fact that story implies an author. Nothing happens by chance. “Every word connects with every other word in the author’s mind, and so every detail, regardless of how it strikes us at first, belongs.”
He goes on to say that “all the world’s stories have these characteristics.” Whether implied or explicit these elements are there. And “they develop into tragedies, comedies, epics, confessions, murder mysteries, and gothic romances. Poets, dramatists, novelists, children, and parents have developed millions of variations on these elements.”
Peterson calls the bible a “huge, sprawling account that contains subject matter from several cultures, languages, and centuries.” He points out that Northrup Fry distinguishes the bible from other sacred books on account of its emphasis on narrative. He highlights how the narrative even shows itself in the arrangement of the Hebrew canon.
The Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) gives us the basic story. The Prophets (Joshua through Malachi) take the basic story and introduce it into new situations across centuries “insisting that it be believed and obeyed in the present, not merely recited out of the past.” The Writings reflect on the story, assimilating them into wisdom (Job and Proverbs) and worship (Psalms).
The New Testament then takes on a parallel shape. The Gospels tell the basic story in a new Torah. The Epistles serve similarly to the Prophets as the story is told in an expanding world, preached over multiple journeys and conflicts across multiple geographical and cultural settings. Peterson even adds that Luke expands the four Gospels into a five-volume Torah (Acts) at the same time that he introduces the prophetical lives of Peter and Paul. James and Revelation are equivalent to the Writings, summing up in wisdom and worship the response of a people whose lives are shaped by story.
While I think that Peterson might allow some difference of opinion in the details, I think he would insist that scripture be read in this narrative framework where all the parts (proverbs, commandments, letters, visions, law, songs, prayer, genealogies) are included into a unified story. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “it is fatal to exegesis when this narrative sense is lost.”
Peterson becomes helpful for us as we attempt to preach through the bible. He helps us to see that every word fits into the larger context. This becomes especially important when we recognize that a great deal of context gets lost when words are written down. We lose “the tone of voice, the smell in the air, the wind on the cheek.” But the thing we do not lose is the basic narrative – language shaped into story.
Since this is the one part of context that we do have, it becomes important to be attentive to it. The Genesis to Revelation context. The basic story laid down in Torah and Gospel. The intrusion of story into history by Prophets and Epistles. The gathering response of Psalms and Revelation.
No matter when we preach, what text, or where, we want to remember that “God’s decision to use words as a means for revealing himself and shaping us means that we must pay attention both to what he says and to how he says it.”