What is the Bible? Part Three. Jo’s Encounter; Why Love Matters And How The Bible is The Greatest Story Ever Told
It’s said ‘he who tells the best story wins,’ that the most compelling views of the world are the ones to capture our hearts. Personally, this is why I find the story of Jesus so captivating and the means through which it is told and foretold through the scriptures so fascinating.
Yet ask someone about the church and the story it speaks, and they can more easily tell you what it’s against, rather than what we are for? But this is the question we must answer. If we want to capture hearts – and especially those of a new generation, we will have to learn to tell a better story.
As I see it, one problem is we’ve allowed our faith to be built on proof texts or sound bites. The challenge with this – it doesn’t provide any context and context is everything.
And this is where narrative theology helps.
This is where story comes to our rescue.
We all love stories – stories capture and compel. Who can resist a love story – a tragedy, or a hero movie? Stories draw us in – they educate, inspire, and dig deep into the heart. People will sit and watch box sets back to back – why? Because of the compelling story.
Stories humanise, they give life meaning and purpose – we can champion the hero, boo down the villain – even put ourselves in the key role: ‘The names Bond, James Bond!’
Of the biblical story….
Sadly, we’ve reduced the biblical story so often to an eternity question. Where do you go when you die? Yet Jesus doesn’t ask the disciples if they want to go to heaven but rather, do they want to follow him – in the here and now: to join the revolution.
Do you want to go to heaven and escape hell when you die? Do people really care? The very question lacks existential urgency. Why have we reduced faith to this? I believe it’s because we’ve lost the heart of the story in all its beauty and brilliance. There is no sense of greatness in the message – nothing to draw us out, to pull us along. To remind us we are worth more. We are worth more than the drink we can’t escape; the debt we can’t flee; the job that gets us down – the partner that beats us up. That’s hell. If we want to talk about hell – let’s talk about the hell in Somalia; the hell in the Yemen; the hell in the tiny boats bobbing up and down in the Mediterranean full of immigrants; the hell on the streets of our own city where people have no roof over their heads.
We need to find a better story – and to find a better story we need to live a different life.
Recently my wife Jo was walking past TK Max when a young woman approached her.
‘I’ve been asking all day for help, and no one has stopped.’ She was crying.
‘Please can you help me, I don’t know what I am going to do.’ Jo asks her name and she tells her. ‘And my name is Jo.’
‘I need £18 to get to a hostel,’ the lady says, ‘I don’t know what I am going to do.’
Jo reaches for her purse and gives her ten pounds and then finds another three pounds, and she hugs her.
‘Oh, thank you; thank you – thank you so much.’ The lady replies.
‘I am sure you would do the same if you could.’ says Jo.
‘I would, yes, I would.’
‘Have you been to church? Jo says.
‘I was once desperate, and I cried out to God and I am going to think about it again.’
‘God loves you, and cares for you.’ says Jo.
The lady comes and hugs her, again.
‘Thank you; thank you.’ She says, and with that exchange Jo steps away.
The story is moving and powerful and we all want to be the person that stopped – we all want to be the one who gave the £10. Why? Because the story humanises us. It restores – it speaks of who we really are.
Which is why stories are amazing. They teach us so much.
Some enrich the heart – others, like this next one, expose it.
The Story of David and Bathsheba
David is the king of Israel. He is the top person in the land and has eyes for Bathsheba. He’s spotted her bathing naked on the roof of her home and plans to get her to the palace where they have sex together. When Bathsheba discovers she’s pregnant, David hatches a plan to save his own exposure which involved bringing her husband back from the frontline and allowing him to spend the evening with his wife.
Kind David assumes the two will have sex and the pregnancy will be assumed to be their own. What David doesn’t account for is the integrity of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah who because his fellow soldiers are at war refuses to sleep with her and stays at the entrance to the palace rather than going home. The following day, David invites Uriah to eat with him and gets him drunk – again trying to get him to sleep with his wife and again he refuses.
Finally, David sends Uriah back to fight and instructs the commander to place him in the frontline and then issues an order to retreat leaving Uriah exposed and as a result he is killed.
And then Nathan the prophet turns up and says…
‘There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
‘Now a traveller came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveller who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.’
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.’
Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!
A story like this tells us all we know need to know about power, lust, corruption – but of course they are ancient stories – they have nothing to teach us about today!
Stories live because stories speak – that’s why the likes of Jordan Peterson are packing auditoriums the world over – and why his Bible series has received millions of hits on you tube.
When stories like this were being told in biblical times there was no Bible. Simply Oral Tradition – stories told – and then retold and told again, until eventually as writing evolved they started to be compiled and then sometime, probably after the Babylonian Captivity and as the prophets faded from the scene and the scribes appeared, did they start to patch together this quilt that we now know as the Hebrew scriptures.
Canonical consciousness arose over time – the books of the Bible as we have them were not written in the order presented to us, but compilers would obviously want to show them in that way since it makes so much sense – it adds context and continuity to the story being told.
And this is the important thing – the story being told. And why it’s been told. And why it’s lasted – and why it won’t go away. It can’t go away because it’s both true – and speaks to what is true in each of us.
And the story – this great story – the story into which all other stories, Jo’s story, David and Bathsheba’s story – your story and mine fit.
And it all starts in a garden. As N.T. Wright writes: ‘Genesis begins in a garden-temple in which earth is infused with heaven. Adam and Eve, representing an intransigent humanity, abandon their role as stewards of God’s good creation and are quickly enslaved by non-divine “powers.” Genesis describes the rapid unravelling of God’s loving intention, culminating with the tower of Babel.’
So, the great story starts in a garden – a place of real beauty. Mythically, allegorically, literally, metaphorically – you take your pick – but the reason this great story lives is not because of genre – but because of beauty and then tragedy. It lives because inside every heart there is this point of identification – we are of Adam and of Eve – and we have all fallen short of the ideal.
It's the garden of creation – of Eden, in fact. Paradise – life as it was always intended to be. The story – given verbatim some would say to Moses, God’s prophet. Compiled – as others would argue by God’s people desperate to capture their identity having been robbed by an army of brutes’ intent on holding them slaves again.
And now, as a captured people, exiled to a foreign land – it is there by the rivers of Babylon where they wept as they remembered Zion that a new earnestness arose to tell their own story – we are not lost, we may be captured but will one day return.
Now here’s an interesting thing…
(with thanks to Scott McKnight – A God More Interesting than Creationism (Jason Micheli) for the following piece.)
In 1849 Austen Henry Layard excavated the ruined Library of Ashurbanipal in Mosul, Iraq. In the ruins of that library, Austen Henry Layard discovered the original creation story.
In the beginning, when the earth was without form and chaos and dark waters covered the face of the deep, god brought forth life.
On the first day, there was light. Light that emanated from god and god separated the light from the darkness.
On the second day, god created the firmament; god created a dome to push back the waters and god called it sky.
On the third day, god gathered the waters in one place so that dry land could appear.
On the fourth day, god created the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky and named them.
And day six god created humankind to do god’s work and on day seven god rested and exalted in celebration for what he done.
It sounds familiar?
And this work of creation – it all begins, when Marduk, a young warrior god, slays his mother, Tiamat, the goddess of chaos, with weapons of wind, lightning and thunder.
And with one half of Tiamat’s carcass, Marduk creates land. With the other half of her body, Marduk fashions the heavens.
And then Marduk declares:
“Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.”
And then from the blood of a slain god, Markduk creates man and woman.
To be his slaves.
As he reigns in Babylon.
It was around 2000 BC when this creation story, this Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, was first written down, and probably it was spoken long before that.
2,000 BC: which is, roughly, 1500 years before our creation story in Genesis.
Take a guess where we got our story.
587 BC: That’s the year Babylon invaded Israel, destroyed the Temple, and left the Promised Land in smoldering ruins and carried God’s People back to Babylon in chains.
587 BC: The first year of the Babylonian Captivity. The first year Babylon tried to do what any captors do to their captives: Convince them that there’s no plan or purpose or point to life.
And thus there’s no hope for yours.
Convince them that this world is a dark, violent, eye-for-a-tooth place.
And thus it’s naive to expect anything but suffering to come your way.
Convince them that its written into the fabric of creation:
That we’re made from the blood of victims.
Thus, don’t be surprised if someone makes you their victim.
The world is the way it is because the gods are who they are.
586 BC and 585 BC and 584 BC and every year for the next 50 years.
Those are all the years of their captivity that Israel didn’t give up faith.
Those are the dates that Israel, despite their suffering, refused to worship Babylon’s gods.
Because Israel already knew who God was: the one, true God.
That God had heard their cries when they were slaves in Egypt.
Israel already knew the capital G God.
And so in 586 and 585 and 584 and for years after that, they didn’t bow down to Babylon’s story.
No. They co-opted it.
They took it and they changed it.
To stick it in the eye of their captors.
Because they knew: There’s only one God.
There was nothing before creation but God.
God created from nothing.
And because God created out of nothing, this world: it’s a gift.
You and I: a gift.
Everything around us, every living thing, your neighbour, even your enemy.
Gift. All of it. It’s all good.
It’s all given just so God can share his life with us.
Did Israel take Babylon’s story and make it their own.
Because they already knew:
… because they already new….
You and I – were not made from the blood of victims.
We’re not made to fight and struggle with each other.
We’re made to reflect this God. We’re made in God’s image.
We’re made to give and to love and to listen and to forgive.
And to share our life with God.
And if we’re made to share God’s life
Then you can’t say life is pointless.
Because it couldn’t have a bigger POINT.
Did God’s people take Babylon’s story and make it their own?
Or did Moses write it all down – and they took it with them: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Whichever, what we know is that this creation story – the Genesis of Creation paints a very different picture to that of Enuma Elish.
This story is borne of another intention – it tells of the Divine purpose. Intimacy, love, fellowship – of beauty in the garden, of joy in life. It is, as Wright points out, ‘a garden-temple in which earth is infused with heaven’.
And temples matter – because temples carry beauty, and architecture, tranquillity, character – and peace.
Temples matter because they carry the essence of the God they represent.
And so, the story – the wonderful story is all about a temple – a place of beauty, tranquillity, peace, connection.
We go to the temple to meet with God. We go to the temple to pray. We go to the temple to commune – we go the temple – because that’s where we belong, where we discover who we are and why we are here.
When God created the garden, he made a temple – a place where he could walk in the cool of the evening and commune with his creation. God’s intention still is that ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14).
It’s here in the temple where heaven meets earth – or as Wright puts it an ‘“inaugurated eschatology” gradually unfolding until earth and heaven are one,...” From the ministry of Jesus until the last trumpet sounds, love is the only arrow in God’s quiver.’
And love is at the heart of the temple – because that’s who God is, which is why this story of love is the greatest story ever told.