Narrative Theology and Instruction Manuals

Did you ever have one of those experiences in youth group?

You go to camp. It’s awesome. The speaker brings serious A game. He stands in front, holds open the Bible, and proclaims the importance of reading this book:

This is the maker’s instruction manual for your life! If you want to know how your life is supposed to work, what you’re supposed to be doing with yourself to make things work correctly, read this!

Think about your car. You don’t put antifreeze in the gas tank or gas in the radiator. The owner’s manual tells you what to put where so that the vehicle will run appropriately.

That’s what God has given us in the Bible!

How many of us have celebrated that Bible? I know I did. And, I went home and did as I was told. I began to read.

It’s an old joke that many a well-intentioned reader of the Bible has run aground on the rocks of Leviticus. Indeed, before that there is quite a stack of tabernacle-building instruction that is not for the faint of heart.

And, frankly, there’s very little to that point that has anything to do with how I’m supposed to live my life.

Does the Bible show us God’s intentions for humanity? Undoubtedly. Is it the maker’s owner manual for living life on earth? The metaphor is hard to sustain (to say the least).

Narrative theology attempts to articulate an ethic that does justice to the diachronic (across time) nature of the biblical texts, the developing nature of theology across time, and the storied nature of our faith.

In other words, it calls us to a way of life that is not an add-on, but integral to the defining Christian story.

One of the perpetual conundrums of the Christian story is the question of (dis)continuity between OT and NT. Across Scripture, however, there is a relatively constant movement: the imperative (what we’re supposed to do) flow from the indicatives (what God has already done for us).

In narrative theology, recognize that the great saving act of God that defines us as a people is now no longer what it once was. No longer do we swear, “As the Lord lives who brought us up out the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” As Jeremiah anticipated, the people of God now look to a greater deliverance as the defining marker of the identity of God (Jer 16:14; 23:7).

The defining moment of our narrative is the climactic story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Our God is now quintessentially the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the God who justifies the ungodly, the King whose kingdom has come near.

To treat the whole Bible as an owner’s manual is sort of like trying to run your 2010 Camry by the Model T owner’s manual. Yes, you’re dealing with cars. Yes, there are some basic similarities across time. But there is a new moment that demands a new set of instructions.

In Christian terms, the Christ story transforms human vocation, or crystalizes human vocation, with Jesus cross-centered call to self-giving love so that the other might live.

While both OT and NT summon us to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” it is only with the cross that we learn what divine love fully looks like, and what the great call of neighbor-love fully entails.

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