The Bible is a central thing to Christianity. We read from it every week in worship. We speak about it in sermons and quote from it in our songs and prayers. Most denominations encourage individuals to have their own copy and read it regularly. And yet I often find that in conversation and study with people, many are still asking a very basic question: What is the Bible anyway? What kind of book is this?
Many people think of the Bible as a rule book that contains God’s commands for us to follow. Certainly there are “rules” or laws in the Bible (like Leviticus, Proverbs, and James), but there are huge sections of the Bible that aren’t. Some might call it a history book. Again, parts of it are history, but there is also poetry, letters, and symbolic books (like Revelation). Some like to think of it as a book of advice for living, but as Christians we believe that God is wanting to give us eternal life, not just advice. Some call it scary or confusing and they avoid reading it at all, but hiding from it doesn’t help us grow as people of God.
As I've read, studied, and taught this great book, I’m going to propose a different image that I've come to appreciate. I think the Bible is a storybook.
Now before you go thinking that I’m calling this holy text a children’s book, let me explain what I mean by “story.” When I use the word “story,” I don’t mean something made up. Far from it. Stories are the narratives that shape our identity and tell us who we are. They are core to who we are as individuals and communities. Let me give you two examples.
*When I was growing up, I heard a lot of stories about the ministers in my family history. One was a missionary, two served in the Upper Midwest, and one taught at seminary. Hearing about their work gave me the sense as a young person that our family answers God’s call when it comes, we are proud to be Lutheran, and we value education. Those ideas shaped how I understood myself and my family and who I’ve become.
*As Americans, we tell stories about how we conquer adversity. From the Revolution to the Depression to Pearl Harbor, whenever America has struggled or been threatened, we pull together, work hard, fight back, and almost always win. Because we tell these stories, we believe we are a great country and that we can do anything. Those beliefs then shape our actions as a people.
The Bible tells us these kinds of stories. The stories of God’s people throughout time. Stories that shape who we are as God’s people today. They tell us the truth of how people have experienced God in their lives, how God has been active in our world, and how others have tried to describe God. Since we believe that God continues to reach out to us and be active in our world, these stories define for us who we are and how we fit into God’s continuing story of loving our world.
Therefore, the Bible's stories are also our story because we continue to have many of the same experiences that God’s people did long ago. In the song "Cover to Cover," singer Wes King puts it this way: “I’ve stood strong like Daniel; I’ve fallen like David; I’ve wandered in the desert like the Israelites; I’ve denied You like Peter: I’ve struggled like Paul; run from You like Jonah, but You loved me through it all.” When we see ourselves as part of these stories, they take new relevance to our own lives in a way that just rules or advice cannot. They shape our actions and purpose. Open the Bible. Join God’s story.
From the Gray,
"The more I read, the more I find, the more I have uncovered stories just like mine." -Wes King, "Cover to Cover"
(A version of this post first appeared in my church's newsletter in 2012. I decided to repost it as I've been reading "Shaped by the Story" by Michael Novelli, which has a similar thesis.)