When I was a little girl, my father used to take my brothers and me on camping trips. At first I believed that we took these trips because my father loved the outdoors. As I grew older, I began to realize that what my father loved more than anything was a comfortable bed, a solid roof over his head, and predictable access to the evening news on a TV set. I struggled to make sense of these facts as they related to camping. Why on earth had we spent weekends out in the elements eating out of tin cans when my father was so clearly not a lover of outdoor adventures? When I became a parent myself, the reason became clear: He had not taken us camping because he loved camping; he had taken us camp- ing because he loved us. As his purpose became clear to me, his willingness to forgo creature comforts for mosquito repellent and tent pegs also began to make perfect sense.
Every good endeavor should be done with purpose. Without a clear sense of purpose, our efforts to do a good thing well can flounder. But with a clear purpose, we are far more likely to persevere. This is certainly true of building Bible literacy—it takes effort to build, but maintaining a clear sense of purpose sustains us in our labor. How can we begin to be more purposeful in the way we approach Bible study?
It might seem terribly obvious to say that we should study the Bible with purpose. Certainly, we all have some purpose in mind when we begin to study... to make us feel a certain way, to help us make decisions, to help us with self-discovery. But we want to have in mind the purpose that the Bible itself intends us to have when we open its cover. No lesser purpose will do.
We have already considered that the Bible is a book about God, but now let’s consider that truth in more specific terms. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is telling us about the reign and rule of God. This is the Big Story of the Bible, the purpose for which it was written. Each of its sixty-six books contributes to telling this Big Story—a story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. The Bible purposes to tell us this Big Story in a thousand smaller stories, from its first page to its last.
It follows, then, that our purpose in studying must be to look for that Big Story each time we go to the Scriptures. We should study asking not just what a particular portion of Scripture wants to tell us, but how that portion of Scripture is telling us the Big Story of the Bible as a whole. Studying the Bible with purpose means keeping its overarching message in view at all times, whether we are in the Old Testament or the New, whether we are in the Minor Prophets or the Gospels. In order to do this, we must “pan out” from any one particular book or passage and gain an appreciation for how it plays its part in unfolding the Big Story.
What a Plane Ticket Taught Me
I gained a clearer understanding of this Big Story principle on a vacation. Most vacations find our family making the ten-hour drive from Dallas, Texas, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to spend time with grandparents. We have grown accustomed to the trip—coffee stop in Wichita Falls, lunch in Amarillo, snack in Tucumcari. The scenery on the drive is intermittently spectacular, and the kids know exactly where I will tell them to drop whatever they are doing to enjoy a mandatory “nature moment.” My husband is a lover of maps, and his faithful recitation of the topographical changes to the landscape is always a hit:
“We’re on the southern plains now...”
“Just entered the Red River Valley...”
“Here we go up onto the Llano Estacado...”
“We’re dropping into the Mesalands...”
The fact that he even knows these details has always been a marvel to me. His high school geography teacher should be basking in the glow of a job well done. And mine should be languishing in obscurity: I haven’t known the topography because I was never taught the topography.
So it wasn’t until I had a reason to fly out to Santa Fe that I began to fully appreciate what my husband knew. As we lifted off and turned west, I suddenly realized I was watching the southern plains unfurl beneath me, transected by the Red River Valley, punctuated by the Llano Estacado. I saw the fingers of the Mesalands reaching toward the mountains in the north. I saw from a birds-eye view the story I had only appreciated in part, and suddenly all the intermittently spectacular moments of the drive fit together into one continuous and stunning landscape. The perspective I gained on that flight forever changed the way I perceived the drive. For the price of a plane ticket, my children gained not one, but two parents babbling about topography for ten hours each holiday.
The Big Story of the Bible
The Bible has its own topography, its own set of “geographical features” that fit together to form one continuous and stunning landscape. But many of us have never bought the plane ticket to understand its contours. Many of us, after years in the church, don’t know the topography because we haven’t been taught the topography. We know when we are seeing something beautiful in the pages of Scripture, but we don’t always know how what we are seeing fits with the rest of the story. Our understanding of Scripture is a fragmented series of “nature moments” that may move us deeply but do not necessarily connect together to reveal the bigger picture.
But without the bigger picture, we can gain only a partial appreciation of what any individual snapshot is trying to tell us. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible is telling us about the reign and rule of God. Its topography speaks of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration in every vista. The topography of the Big Story is populated with different genres of writing—Historical Narrative, Poetry, Wisdom Literature, Law, Prophecy, Parables, Epistles—all conspiring to expand our understanding of the reign and rule of God in different ways.
The idea of a bigger story explaining smaller stories is not unique to the Bible. Scholars call it the metanarrative—the comprehensive explanation or guiding theme that illumines all other themes in a text. A metanarrative is essentially a story about stories, encompassing and explaining the “little stories” it overarches. The metanarrative of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind could be described as a story of oppression, transformation, and self-reliance. The novel’s big story is told from different angles through the individual stories of the book’s characters.
As a gardener, I can’t help but think of metanarrative in gardening terms. Just as the Bible’s metanarrative is one creation-fall-redemption-restoration, the gardener’s meta-narrative is the story of winter, spring, summer, and fall. Every plant and tree in my yard tells its own unique story in flower, fruit, and leaf, but each of those stories points to the bigger story of the passing of the seasons. If I had no understanding of seasons, I might not understand why my tree was suddenly yellow instead of green. I might misinterpret this change to be a sign of disease, rather than an indicator of autumn. Because I understand the metanarrative of gardening, I do not look for tomatoes on my tomato plant in the winter. Nor do I ask my jasmine vine to bloom in the fall. I can interpret my plants’ behaviors in light of what season we are in, and I can watch them for signs of what part of the gardening metanarrative is next.
Our disconnect from the metanarrative of the Bible can render us much like a gardener who fails to recognize colored leaves as a sign of autumn rather than a sign of disease. When we are fuzzy about the Big Story, we may have diculty finding continuity between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. We may have trouble relating to the Old Testament at all. We may misinterpret the purpose or emphasis of a smaller story because we have considered it apart from its relationship to the Big Story.
So, consider how the metanarrative of creation-fall-redemption-restoration acts as the Big Story that guides and informs all the small stories. From the window of the airplane, we can look down on the Bible’s landscape and note that the creation story is introduced in >Genesis 1–2: God creates all things for his glory in an orderly manner. He creates man in his image. The fall is introduced in Genesis 3: man tries to usurp God’s authority, relationship with God is broken, the cosmos is fractured. The theme of redemption is introduced immediately in Genesis 3:15, with the promise of salvation coming through Eve. In the rest of Genesis and Exodus, the plan for redemption takes the shape of a people chosen by God—the descendants of Abraham, the nation of Israel. The theme of redemption is explored throughout the rest of the Old Testament from various angles, ultimately pointing toward the perfect redemptive work of Christ on the cross retold to us in the Gospels and explored in the Epistles. The New Testament reinforces and expands our understanding of redemption, assuring us that salvation has been accomplished, urging us to pursue sanctification, and encouraging us to hope in a future glorification. In Revelation, we see the restoration of order to the cosmos: God reestablishes perfect order with the creation of a new heaven and new earth.
Knowing how a particular book of the Bible relates to the Big Story is important, but the individual elements of the creation-fall-redemption-restoration theme can also occur in the smaller stories of the Bible, in various combinations. Our task is to search for these themes as we study.
Taken from Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds, by Jen Wilkin. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
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