Reading the Bible like a novel 

There are parts of the Bible which are like a manual. But not a lot. It’s mostly story, poetry, and dream language.

Even the manual parts aren’t all that much like a manual. Sure, there are lots of details about the tabernacle, but there are no instructions on how to build one other than “hire an inspired artist.” The bits of Paul’s letters that include instructions are, again, very skimpy on the details. There are no detailed instructions on marriage, parenting, business, farming, and so on. Yes, there are bits on diet (don’t eat pigs or shellfish, but go ahead and eat these bugs) and on health care (eat well, keep a clean home, and visit your priest/doctor if you notice anything odd).

The Bible doesn’t want to be read like a manual. If it did, it would read more like a manual. But it doesn’t. It reads more like a story.

A few years ago, I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke. It’s a brilliantly written story which has recently been made into a televised show. But one of the things that struck me about the book was its footnotes. Throughout the entire novel, there were bunches of footnotes scattered, adding details and telling tangential stories. At first, I shook my head at these odd intrusions, finding them extraneous and distracting. But then the weight of them all combined began to have its effect on me. 

These footnote tangents made the world of the story more real to me. With each distracting detail, I established more roots in the world Clarke had planted. The same was true for me with all of the extra material about Middle Earth that Tolkien wrote outside of the Lord of the Rings books. Each random seeming fact and snippet of unrelated narrative invited me deeper into the world unfolding before me.

I love the quote, “Books fall open; you fall in.” It’s especially true with stories that grow in complexity and detail as you read them.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 9.31.10 AM.pngWe find this to be true when we enter the Scriptures as a story that’s packed with footnotes and sidebars and other odd but somehow important digressions. We need these somewhat distracting intrusions to deepen the World of God we enter in the Scriptures, but we also need to keep the basic narrative flow front and center. For, we are entering both the World of God and the Story of God in the Scriptures. Both are essential.

If we merely enter the World of God, we may enter as scientific observers, writing books and articles about it, but never getting caught up within it and the Story that takes place in its setting. We take field trips into it and then return to our own little World of Me. This is the problem of the Bible-as-manual approach.

If we merely enter the Story of God, we may get the Story wrong, misunderstanding what is going on and why by not understanding the who and the where and the when of it. Without the World of God, we can tend to make the Story of God really about me, the Story of Me. But by entering the differentness of the World of God, we begin to understand that the Story of God is also different from and bigger than our own stories. We get into it, but it’s not primarily our story, it’s God’s Story.

There are many who have removed all of the World of God stuff and tried to give us the Story of God by itself — Walter Wangerin’s The Book of God is just one of plenty — and each of these have their merits. They return the narrative to the front and center. And lots of us need that to keep the details of the World of God from overwhelming us. But, again, the World of God details are what make the Story of God real and livable.

So, I recommend both. And I suggest always having in the back of our minds these two questions:

How is what I’m reading in the Scriptures showing me the details of the World of God, filling with furniture and artwork the otherwise empty room of my imagination about God?

How is what I’m reading in the Scriptures telling me the Story of God, drawing me in and giving both all of history and my own little story meaning as participants in this vast and glorious Story?

Reading good novels helps us with this, for the best novels convince us of the World they take place in and draw us into the Story they are telling. This is the benefit of reading the Bible like a novel: not to make it less real, but to make it more real.