The Bible is an unfinished play and the church must envision the missing middle scenes.
My kids got their good taste in music from me. They’re a little obsessive about it, though. Every time we get in the van, they want to listen to one particular bluegrass album over and over and over: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder’s Live at the Charleston Music Hall.
One song, “A Simple Life,” proclaims, “My favorite book was wrote about a man that died to save my soul.” Whether he realizes it or not, Skaggs makes a profound claim with this simple lyric: the Bible is story.
Yes, the Bible contains history, law, poetry, prophecy, end-time writings, and more. But the Bible is story. Sacred story. It is the story of a holy God who out of love creates a good world, and a story of that world’s rebellion. It is the story of that God acting decisively in history to redeem the world, and a story of the people of God living out God’s salvation throughout the world. The Bible is story.
The Missing Middle Scenes
British New Testament scholar N. T. Wright compares the Bible to a newly discovered unfinished Shakespearean play. (For more on this idea, read N. T. Wright's paper, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative,” available at http://ntwrightpage.com.) The first acts are all complete; the final act is not. The final act has an opening and closing scene, but the middle scenes are missing. No one can definitively write the missing scenes, so copies are distributed to acting troupes around the world. These troupes, as Shakespearean experts, study these new manuscripts, apply their expertise and devise a way to act out the play. They bring it to completion in a way that is faithful to and in continuity with the manuscript they received.
In this way the Bible functions as story. The first acts tell the stories of creation, the fall, Israel, and Jesus. The last act tells the story of the church but it’s incomplete. Its first scene tells the story of the early church. Its final scene brings the story to its glorious conclusion. Between those two scenes is a vast expanse of missing material.
No one person, no single group, is qualified to complete the story. Instead, the church is given the Bible. Those churches are charged with studying the story, and applying their knowledge of God, the Bible, and their context to prayerfully live out the story. They must bring it to completion in a way that is faithful to and in continuity with the story they received. Understanding that the Bible is story changes everything.
A good story always prompts more questions than it answers.
The unanswered questions
For instance, a good story never answers every question. Story only answers those questions necessary to tell the story. Article of Faith IV makes this exact claim regarding the Holy Scriptures. The Bible does not reveal all things; it reveals “the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation” (italics mine).
The Bible does not provide direct answers for difficult moral questions raised by technological advances the biblical writers could not anticipate. It does not prescribe what forms of worship or ministry might be most faithful in a culture completely foreign to the biblical writers. These things are all part of Wright’s missing scenes.
Story never answers every question one might have; it only answers those questions necessary to accomplish its purpose. In fact, good story always prompts more questions than it answers.
The role of imagination
This highlights the importance of imagination. Story speaks the language of imagination. It engages the audience at the level of imagination. To be a people of the Bible we must be a people of imagination. We must read and hear the Bible first in our imagination.
We must faithfully and prayerfully imagine the kingdom God has created, and is creating, through Jesus of Nazareth. We must faithfully and prayerfully imagine the new heaven and new earth God is breathing into being through the Holy Spirit. We must imagine this reality because it is only there that we can imagine faithful and prayerful answers to the unanswered questions:
- How does the church respond to the difficult moral dilemmas of the day?
- How does the church minister to God and the world?
- How does the church fill the gap in Wright’s proposed play?
It imagines the kingdom the Bible imagines, and then it lives into that imagined kingdom here and now.
Engaging at the level of imagination, story frees us from captivity to black-and-white answers and opens us to a colorful world of possibilities. Far too often we assume that the questions the Bible leaves unanswered have clear-cut answers. This assumption usually results in debates and arguments about who is right and who is wrong. Instead, rather than providing one right answer among several wrong answers, story relies on imaginative interpretation to arrive at a faithful solution.
Beyond right and wrong
Different communities imagine different answers. They:
- Worship in different ways.
- Engage in different ministries.
- Handle difficult moral dilemmas in different ways.
- Take different routes in bringing Wright’s play to its faithful end, and that is all right.
Understanding the Bible as story frees us to move beyond the debate about who is right and who is wrong, and to live in a world of beautiful possibility alongside our siblings who have faithfully and prayerfully imagined different answers.
The world around us is searching for its story. Chaos always reigns in the absence of a coherent and compelling story. Fortunately, God has graced the world the story it needs— the story told in the Bible. The onus is now on the church to embrace the story, enter the story, and faithfully and prayerfully bring God’s story to life in our communities and all around the world.
Eric E. Frey is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. He serves the Church of the Nazarene in Toronto, Ohio, where he resides with his wife Antonina, and their three children—Pax, Pierce and Pria.