The Bible—Episode Four and the Power of Narrative

March 26, 2013

Good television and good storytelling involves, among other things, setting up a conflict and working it out to its conclusion. How we tell the gospel story—or more importantly, how the Bible tells the story—builds suspense by illustrating the problem of human rebellion against God, exposing the conflict generated by that problem, and finding resolution. So often in evangelical presentations of the gospel, we cut right to the chase with an invitation (demand?) to seek forgiveness of one’s sin by believing in Jesus Christ. But without a backstory, that invitation can come across as meaningless to the postmodern or very possibly be misunderstood.

This is why New Tribes Mission, connecting with unreached people groups in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Pacific islands, does not present Jesus Christ as its first Bible story. Missionaries spend weeks if not months directing a dramatic presentation of the Old Testament, much as History Channel’s The Bible has done this month, from the very beginning. In a long, fruitful conversation with NTM’s Director of Field Ministries, Don Pederson, this morning, I asked him what the greatest benefits of a narrative/chronological presentation of Scripture are to the biblically illiterate. After decades of practice and research, he offered three primary advantages NTM has observed:

  1. A narrative approach enables a change in worldview based on the character of God. “In the beginning, God created . . .” establishes God’s holiness, righteousness, faithfulness, truth, power, and authority overall creation. Belief in Christ starts here with a shift from, say, animism or pantheism to monotheism.

  2. Narrative establishes an Old Testament framework for understanding otherwise cryptic references in the New Testament, like “the Messiah,” or “atonement,” or even “In the beginning . . .”

  3. After learning the full message starting with Creation, those who confess faith in Jesus Christ give testimonies that demonstrate a better understanding of the gospel, adoption of salvation by faith (not works righteousness), a full grasp of costly grace, and Christian discipleship relying on the power of God.

The five-part television series The Bible has supposedly been building a narrative around the human experience of relationship with God. It started out well, but as the series has progressed, those encounters with God have become strained and even a bit confusing. I believe this spiritual distance may be part of the story. However, in place of the spiritual movement afoot, the viewer is getting more detail (from extra-biblical sources) of political twists and turns and the violence associated with transitions. The angst we detect going into the fourth episode is over the safety and wellbeing of ordinary people in the face of religious persecution—the justice issue, and a real one at that—more than the spiritual issue of faith.

In the fourth installment this week, the ministry and miracles of Jesus are presented (with uneven accuracy) to give the viewer an opportunity to assess whether the man from Galilee was a fraud, as Caiaphas accused, or the One fulfilling God’s promise of a Messiah, as the Palm Sunday crowds proclaimed. We can be thankful that the miraculous quality of these events is not questioned. But Jesus’ reaction to the clamor and accolades, in the short term, would confuse both the Pharisees and the common people, setting up the tension that leads to the question, “Why was Jesus crucified?”

The story sets up and chronicles a conflict that culminates in Jesus’ arrest and trial before Caiaphas, the High Priest in Jerusalem. The seeds of this conflict are planted early, at the local level, with a Galilean rabbi watching his congregation flock to hear the new itinerant preacher and watch him perform miracles. [I know, I know, some pastors feel this happen when a new mega-church is planted in their neighborhood.] The confrontations surround actions the Pharisees believe only God can claim: for instance, when Jesus forgives the sin of the paralytic lowered through the roof. The charge against Jesus is blasphemy. This is a particularly Jewish concern, a theological one.

There is a second conflict depicted between the Jews, represented by Caiaphas, and the Romans, represented by Pontius Pilate. Caiaphas acts the politician, trying to keep things calm at Passover, so as not to raise the ire of the Romans. As long as life at the Temple is orderly and non-violent, the Romans have no complaint and allow ceremonies to continue. But Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem gets the crowd whipped up, and the High Priest is worried that any disorderly conduct may incite Pilate “to shut down the Temple.” The fear of losing the Temple and freedom to worship in and of itself would be a religious concern. But we also get wind of a power and control issue, aggravated by Jesus’ comment, “See those [Temple] buildings? Not one stone will be left standing.” The spiritual elite worry that Jewish life (and their jobs) will be jeopardized. Whether this happens by action of the “fraud” Jesus or of the Romans, it is still a threat and the stakes are high. Caiaphas indeed walks a tense line.

So what is the “expected” resolution? The people think it would be Jesus rising to become the political Messiah who vanquishes the Romans and reigns forever in peace. The High Priest believes it would be getting rid of the rabble-rouser Jesus and keeping the peaceful status quo. The Romans don’t like the idea of a new king rising, especially one as popular with the masses as Jesus.  But all miss one essential point, and that is the diagnosis of the problem. According to the movie, they all view the issue as being one of social and political stability. The Pharisees see it as an issue of correct doctrine.

But how does Jesus see it? Jesus starts with a different diagnosis (sin), and his solution is counter-intuitive (obedience unto death). We get only a hint in this episode of what is in store (knowing humiliation and suffering are at the heart of it). I assume that those of us who know the end of the story are not in suspense, but I wonder if those unfamiliar with the biblical narrative are curious enough to stick around for the climax. If so, then our movie-makers are unleashing the power of the narrative. If not, then we may perhaps have been entertained by a script but not enlightened by God’s Word.

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