Character Study vs. Narrative Arc

Posted on June 21, 2012


As I am preparing to teach a course at Western Theological Seminary this fall, I am spending more time that usual reading about writing, stories, editing and the like. (I am still listening to Stieg Larrson’s novels on my commute. Come on, I can’t cut out all fiction.) In this effort to submerge myself in all things literary, I came across a collection by C.S. Lewis entitled Of Other Worlds. It consists of several essays and three or four short stories, the latter or which are probably only interesting for serious Lewis fans or scholars.

However, the essays are worth reading. I won’t lay out all their merits, leaving you to discover them for yourself. I will however, share an interesting idea that had it germination in one of Lewis’ essays defending, albeit with a soft touch, fiction, specifically science fiction, as the most appropriate form for certain themes. The essay was written at a time when science fiction was even more of a fringe literature than it is today.

The idea that surfaced during my reading was that Christians more often understand the Bible (and God) in terms of a character study and are less likely to view either in terms of a story. This has certain consequences.

Let me explain. A character study is:

a work in which the delineation of the central character’s personality is more important than the plot.

When we talk about the attributes of God, we are engaging in a character study. When we finish the sentence, “God is…” we do a character study. It doesn’t matter how we finish that sentence, the characteristics could be positive or negative, but by the very act of filling in the blank, you are relegating plot (or specific actions) to a secondary status at best and non-status at worst. God or the Bible become static.

It doesn’t matter how elaborate our arguments may be (most theological treatise are of this kind) or how emphatically we believe them, the flaw of a seeing God or the Bible in terms of a character study is that it does not reflect the view of God presented to us in the Bible (either in the Old Testament, the person of Jesus, or the movement of the Holy Spirit) nor does it reflect the reality of the life of the church throughout history, nor does it reflect our individual experience of the divine.

It is much more helpful is to understand God and the Bible in narrative terms.

But to do this you need to understand what a narrative is. In simplest terms, a narrative (or story) is a movement from one place to another. This could be an internal journey or one that includes traveling the vast reaches of outer space. It could be a movement which fundamentally changes you or one that brings you back to the same place you started, but which allows you to see it with new eyes. A narrative could involve one person, or a host of people, some of which leave our view for a time, but never stop moving and acting.

Understanding the narrative of God’s action in the world should be the focus of our lives. What is God doing? Where does God show up in the world? How can I become more attuned to the divine in my own life? What does God require of me? If God is the central character on the stage of history, how is God moving or changing though time?

The Bible plays the central role in helping us to answer these question and live out the answers, but we should not confuse the Bible as God’s action in the world. Jesus Christ is the pinnacle of God’s love for the world, but we should not for a second believe that it was God’s only action. Similarly, the church is a good place to learn about how God has been faithful in the past, but if we mistake church membership for the means of salvation we discredit both things.

I don’t know who God is. I don’t know which pronouns to use for God. He? She? It? Them? I don’t know if God is love, or if God loves. I don’t know how to reconcile myself to the pain and suffering in this world and still believe that an all-powerful God is watching over things. Every sticker I try to slap on God’s bumper requires me to scribble a little caveat underneath.

What I do know is when I understand God’s action in history in terms of a narrative arch, I see a God who is constantly trying to reconcile people to himself. I believe that every time God takes a step, it is always toward us.

In Genesis I see how the created order was shattered apart. I see how God called Abraham into a special relationship. God then widened the relationship to his children, then again to the nation of Israel. God reached out still further by providing guidance in how to live rightly: the law and the prophets. When the people wanted a king, God responded, but with fair warning. Sometimes the steps God took were confusing: exile, destruction, occupation of the promised land, but they were still steps toward us.

The biggest step was sending Jesus. Again, moving closer and at the same time widening his arms to draw more people in. We could now touch and feel the face and hands of God. But even this was not close enough for God. Every step God takes is toward us. And God was not done walking. So God sent his Spirit into the world, not so we can hold it and touch it, but so that it can live inside us and join with us and be part of who we are.

This idea is so profound and scary to me because if every step God takes is toward us…what will be next? Who will be invited in? I believe that God is not done leaving footprints on the soul of humanity. I believe God, through Jesus Christ, intends to “draw all people to [God]self” (John 12:32). This may take years. And we who already recognize and bask in the love of God may try to stem the “cup that overflows” (Psalm 23:5) because we fear we might be left holding an empty cup.

But if we believe that, then perhaps we really don’t understand anything at all about God.

Photo: Rick McCharles

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