The Bible is full of stories about people, real people with bodies and minds, and with an array of experiences, relationships and emotions. How odd, then, that we so often turn to the Bible as little more than an instruction manual for communal and personal life. What would happen if we expanded our reliance on the Bible to include seeing the people in its pages as companions in our life with God?
In a cursory survey of our Columbia Bible College library I found few resources to assist us in this quest—apart from historical novels based on biblical characters and a few old “dictionaries” of biblical persons.
The Bible is a major source in the work of Christian spiritual formation. Such formation takes place primarily in the context of relationships: we grow in faith in community. In a culture characterized by alienation and fragmentation, more than ever we need companions to walk with us in our lives as Jesus’ followers. No doubt the brothers and sisters we share life with in our churches are most significant for our formation, but the men and women of the Bible can also accompany us on the journey of following Jesus.
How can these biblical believers become our spiritual companions? In order for that to happen, we’ll need to shift our perspective in two ways. First, we must see the Bible as a story of real people, a collection of human narratives rather than a series of divine propositions. Second, we must embrace the women and men of the Bible as fellow travellers on the journey rather than as models of morality or objects of study.
A collection of stories about people
The Bible is a dynamic, living story of faith, not a static propositional statement of faith. From Genesis to Revelation the story unfolds. It is the story of the interaction between people and their Creator. Many people are part of this drama, from Abraham and Sarah and their growing family, to Ruth and Boaz, to kings and prophets, to Jesus and his disciples and followers. Even the people listed in genealogies and those who remain nameless are part of the story. Hebrews 11 invites us to an awareness of the “cloud of witnesses” cheering us on from the stands (Hebrews 12:1), who can also become our running partners in the race of life.
The climax of the salvation drama is a person, Jesus Christ, who brings together the divine and the human. Truth is a person, not a doctrine or statement. Jesus says, “I am . . . the truth.” God’s primary and ultimate revelation of what divinity is like is not a book but a person. The four gospels tell the story of this person, but the entire Bible includes the stories of the people who were the precursors to and the followers of Jesus.
The Bible is a story of people and their relationships with God. “The Bible is not concerned with right morality, right piety or right doctrine. Rather, it is concerned with right relationships between God and God’s people, between all the sisters and brothers in this community, and between God’s people and the created world,” writes Walter Brueggemann, in The Bible Makes Sense. The Bible is an ordinary book we can study and dissect, analyze and criticize, but we must remember that it is a living book. Its authors and characters are in conversation with us.
Maybe it would help if we gave up thinking of the Bible as a completed book and thought of it instead as an unfolding script in which we have been invited to play a role, following the lead of the main actors whose names and lines are recorded in it.
When we see the Bible as story, we begin to embrace its characters as companions who are like us. If I read the stories of people in the Bible propositionally, in order to extract lessons from them on how to live, I may end up feeling like a failure or perceiving them as failures.
Too often preachers have tried to extract three propositional truths from a story, when a better idea might be to see how we can gain a friend through encountering the text—someone who has already been down the road we are now travelling. In the midst of a difficult experience, I’d rather have an experienced friend walk with me than any number of people handing out advice.
One rejoinder might be that this approach will merely reinforce our bad habits and make us feel good, but it will not lead to transformation. I would counter that spiritual change rarely happens because we receive moral instruction on what we should or should not do.
Consider the example of Jesus, who most of the time taught by telling stories that people could enter into. His listeners did not necessarily feel good as a result; the stories didn’t reinforce their bad habits. Instead, his hearers were invited to identify with the characters and events of his stories, and thus they were challenged to see themselves differently. They gained a new perspective and, unless they were self-righteous and stuck in their ways and just got angry, they were transformed.
Something similar can happen to us when we identify with the stories of people in the Bible. “As we put ourselves into the situations of these men and women of God—not idealized out of all resemblance to truth, but in the real-life situation as the Bible presents them—we find something happening to us,” writes William Sanford LaSor in Great Personalities of the Bible. The God who met them, meets us.
A case study: Joseph
In the research and group work leading to the writing of my book Under Construction: Reframing Men’s Spirituality, I asked men, “Who’s your favourite Bible man?” Almost as many men in the Bible were mentioned as there were men responding! I concluded that no one man in the Bible can provide a complete model of male spirituality; different men identify with different men in the Bible.
The men I asked didn’t give a lot of votes to David and Moses and the Apostle Paul. Those they mentioned repeatedly included Jacob, because he struggled, and Thomas, because he had doubts. Neither struggles nor doubts make the front page news—not like David committing adultery or Moses committing murder—but struggles and doubts are the stuff of ordinary human life. I would guess that more women might identify with Ruth and her rather ordinary life, than with Esther, who won a beauty contest and became queen.
For the book, I chose Joseph as a spiritual companion. I could identify with Joseph’s internal struggles of pride, temptation and revenge. I have also experienced woundedness, alienation, reconciliation and vocational success, as he did. He is someone with whom I and other “ordinary” men might be able to identify.
All of Genesis 37-50 is one story, so one should really consider the entire narrative as one unit. But for our purposes here, a smaller, more manageable unit from the larger narrative can illustrate the two ways of reading a story.
Genesis 39:2-23 tells the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. It is a powerful story, and not only because Joseph as a young man resists his boss’s wife’s sexual advances. That obvious exterior story has given rise to any number of moralizing sermons about the three R’s of purity: resist, respond, run (or whatever other clever alliterative scheme the preacher can muster). If, instead, we consider the primary theme of the entire narrative—Yahweh’s protection of Joseph in order to save Joseph’s family—we might see a deeper message, one we can identify with as real human beings who face similar struggles and temptations. I, too, am tempted. I, too, struggle and vacillate in temptation: Will I be true to myself and God, maintaining my integrity, or will I yield to the momentary pleasure that boosts my ego in the present moment?
The former way of looking at the story may produce a clear message about proper moral behaviour, but the latter elicits our deeper reflection on spirituality and identity.
Seeing people in the Bible as companions rather than models leads, in the long run, to deeper transformation. The former approach is more like the parent who runs through a list of dos and don’ts for the teenager leaving the house; the latter is more like a call to remember who you are. Our identification with people in biblical stories helps form an intrinsic morality coming from within rather than being imposed from outside.
In the former approach, negative stories provide models of what not to do, and from positive stories we derive models of what to do. But when we see people in the Bible as companions on the journey, the most important thing is not identifying a moral of the story tacked on at the end; the most important thing is the story itself.
We usually reject or ignore the advice of “friends” who tell us just what we should do. Real friends walk with us and help us discern our path by sharing out of their own experiences. When we see the journey of a friend, we see our own course more clearly. The stories of people in the Bible can function similarly. Women and men of the Bible become our friends, and then in their stories we see our own more clearly and we begin to be transformed by the grand story of the gospel.
Seeing the women and men of the Bible as a “cloud of witnesses” is not a new idea, but one to which we do well to give renewed emphasis in these times when people crave companions on the way.
Gareth Brandt is professor of spiritual formation at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, B.C. Reprinted with permission from Vision, Fall 2010, Vol 11 No. 2 (bit.ly/teaching-bible).
1. Who is your favourite character in the Bible? Which character would you most like as a friend or a spiritual companion? What makes that person appealing? Are there people in the Bible you would not like to meet?
2. Gareth Brandt says that we “often turn to the Bible as little more than an instruction manual.” Do you agree? How effective is moral instruction in bringing spiritual change? Are Jesus’ sermons or stories more compelling for us today? If so, why?
3. Brandt writes, “Truth is a person, not a doctrine or statement.” What are the implications of thinking about truth as a person? Brandt argues that right relationships are more important than right morality or doctrine. Can you think of examples in your life when you found this to be true?
4. Is morality taught or caught? Brandt writes that when we identify with people in the stories of the Bible, it “helps form an intrinsic morality coming from within rather than being imposed from outside.” Do you agree? What are the implications of thinking of the Bible as an unfolding script?
—By Barb Draper