“As You Wish”: What The Princess Bride can tell us about reading the Bible story well

“Who can know when his world is going to change?”

William Goldman

Mr Rigby joined the English department of my high school at the start of the third term of my first year. We didn’t know a new English teacher was joining us. Mr Rigby just turned up to class one day, with his baby face, blushing cheeks and thin, blonde hair, sat himself on the desk at the front of the room, said, “My name is Mr Rigby,” and proceeded to crack open a paperback book. Turning to the imprint page, he read aloud to us: “Rogue Male … by Geoffrey Household.” Then he turned another page, to the dedication, the whole lot of us gripped already. He read aloud again: “To Ben … who knows what it feels like.”

Then Mr Rigby lifted his eyes from the page, looked around the room at us, and said, without the slightest deviation in his tone, look, or voice: “Lucky Ben.”

We were hooked. I was hooked. Thirty-odd years later I am still in contact with Mr Rigby, though we are separated by thousands of miles. It remains one of only a handful of moments that I remember from my school years. And I still have a copy of Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, and read it through regularly, each time recalling how I felt the first time I heard it.

It was because of that moment that I became a writer.

This essay is about stories. It’s also about the greatest story ever told, and how that story has become obscured over years by agendas that have made the story something that it isn’t. Actually, this essay is not so much about that — we all know the damage that’s been done to this particular story, so we don’t need to rehearse it again. Instead, let’s focus on the power of stories to change worlds. And the power of the greatest story ever told to change worlds in the greatest possible way.

The Bible tells a good story

The Bible tells a story. It tells a lot more beside, like poetry, wisdom, history, prophecy, instruction — but even these serve the bigger story, making it richer, grounded, dynamic, alive. Even so, getting people to engage with that story is a bit like getting the kid from the movie The Princess Bride to turn off his video game so that he can listen to his grandfather read from a book.

“A book?” says the kid. You’ll remember the scene — everybody’s watched The Princess Bride. Right at the start of the movie, the grandfather, played by the late Peter Falk, bursts in to the bedroom after the kid has turned off his game and climbed back into bed, and proceeds to read him a book.

“That’s right,” he says. “When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today I’m gonna read it to you.”

“Has it got any sports in it?” the kid asks.

To which the grandfather gives the magic response: “Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles …”

The kid says, “Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try to stay awake.”

You know the rest. By the time the story ends, the sick grandson wants it to continue. And then he wants the story read to him again the next day. His imagination has been captured by the power of story.

“Who can know when his world is going to change?”

William Goldman wrote that quote. It’s a quote from the novel of The Princess Bride, on which the movie is based. The quote is so apt for this age. Our world is changing, but while the capacity for telling a good story is expanding in tandem with new breakthroughs in technology that grant us ever new and dynamic forms, our desire for stories hasn’t changed at all. You could even argue it’s increased. You only have to look at what Netflix or HBO are offering more of — longer form stories stretching over weeks, months, even years in some cases (Game of Thrones being a prime example). Movies are getting longer again, or stretching over trilogies (like The Hobbit). The availability of ebooks hasn’t killed the publishing industry — in fact, people are reading just as much as they ever did. And video games are no longer limited to the sports game played by the grandson in The Princess Bride — the most popular games are character based, they follow a plot, they allow players to participate in the story, to become a character themselves, allowing children and adults to engage in stories in a way that wasn’t available to them in the past.

The delivery mechanism might be changing all the time, but our hunger for stories doesn’t seem to be waning at all. These are exciting times for story tellers. Technology continues to put new tools in our kitbags, expanding our opportunities to engage people in stories in new ways, and always in ways that have the potential to change their worlds.

And this is a good thing. Stories balance us emotionally. Stories make us who we are. Stories make us believe and hope and picture a world or worlds into which we can move and explore and advance humanity. Some academics say the ability and desire to tell stories is linked to our survival and development as a species. This is a secular, evolutionary perspective, and while it may be at odds with a typically evangelical Christian position on the origin of story, it is helpful for us to see that even in the secular fields of literary studies, neuroscience, and philosophy, no one denies the foundational place of storytelling in human and societal development. Kiwi academic Brian Boyd, the world’s foremost Nabokov scholar, says this: “By developing our ability to think beyond the here and now, storytelling helps us not to override the given, but to be less restricted by it, to cope with it more flexibly and on something more like our own terms.” Boyd speaks about the importance of stories from an evolutionary standpoint, and you don’t have to share that understanding of how the world came to be to appreciate his message: storytelling is part of our nature, it’s fundamental to our humanity. US academic and medical doctor Daniel J. Siegel says something similar, but has in view the developing mind and its need to find equilibrium, coherence, and integration, which, he argues, it does through story. Siegel demonstrates how only narrative functions across both spheres of the brain, resulting in the integration of our cognitive functioning and emotional equilibrium: “Studies of child development reveal that by the third year of life, a ‘narrative’ function emerges in children and allows them to create stories about the events they encounter during their lives. These narratives are sequential descriptions of people and events that condense numerous experiences into generalising and contrasting stories. New experiences are compared to old ones. Similarities are noted in creating generalised rules, and differences are highlighted as memorable exceptions to these rules. The stories are about making sense of events and the mental experiences of the characters. Filled with the elements of the characters’ internal experiences in the context of interactions with others in the world, these stories appear to be functioning to create a sense of coherent comprehension of the individual in the world across time.” This is summed up perfectly by Christopher Booker in his excellent The Seven Basic Plots: “Whenever we sense any artistic creation to be in some way deficient, this is either because it somehow lacks life or because it is inadequately organised, or both. Any work of art which succeeds, however, can make us feel mysteriously more alive, by connecting us with the sense of a perfection beyond the limitations of our own ego. Such is what the artistic impulse in mankind is all about. But no device for re-establishing that sense of unity with our inner life is more ingenious than one coded into us … our ability to conjure up inside our heads those patterns of imaginary events we call stories.”

This secular position is echoed by writers inside the Church as well. James K.A. Smith says what these academics have said but from the perspective of the kingdom as the goal, the telos, of humanity — a goal which is best communicated in stories: “A vision of the good life captures our hearts and imaginations not by providing a set of rules or ideas, but by painting a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well. This is why such pictures are communicated most powerfully in stories, legends, myths, plays, novels, and films rather than dissertations, messages, and monographs. Because we are affective before we are cognitive (and even while we are cognitive), visions of the good get inscribed in us by means that are commensurate with our primarily affective, imaginative nature.” But long before Smith, one of the English language’s master storytellers, C.S. Lewis, said this with particular power. In his essay On Stories, Lewis defends the act of reading and unpacks the power of stories not just to take us into the ‘other’, but to enhance our appreciation of real life. He does this spectacularly well while discussing Kenneth Grahame’s children’s story, The Wind in the Willows, which he describes as a specimen of the most ‘scandalous escapism’: “It paints a happiness under incompatible conditions — the sort of freedom we can only have in childhood and the sort we can only have in maturity — and conceals the contradiction by the further pretence that the characters are not human beings at all. The one absurdity helps to hide the other. It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back to our daily lives unsettled and discontented. I do not find that it does so. The happiness which it presents to us is in fact full of the simplest and most attainable things — food, sleep, exercise, friendship, the face of nature, even (in a sense) religion. That ‘simple but sustaining meal’ of ‘bacon and broad beans and a macaroni pudding’ which Rat gave to his friends has, I doubt not, helped down many a real nursery dinner. And in the same way the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. The excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.”

Just hover over that last sentence for a few more seconds — it encapsulates everything said by other academics and writers, and everything this introductory piece wants to say … The whole story strengthens our relish for real life … The excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual …

The Bible tells a story. In fact, like nothing else, it tells the whole story. Furthermore, it tells a preposterous story. No matter where in the story you dip your toe, from Joseph having visions in the cell of an Egyptian jail, to Hosea the prophet being instructed to marry a hooker, to Jesus in the gospels embracing a leper … reading the Bible is an excursion into the preposterous. And yet — and most definitely — it sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual world of our personal stories.

This begs many questions, one of the most pressing being this: how on earth do we demonstrate once again that the Bible is a preposterous story that is worth engaging with in a deep, imaginative and passionate way?

Second question: how — whether as teachers, pastors, counsellors, academics, chief executives, storytellers, or game designers — do we measure and evaluate that engagement? What metrics should we use to determine how effective our work is in getting children, adults, and seniors, to engage this preposterous story in a way that a) Tells that story well; b) Is true to its preposterous nature; c) Guides people back to their own, ‘real’ world with renewed relish?

My conviction is that if we can answer these questions well, we will witness ever-increasing numbers of people echoing those brilliant words of William Goldman: “Who can know when his world is going to change?”

The Bible tells an epic story

The Bible tells a story. But it has competition. One of the most compelling theological stories being told in the world at this moment in history is the one being told by Isis (Islamic State). It isn’t a good story, by any means — but it’s compelling. Compelling in the way a car wreck is compelling, or the arrest of the family’s black sheep. The story Isis is telling sets the global theological agenda in all the wrong ways — but it’s got the world’s attention. And much more successfully than the Church seems to be doing. How? It’s calling on the emotions of disenfranchised people, the poor, the angry, the marginalised — people living in slums, in repressive households, in violent marriages, in bullying environments. It’s telling them a story, one that is embedded in historical realities, in religious fervour, in the promise of paradise; one accompanied with power, and pleasure, and opportunities to vent rage.

The Bible tells a more compelling story than the one Isis is telling. But the world won’t know that unless we tell it well. It’s such a great, adventurous, preposterous story, that when people ask what’s in the Bible, the first response should be something like “Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…”

In his book Dangerous Wonder, the late Mike Yaconelli argues that faith should be more a matter of childlike curiosity than what it actually becomes for most people. The same could be said of the Bible itself. How can faith be filled with wonder when wonder is absent from our telling or reading of the Bible story — the very foundation of our faith understanding? Yaconelli quotes Lewis, describing Aslan, the Christ figure in the Chronicles of Narnia, as a ‘not so tame lion’: “The reason so many of us have lost our childhood curiosity is that we’ve been tamed. Our world is populated with domesticated grownups who would rather settle for safe, predictable answers instead of wild, unpredictable mystery. Faith has been reduced to a comfortable system of beliefs about God instead of an uncomfortable encounter with God. Childlike faith understands that God is as capable of destroying us as he is of saving us. Risky curiosity breaks from the safety and comfort of a tame faith and ventures into the terrifying presence of a ‘not so tame’ God.”

That sounds to me like a theology that could stand up to stories like those peddled by Isis. Was this not always the challenge of the Israel of the Old Testament? Remembering that their God was the only living God, and that the story of Yahweh was far more compelling than the stories told by charlatans selling idols of wood at the market?

How can this shift begin to happen? From ‘predictable’ to ‘risky’, and from ‘safe’ to ‘terrifying’?

Before anything else, we need to recover the wonder with which the biblical epic deserves to be read.

I was watching the documentary, Inside: Lego, which goes inside the plant of the famous Danish toymaker. I discovered something about Lego in the first five minutes that I had never considered before — despite my years of playing with it. Take two standard Lego bricks, 2×3 size, and both of them the same colour. Those two bricks can be assembled a total of 24 different ways. Take three bricks of the same size and colour — and there are 1060 different ways they can be assembled. Take six standard Lego bricks of the same colour, and guess how many different ways those six bricks can be assembled? 915,103,765 ways. Almost a billion combinations — from just six plastic Lego blocks. Imagine the possibilities that open up by adding different colours, different sized blocks, different elements … endless combinations, almost beyond imagining. Certainly far more than we could ever hope to imagine.

And that’s just Lego.

The world of the Bible is a world of infinite possibilities … encounters … adventures. It is the world of creation, of miracles, of visions, of transcendence, of history, of betrayal, of love, of inspiration, of heroism, of humility, of life, of death … of man … of woman … of God.

Is it possible that in our modernistic ways of interpreting, and reasoning, and proof-texting, and rote-learning, we have reduced the Bible down to a codified system of behaviours, a religious text that stands just a little taller from other religious texts — a better version, no doubt, but still one that belongs on the same shelf in the library as the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita, or L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics? God forbid!

The Bible stands apart from those texts because nowhere does it claim to have emerged from a moment of inspiration in the mind of a single man. The Bible is not a religious text in that way, it is a story — a witness to God’s intervention in history over many hundreds of years, each episode told in a form that is fitting for its day, and which witnesses according to the truth inherent in the moment. To do this well it embraces many forms — from poetry to prose, prophecy to proverbs. But always in service to the most remarkable story there is — the living God who engages in our space and time for the purpose of bringing redemption to it. That’s not a story Isis can tell.

So, why then is it so difficult to engage people in the Bible?

I would argue it’s because we have forgotten how to tell the story well. Not only that, we have neglected its distinctives. The Bible tells the greatest love story ever told. When people think about this story they should think about it in the way they might think about Spartacus, or Gladiator, or Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones. It’s all too easy these days for people to sit the Bible alongside other religious texts and say they are the same. And it’s my conviction that we, Christians, have no one to blame for this but ourselves. We have allowed that to happen. How? By not reading the Bible in wonder, not even as fans of Tolkein read The Hobbit.

One of the most disturbing chapters in Lawrence Wright’s excellent exposé on the Church of Scientology, Going Clear, is “The Future is Ours”, in which he documents how Hubbard’s ‘church’ was able to convince the IRS that it was a bona fide religion. A former Franciscan friar and graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Frank K. Flinn, was able to testify — and quite convincingly, I should say — how closely aligned Scientology was in its practices to the historical practices of the Catholic Church. Finn argued that Scientology was “a new religion that is reinventing old religious norms; whatever abuses it may be committing are errors of youthful exuberance, and in any case they are pale imitators of the practices once employed by the mainstream religions that judges and jurors were likely to be members of.” Those judges and jurors were convinced, and Scientology was deemed a religion of the same standing as Christianity.

What if those same judges and jurors had been able to articulate the differences between Christianity and Scientology not on the basis of their discrete ‘religious’ practices, but on the basis of a preposterous story — not a story made up by a deluded science fiction writer and egomaniac like L. Ron Hubbard, but one carved in the history of a people and documented in some of literature’s most formative texts. The Bible story.

The late Yale professor, Erich Auerbach, once compared the different ways that the writings of Homer and the Old Testament represented reality — what he called, Mimesis. In his essay ‘Odysseus’ Scar’, Auerbach compares the literature of one of the greatest novels ever written, The Odyssey, with the pericopes of Genesis. He emerges resolute in his belief that the ‘story’ of the Bible, and its treatment of the story’s key characters, is extraordinary in quite unique ways: “Fraught with their development, sometimes even aged to the verge of dissolution, they show a distinct stamp of individuality entirely foreign to the Homeric heroes. Time can touch the latter only outwardly, and even that change is brought to our observation as little as possible; whereas the stern hand of God is ever upon the Old Testament figures; he has not only made them once and for all and chosen them, but he continues to work upon them, bends them and kneads them, and, without destroying them in essence, produces from them forms which their youth gave no grounds for anticipating … They are bearers of the divine will, and yet they are fallible, subject to misfortune and humiliation — and in the midst of misfortune and in their humiliation their acts and words reveal the transcendent majesty of God. There is hardly one of them who does not, like Adam, undergo the deepest humiliation — and hardly one who is not deemed worthy of God’s personal intervention and personal inspiration. Humiliation and elevation go far deeper and far higher than in Homer, and they belong basically together. The poor beggar Odysseus is only masquerading, but Adam is really cast down, Jacob really a refugee, Joseph really in the pit and then a slave to be bought and sold. But their greatness, rising out of humiliation, is almost superhuman and an image of God’s greatness.”

Without saying it, Auerbach is arguing for the richness of the biblical story over and above that of Homer. How does he see that? For one thing, he exegetes the biblical story precisely as story, and not, first and foremost, as religious doctrine. He examines characterisation, plot development, the use of speech and action, setting, narrative voice, story arc, problem and resolution. Ask someone like Auerbach if there are “sports” in the Bible, he would likely respond: “Are you kidding me? Betrayal, giants, floods, warfare, black magic, romance, political intrigue, demons, crucifixion, giant whales, murder, sex, espionage, miracles, heroism …”

It is time for storytellers to not only exegete the biblical story as the likes of Auerbach, or Lewis, or Mike Yaconelli might … but to tell that story in ways that refresh the page … that richly depict the vast landscape of scripture, the dynamic range of its heroes and villains, its audacious sense of history and purpose, the heartbreaking drama of the death of God at the heart of the narrative, and the crazy, radical, fantastical world of its end times vision.

“Who can know when his world is going to change?”

The lead singer of U2, Bono, was asked to write the liner notes of the Johnny Cash compilation ‘God’, in the boxset Love God Murder. What he wrote was a lesson in how to tell the biblical story in a way that seamlessly interrupts our knowledge of the here and now with the preposterousness of the biblical narrative, and, in the process, placed our story in the context of God’s story. Here’s what he wrote:

“Somewhere in an old black Bible I read how Moses had led the children of Israel out of slavery with a plague of frogs and a big stick that turned into a snake. In return they promised not to worship any false gods, especially golden cows (popular at the time, still are …), yet despite the cover of sky fires at night, and an endless supply of God’s own bread (manna) in the day, this was a promise they managed to keep for about a minute … Upset that they still hadn’t entered the Promised Land and moaning about their nomadic life in the desert, they soon returned to the altar of the ‘golden cow.’ Warning after warning they ignored. Moses couldn’t believe his people could witness such a season of miracles and still choose good over God. God, too, was furious, but even as He told Moses to get out of their midst or be destroyed along with His wayward people, an amazing thing happened. Moses refused to move … In fact the Scriptures record that ‘Moses knowing the heart of God’ ran amongst the people crying to God ‘smite me if you’re going to smite them.’ God in his mercy backed off. It’s an amazing story of empathy and then grace. It’s the kind of story Johnny Cash could have written and sung … Empathy and grace are written in his face, etched into his voice … So are the years in the wilderness … Gospel music has a joy that in most hands comes off as sentimental; a sweetness so easily saccharine. Why is it that in these songs the angels feel like they’re round the corner from devils? We feel he has made a choice to ‘pitch his tent at the gates of Sheol.’ Johnny Cash doesn’t sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company …”

The Bible Bono describes is a Bible I want to read. It’s a Bible I will gladly forsake ‘sports’ to engage with, a Bible that is compelling because it is populated with people like me, or Bono, or Johnny Cash … people who know how broken they are but marvel at the grace they find in this preposterous story.

This Bible is one that might just change the world.

The Bible tells a love story

So, the Bible tells a story. But so what? How can we get people to engage in the biblical story in ways that are true to its innate, dynamic character? And how can we measure whether or not we are doing that well?

It’s a bit like the question asked by the principal players in the movie Inception. You might recall the scene — the group run by Cobb, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, are brainstorming how to plant the idea in a businessman’s head that he should break up his father’s business empire, an idea that he would ordinarily be opposed to. Their session goes like this:

Ariadne, Arthur, Yusuf, Eames and Saito sit around the room, looking at FILES. Cobb presides.

COBB
The mark is Robert Fischer, heir to the Australian energy conglomerate, Fischer Morrow.

Cobb opens a large presentation pad.

COBB (reads aloud)

“I WILL SPLIT UP MY FATHER’S EMPIRE.”

Cobb turns to the team.

COBB
An idea Robert Fischer’s conscious mind would never accept. We have to plant it deep in his subconscious.

ARTHUR

How deep?

COBB

Three levels down.

ARTHUR
A dream within a dream within a dream? Is that even possible?

COBB

Yes. It is. Now, the subconscious motivates through emotion, not reason, so we have to translate the idea into an emotional concept.

ARTHUR
How do you translate a business strategy into an emotion?

COBB
That’s what we have to figure out. Robert and his father have a tense relationship. Worse, even, than the gossip columns have suggested…

EAMES
Do you play on that? Suggest breaking up his father’s company as a ‘screw you’ to the old man?

COBB
No. Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic.

Let’s consider briefly some of the concepts at play here. The “subconscious motivates through emotion, not reason.” This is a fair observation. We know from the work of neuroscience that emotion is governed by the limbic brain, while propositional truth is processed in the neocortex. We also know it is possible to engage emotionally with something as banal as a business strategy when it is done in the right way. And the third point Cobb makes is particularly informative for the present discussion — there is no point feeding a negative concept into the man’s subconscious because “positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.” In other words, people are far more motivated by love than they are by hate or fear or judgment. People “yearn to be reconciled”, says Cobb — which also happens to be the central emotional arc of the biblical narrative.

What Inception explores particularly well is the concept of knowledge or knowing, and how deep, emotional knowledge is the key to unlocking creativity, relational engagement, healing, forgiveness. Although the movie explores these themes in a fantastical context, and with methodologies that involve the process of entering another person’s dreams, the idea of ‘knowing’ in ways that are more embedded in emotion and creativity and collaboration — than, say, logic or reason or cynicism — is not so fantastical. Many of the things we ‘know’ we take on board so naturally that we don’t even question them. This happens at a deep level, an emotional level, and often embeds so deeply that it becomes foundational for how we do all of life. And story does this particularly well, because we participate in story — and as we participate in story things become lodged in our knowing because we have been too distracted by plot and characters and settings that we love, that we haven’t bothered to filter out those other things. Some researchers call this attention blindness.

In 1 Corinthians 13 the Apostle Paul throws into his conversation with the Christians of Corinth some observations about knowledge. The brevity of his observations obscure their magnitude. In a chapter essentially about love, Paul begins, from v. 8, to talk about knowing. It’s fitting that he does it in this context — the Greeks love knowledge. Knowing is the cornerstone of their society, the foundation of their democracy, and the purpose behind their beliefs about the gods and the afterlife, about the eternal nature of the soul and the impassability of the divine. Through the letter you get the clear sense that it’s the Corinthians’ core beliefs about life, about such things as status and rights and wealth and power, that have skewed their understanding and practice of the gospel. Their frameworks of knowledge were constructed by philosophers hundreds of years earlier — so well that they still influence our thinking today, even our theology. But Paul’s strategy is to reorient their thinking, essentially by reminding them that what they ‘know’ philosophically has been subverted by two epochal events that occurred on the one weekend: the cross and resurrection. So in verse 13, after pointing out that ‘knowledge’ is partial, transitory, and proleptic, he essentially tears down those frameworks of knowledge and erects three new matrices of knowing in their place: faith, hope and love.

This isn’t the place to unpack how these three operate as core epistemologies. But let’s briefly think about how Paul gets here from his interpretation of the cross and resurrection, which are foundational to his apostolic message.

The death and resurrection of Jesus lead Paul to rethink three fundamental aspects of what he knew about God — knowledge gained as a Hebrew, well-versed in the Septuagint, as well as in Roman law and Greek philosophy:

1) God’s purpose is not law, but grace; not death and judgment, but reconciliation. Not fear, but love. We can’t express too dramatically what a fundamental mind-shift this would have been for Paul. Everything he knew about God, God’s interactions with his people and with the world, God’s purpose for creation, was radically overhauled by what the resurrection of the human Jesus revealed about the heart and mind of God. In other words, it changed the STORY, as Paul knew it. Everything Paul knew about the story from the scriptures had to be reinterpreted in light of this new knowledge, which Paul calls FAITH. To know in faith, in this context, means to locate your knowledge of God, the world, and self and others, against the backdrop of this story — a story that changes everything.

2) God is still one, but clearly there is counterpart and encounter within God’s own being. Paul did not know this before the resurrection, since only in the resurrection was it revealed that God’s son, the human Jesus, was part of God’s own being, along with the Holy Spirit. This was revolutionary for Paul — as it would be for any Jewish believer. Their God, Yahweh, had always been differentiated from the gods of the nations by two things: Yahweh was one, and Yahweh was living. But how to account for this new knowledge? Well, it didn’t mean that God was three — but it did mean that encounter, or love, was ontological (constitutive of God’s own being) and not just a virtue. Love isn’t just something God does — it’s something he is. And in the event of the cross and resurrection God had brought ‘humanity’ up into that circle of fellowship, into his own being. In other words, for Paul, the ontology of the entire cosmos had to be rethought. This encounter within God’s own being explained the purpose of creation, and the goal of redemption. As Karl Barth puts it, God creates a being who is other, precisely to have relationship with him in that otherness. This is what Paul means when he talks about LOVE as knowledge.

3) God’s purpose with creation was revealed in the resurrection to be new life, the interface of the spiritual with the corporeal, the resurrection of matter. The God who had always brought things into life out of nothing was now revealed as the God who would bring new life out of what was dead. For Paul, this redefined HOPE — it revealed hope to be the very act of creation that had been the Spirit’s activity from the very beginning of creation, but which had broken through into the here and now of real time and space as new life — the defeat of death. God was revealed as the God of true INNOVATION — something Paul sees as epistemological, since it totally re-stories the place of death in the human drama.

These three remain then, as Paul puts it: STORY, ENCOUNTER, INNOVATION … or faith, love and hope. Following TF Torrance, we call this the Grammar of the Gospel. Faith, love and hope don’t just tell the Christian how to live, they tell the Christian what life actually is. They tell the Christian how to understand themselves, how to understand life and the world, how to understand God. They also tell the Christian how to engage with the Bible story. N.T. Wright says it really well:

On Faith — “Once you grasp the resurrection, you see that Israel’s history is full of partial and preparatory analogies for this moment. The epistemological weight is borne, not simply by the promise of ultimate resurrection and new creation alone, but by the narrative of God’s mighty actions in the past.” In other words, faith as an epistemology, is “like all modes of knowledge … defined by the nature of its object” — faith is story.

On Hope — “Hope, for the Christian, is not wishful thinking or mere blind optimism. It is a mode of knowing, a mode within which new things are possible, options are not shut down, new creation can happen.” In other words, hope is innovation.

On love — “Love is the deepest mode of knowing, because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality.” In other words, love is encounter with the other — or, as Karl Barth put it, treasuring the otherness of the other.

For the Christian then — or, at least, the Christian for whom the event of the resurrection of Jesus is not merely something they celebrate at Easter or during communion on a Sunday morning, but the basis of their foundational epistemologies, the “defining event of the new creation” — ‘knowing’ begins with faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these, love, is what Wright brilliantly describes as “that whole-person engagement and involvement.” This is the Grammar of the Gospel. This is how we know that we are engaging with life, others, history, God, in a way that is peculiarly Christian: 1) Are we embedded in the story? 2) Are we encountering others and treasuring their otherness? 3) Are we bringing new things into being?

This, I argue, is how we engage people in the biblical narrative in a way that changes the world. We must no longer let ourselves believe that getting children or adults to read the Bible for a few minutes a week, or to rote learn a few texts, or to complete a devotional reading each morning of the week, is enough. It isn’t. That’s not reading the Bible as people of the Resurrection. It’s reading the Bible like a Muslim might read the Koran, or a Scientologist might read Dianetics. Because faith, hope and love are ways of knowing that belong uniquely to the resurrection, we must circumvent old forms of knowing so that people can see with the eyes of the resurrection. With the eyes of faith (story); the eyes of hope (innovation); the eyes of love (encounter).

First, we must tell the story well, in ways that make the story and its world multi-dimensional. We must tell the story in ways that give the characters shape, that make prominent the dramatic ironies of the text, that raise anticipation, and enjoyment, and dramatic tension. And we must look for new forms with which to tell this story, forms that take us by surprise — graphic novels, movies, plays, songs, electronic games. Let’s utilise new technologies and scientific breakthroughs to create new opportunities for storytellers.

Secondly, we must enhance our telling of this story with opportunities to encounter one another. It should never be the story only — it should always be the story plus encounter. Faith plus love. Communal readings of scripture followed by a meal, perhaps. Playing a game online that draws us in to the biblical story in new ways, as well as providing community forums so players can discuss what they have discovered. Role playing events where children are invited to come as their favourite characters and engage with others who are captivated by the story. Just a few ideas.

Thirdly, these encounters should lead to innovation. Events that emerge from the telling of the story and which lead to whole-person engagement with others should never end there — the goal of these encounters should be innovation, the creation of new things in collaboration with others. To know in hope means that we constantly drive towards the bringing into existence of brand new things. It should never be just story and encounter —  but story – encounter – innovation. Faith, love, hope.

“Ideas rise in crowds,” writes Steven Johnson, echoing Henri Poincaré, the French philosopher of science. “They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection.” Some of us might use the word ‘kingdom’ to describe this reality. If so, it’s a kingdom built upon the grammar of the gospel, where such networks of people are informed, energised, and given purpose by the three epistemologies of faith, love and hope. This should be the goal of our Bible reading and teaching, theology, exegesis, Sunday school programmes, sermons, game design.

“Who can know when his world is going to change?”

How do we measure the depth of engagement in the Bible among the people in our care, in our classrooms, in our churches and schools? By evaluating how many encounters, or networks, or events, have emerged because of our work. And then, by evaluating how many new things have been brought into being because of those collaborations. Until we can observe those type of results, our metrics are pointless. We might be able to demonstrate that a child is reading the Bible for X number of minutes over the course of a week, but if that reading doesn’t result in a dynamic understanding of the story, or an encounter with another person, or the creation of something tangible, then it isn’t informed by the gospel.

Conclusion

“Who can know when his world is going to change?”

The world has rediscovered its love of story — and technology has expanded our opportunities for telling those stories better than ever before.

Before the Bible is anything else, it is story. The dynamic tension and drama and adventure of that story needs to be recovered by storytellers for a generation that is hungry for stories. Culture has become immune to the drama of this particular story, perhaps because other forms of knowing have obscured its preposterous character. And while new technologies have given us more opportunities for engaging people in the biblical story in exciting new ways, if we don’t tell that story well, we will not engage the culture in the way the story deserves and demands.

Encouraging people to read the Bible propositionally has passed its use-by date. It does not represent the story well, and neither is it consistent with the ‘Grammar of the Gospel’. To read the Bible as Christians means to read the Bible in faith, hope and love — deeply embedded in the story of God’s involvement in the world, deeply engaged with one another in actual encounters of love, and deeply committed to the creation of new things out of those collaborations.

How do we measure whether people are engaged with the Bible? By asking these three questions: How captivated are they by the story? What encounters of love has their reading generated? What opportunities for the creation of new things has their reading/encounters opened up?

We should also ask this: Is the story changing the world?

The last word should go to master storyteller William Goldman. As mentioned earlier, the novel of The Princess Bride tells the story even better than the movie does. Goldman’s description, in the novel’s early pages, of the moment in which he is visited by his father, bearing a book, of all things, is particularly special. In the novel, the narrator Goldman, who, as a child, was sick with pneumonia and spent an extended time in hospital. On his return home, his father, who originated from the fictional land of Florin, comes to him in order to read a book. His father could barely speak English — and yet here he was, believing that by reading his son a book it would make him feel better after his illness.

It was my first night home. Drained; still one sick cookie. My father came in, I thought to say good night. He sat on the end of my bed. “Chapter One. The Bride,” he said …

“Has it got any sports in it?”

“Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”

“Sounds okay,” I said, and I kind of closed my eyes. “I’ll do my best to stay awake … but I’m awful sleepy, Daddy …”

Who can know when his world is going to change? Who can tell before it happens, that every prior experience, all the years, were a preparation for … nothing. Picture this now: an all-but-illiterate old man struggling with an enemy tongue, and all-but-exhausted young boy fighting against sleep. And nothing between them but the words of another alien, painfully translated from native sounds to foreign. Who could suspect that in the morning a different child would wake? I remember, for myself, only trying to beat back fatigue. Even a week later I was not aware of what had begun that night, the doors that were slamming shut while others slid into the clear. Perhaps I should have at least known something, but maybe not; who can sense revelation in the wind?

What happened was just this: I got hooked on the story.

David Williams, PhD

April, 2015