Everyone Loves a Good Story; Not Everyone Knows How They’re Made

The other day I said I was going to concentrate this blog on theological anthropology. In other words, this blog is for everyone who has ever asked, “What in the world am I doing here?” It’s a big subject with a lot of different nooks and crannies to explore. But we’d better start looking at the forest before examining the trees.

Asking the question about humanity’s purpose presupposes a narrative frame of reference through which we view the world. If we believe we have a purpose—which I prefer to the alternative—we have essentially said that our collective existence begins with “Once upon a time…” After all, every (good) story has a goal.

With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at the basic shape of stories. Of course, every story has a beginning, middle and end, but not every tale with a chronological sequence is worth telling. A three-year-old can tell you the story of her day, but it’s not going to be worth optioning to Warner Brothers. Real compelling stories have drama, conflict.

Narrative Framework
© 2016, Michael McKinniss

There is a basic shape we can draw that highlights the elements of a good, purposeful narrative, and these apply to nearly every good tale. [1]

A sender wishes to deliver an object to a receiver. To do so, the sender employs the help of an agent, who becomes the main character in the story. That agent is inevitably obstructed by an opponent. There’s your drama, the question raised by the audience: Will the agent get the package to its intended recipient? Typically, the agent cannot do this alone, and so a helper enters to get the agent back on track.

That’s your basic narrative structure, but let’s make this less stuffy.

Let’s suppose you are at home visiting your parents when everyone’s cell phones buzz all at once. It’s your tech-savvy grandmother. A spry 87, she’s been hiking in the back country and she’s texted to alert you all that she’s been bitten by a rattlesnake. Would anyone be a dear and run some antivenin out here right quick? Your mother, distraught, assigns you the task.

We’ve just filled in the first four pieces of the diagram. Your mother is the sender; the antivenin, the object; your grandmother, the receiver; and you are the agent who will deliver the object.

Dutifully, you steam out in your Hummer toward your grandmother’s location. (She’s activated Find My iPhone for your benefit.) You’re making great time until you get to the turnoff that heads into the wilderness. Fifty protestors, covertly funded by the EPA, have gathered—picket signs, bullhorns and all—to demonstrate against gas-guzzling off-road vehicles being permitted into the natural undisturbed wild. Seeing you attempting to enter the untouched lands in your monstrous SUV, the crowd recognizes its archetypal nemesis and concentrates its ire on you. They surround your vehicle, all the while spewing their tree-hugging slogans in your general direction.

Ah, an opponent. The plot, as they say, thickens. Will you get through to grandma in time to save her? Will you survive the environmentally friendly epithets of the eco-mob?

Then, what’s this?! A limo, flanked by patrol vehicles with sirens blaring, emerges over the crest in the road ahead and races toward you and the protestors. The caravan screeches to a halt just before the crowd and out steps a well-dressed, well-coiffured man in a dark pinstriped suit, along with a quartet of police officers. Calmly the man steps into the center of the crowd, between your H2 and the bio-degradable leader of the pack. He reaches into his Armani jacket and pulls out a slip of paper.

“Court order,” he says. “This protest is being disbanded as an unlawful assembly. You didn’t file the proper paperwork with city hall.”

Dazed by the irony of being funded by a government agency, then thwarted by government bureaucracy, the environmentalists trudge sullenly to the Priuses. You are free to proceed into the bush. Perhaps you can make it to grandma in time.

Antivenin Diagram
© 2016, Michael McKinniss

A bit more exciting, if unlikely, perhaps. We’ve demonstrated the various roles in a good narrative. We’ve had a sender (your mother), a receiver (your grandmother) and an object (the antivenin). To accomplish the task of transmission, an agent (you) was assigned. The agent had an opponent (the protestors), which made things dicey for a time, but a helper (the lawyer) arrived to thwart the opponent so that the mission could proceed.

We understand the concept now. Next time, we’ll have to apply the theory to the biblical story. What is the narrative structure and goal of the biblical story? And where do humans fit?

[1] I first came across this diagram in N.T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God (71), but it’s based on the work of A.J. Griemas’s Sémantique structurale (1966) and Du Sens (1970). Now, where did we leave off?

At Last We Have Seen a Man

Sometimes, a product that has been successful for years undergoes a substantive transformation, but the brand is too powerful to warrant changing the name of the product.

The Many Versions of Batman” by Digital_Third_Eye under license CC BY_ND 2.0

I think of the immensely popular Michael Keaton Batmans (Batmen?) of 1989 and 1992. When the franchise shifted to the likes of Val Kilmer (1995) and George Clooney (1997) and their gawdawful one-liners, the Batman character embedded within our imaginations was strong enough to carry (or should I say, “drag”) the films. It was still Batman, after all.

Other times, an alteration in substance requires a fresh name to match. Coca-Cola messed with its long-standing formula in 1985, and introduced the bubbly abomination New Coke or, later, Coke II. You just couldn’t have called the newfangled drink “Coke”, as the public made clear.

And so with this blog.

“The View from Here” was a fine name when it simply served as a depository for rather random musings about whatever the heck I might have been entertaining at the time. Granted, there was some level of coherence, because all the posts were coming from a single source. But now with a new focus, I’m eager to put a fresh label on the product.

“At Last We Have Seen a Man” may sound dated to some politically correct ears. We are, collectively, no longer “man” or “mankind”, but rather the lengthier “humankind”. The new title, however, is not a protest against gender inclusive language. (I’m generally fine with it, as long as we can stay away from the ineloquent “he or she” or “s/he” or the mind-bending singular “they”.)

Instead, the title is a phrase from a tidy mid-century volume by missionary and Anglican bishop Stephen Neill. Exploring the question of humanity’s nature, What Is Man? investigates the biblical point of view on our species—our sinfulness, our offered redemption and our potential this side of the cross.

Writing of Jesus, the true and perfect human, Neill writes from the creation’s perspective a passage that has haunted and thrilled me since my first reading. “When Jesus died, something happened that had never happened before in the whole history of the world. A man had lived the whole of his life in perfect and complete obedience to God. … This the universe had never seen, and so it had lived on through all the centuries in frustration. Now we know what the machine was made for. At last we have seen a man” (37, emphasis added).

It’s a neat summation of the person of Jesus, from a human perspective, and a key, I believe, to viewing the whole of humanity’s calling.

It has long been said, on the basis of at least Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:3, that if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Neill writes (and I think Scripture backs him up) that if you want to know what a person should be like, look at Jesus.

The cross-section of this pair of assertions is simultaneously shocking, exhilarating and humbling. Thus has Neill’s turn of phrase sent me to worship and to wonder, to hope and to pray.

At last we have seen a man. I seek to gaze on him, question him and explore him, and so, somehow, to learn and become my true self. That’s what I hope this blog will be about going forward.

Changes Afoot

Changes are coming to The View from Here.

It’s been some time since I’ve written regularly on the blog, and for a number of reasons. Having swapped coasts, entered marital bliss and begun a new job; there simply hasn’t been the time to write as I might like to (though I’ve just barely kept up contributing regular devotional blogs at {re}fresh).

At any rate, I’m committed to renewing my focus on this corner of the interweb and with it will come a handful of updates. For one, I’ll be reviewing the overall look and feel of the site. Things have gotten a little shabby in my absence. Certain parts have begun to sag. Our digital hair has gone unwashed, uncombed, unkempt. The belt around this blog’s center needs to be tightened. In short, we’ve let ourselves go, but it’s going to change.

Appearances are important, as far as they go, though far more important is the actual content. For the foreseeable future, I’m hoping to concentrate my attention on a theme I’ve been thinking about off and on for years: human purpose.

As long as there have been people on the earth, there have been people wondering why on earth they were there. It’s big question deserving of a big answer. And sadly, various cultures—even Christian ones—provide too small a response. Yet from a biblical perspective, as best as I can tell, people are a big deal. I’d like to explore why and to what end.

My musings on this topic have been more like meanderings up to now. It’s time I corralled this beast.

John Writes a Different Gospel

In our exploration of the gospel, we’ve been hovering around what the gospel writers themselves believed they were producing. We’ve looked at the introductions of Matthew, Mark and Luke to see the themes they expected to develop throughout the rest of their work. Now we come to John.

Most people realize rather quickly that when we get to the book of John, we are dealing with a different sort of gospel. So similar are Matthew, Mark and Luke that they are called the synoptic gospels. The three share a lot of the same material, so much so that it appears at times they are quoting one another (even if we can’t figure out who is quoting whom).

John, on the other hand, is unique. John writes in a very different way. He uses different imagery. He tells stories the other gospels don’t contain. But in doing so, we must ask, does he believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is wildly different than the gospel the synoptic writers portray?

Again, we’ll look at his introduction and see what we can find.

Of course, the Gospel of John begins by quoting one of the most famous lines from all Scripture: “In the beginning was the Word” (Jn 1:1). It’s no accident that he uses the opening phrase from Genesis 1:1, which began the Hebrews’ creation narrative. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).

If you’ve been following along closely our journey through the other gospels’ introductions, you already know what John is trying to do. “This is a creation story,” John is telling his audience. The gospel is, somehow, about creation.

We ought to ask, next, about this “Word”. Obviously, as we read on, we realize that John is referring to Jesus, but he doesn’t come out and say, “In the beginning was Jesus, and Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God”. What’s the deal with the “Word”?

Scholars have long recognized a connection between John’s Word (the Greek λóγος) and the Hebrew concept of Wisdom, an extremely important concept, at that.

Wisdom, in the Old Testament tradition, is ubiquitous. You know that huge chunk of your Bible from Job through Song of Solomon (like, half an inch in my tiny print Bible)? It’s called Wisdom Literature. When the Lord promised Solomon anything he wished, you remember what he asked for? Wisdom! It’s vastly important.

"St John the Evangelist" by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
St John the Evangelist” by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Torah itself came to be regarded by the time of Jesus as God’s Wisdom, gifted specifically to the Israelites. In fact, there are a couple traditions—one from 1 Enoch 42 (a text whose relevant portion was written probably only about a generation before Jesus) and another from Wisdom of Sirach 24 (maybe 200 years before Christ)—which highlight the importance God’s Wisdom, or his Word came to take in the Jews self-understanding.

In the 1 Enoch passage, Wisdom goes out from heaven looking for a place on the earth where she can settle. Finding no place pure enough, she returns to heaven and Iniquity, Wisdom’s opposite, fills the void. We don’t regard that as Scripture, of course, but it shows how certain Jews in Jesus’ day thought of themselves: “This is how bad it’s gotten, God’s Wisdom, which we thought the Lord had given us in Torah, doesn’t even want to live among us. We’re doomed!”

In Wisdom of Sirach, on the other hand, there is a story of Wisdom—God’s Word—again looking for a suitable place to reside on the earth. In this case, interestingly, she finds her place among Israel. Now this is more in line with Old Testament tradition. In fact, Sirach makes the connection with Torah directly. What’s more, Sirach suggests that Wisdom played an active roll in the process of creation.

Again, we don’t regard either of these texts as Scripture, but they do tell us what a lot of Jews were thinking in the first century.

Enter John, who writes this loaded piece:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
All things were created through Him,
and apart from Him not one thing was created
that has been created. …
The Word became flesh
and took up residence among us.
We observed His glory,
the glory as
the One and Only Son
from the Father,
full of grace and truth (Jn 1:1-3, 14, HCSB).

Jews living at the time would not have missed the point. John is telling us, “Remember God’s Wisdom, his Word, is indeed vastly important. God’s Wisdom is responsible, in fact, for the entire creation. And yes, God has sent his life-giving Wisdom into the world, but it didn’t find its place in Jacob’s descendants (not exactly) and it didn’t forsake us altogether. No, God’s Wisdom has indeed come to earth. Now let me tell you about him.”

John’s gospel is about God’s life-giving Wisdom showing itself to the world and, as a result, completely transforming the entire creation. It’s a whole new world, John tells us, because of Jesus. A different gospel, indeed, but one that is just as rooted in the long Old Testament story as the synoptic gospels.

Luke’s Gospel: All about Kingdoms

The other day we started asking what the gospel writers actually thought about the gospels they were writing. We saw that Mark was interested in how Jesus’ story brings Israel through its anticipated new exodus. We saw that Matthew, similarly, believed Jesus to be (1) the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, (2) the successor to David with an everlasting kingdom, and (3) the one to bring Israel out of its long exile.

We move now to Luke. What did he suppose the gospel was all about?

Looking at Luke’s introduction, as we did with Matthew and Mark, we notice right away that Luke begins differently. His introduction doesn’t have Mark’s handy little epigraph. Nor does he begin with a lengthy genealogy that stands apart from the rest of the narrative. (Luke does have his own genealogy for Jesus—with its own purposes—but it doesn’t come until chapter 3.) Luke’s introduction is actually a greeting to his intended audience (Lk 1:1-4), and in that greeting he gives no indication concerning themes that will appear throughout the text.

In fact, to find the themes that concern Luke up front, we have to let his storytelling do its work on us. And it’s not even about reading between the lines, as it might have been with Mark and Matthew, because Luke’s emphasis comes to us about as plainly as could be as the opening chapters unfold.

The story opens not with Jesus himself, not even, really, with John the Baptist, as in Mark, but with John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is barren and Zechariah works in the Temple. Big Z gets a visit from the angel Gabriel in the Holy of Holies and is told that they will indeed have a son, whose name will be John. Their son, further, will be the one of whom Malachi spoke, the one who precedes the dramatic Day of the Lord (cf. Lk 1:17; Mal 4:5-6).

"St Luke" by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC 2.0
St Luke” by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC 2.0

We saw this theme already in Mark and in Matthew both. They all see Jesus’ story as completing the long exile of God’s people. They’re coming home, we might say, and God is on his way, as well.

Then, of course, Jesus’ birth is foretold to Mary, and, just as with Zechariah, Gabriel is not shy about pronouncing her miracle boy’s purpose: “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Lk 1:32-33, TNIV).

Many have read the first portion of this prophecy and decided Gabriel meant to tell Mary that her son would be God. And then they have ready the second portion and decided that this was an additional kingly portion. But this is not Gabriel’s intention. Rather, Gabriel is saying the same thing several times over in these two verses. All of it, as we saw with Matthew’s citation of David, comes from 2 Samuel 7.

Notice the relevant passage, with emphases to show Luke’s parallels:

The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by human beings, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever (2 Sam 7:11b-16).

Gabriel has made the announcement that Jesus will be the son of David, for whom Israel has been waiting a thousand years.

Luke’s story goes on. Mary rushes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth and is so moved by the experience, she bursts into song. Whether Luke saw himself as the predecessor for Rogers and Hammerstein, with the incessant urge to insert musical numbers every so often in the narrative, I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that Luke is drawing heavily from Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2.

The sum total of Luke’s opening chapter paints a daring picture, one that no one familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures could miss. The Old Testament story in question begins with the barren Hannah crying out to the Lord for a child. Her child becomes a prophet whose career culminates with the anointing and ascension of David, the truest king from Israel’s history, a man after God’s own heart.

Luke condenses the tale: the childless Elizabeth gives birth to a prophet who will be the forerunner to a new and greater David, whose kingdom will never cease. The rise of a new kingdom—that’s the gospel Luke is telling.

What Kind of Gospel Did Matthew Write?

Yesterday we took a quick look at what Mark was up to in writing his gospel. This we did by examining his introduction and found that he believed the gospel of Jesus Christ to be about the culminating story of Israel, the long-awaited new exodus, when YHWH rejoined his people at last. That’s Mark’s version of the gospel, which then takes 16 chapters to unfold.

But what about the other gospel writers? What was their take on the gospel they were committing to papyrus? Was Mark way off base in making the gospel into the final chapter of a vast epic? Let’s have a quick look, as we did with Mark, at the introductions of the other three gospels. This should tell us something significant about the meaning they saw in Jesus’ story.

We’ll start with Matthew (we’ll get to Luke and John soon enough), winner of the boring-est introduction to any book ever. Most of us hardly realize that Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy. That’s because we open the New Testament, find a list of names that takes up a whole page, and skip right on to the interesting stuff about Jesus’ birth. I mean, that’s where the story really starts. Amiright?

But Matthew, naturally, is smarter than we are. He knows what he’s doing.

His genealogy is broken up into three chunks. The first runs from Abraham to David, the second from David to Israel’s exile into Babylon, then the third from the exile to Jesus. These are not insignificant divisions, not by a long stretch. Matthew has paused, on each occasion, at critical turning points in Israel’s history. (This is likely the primary reason this genealogy skips generations and fits so neatly into the 3×14 mold. It’s a stylized account meant to tell us something more significant than just who exactly were Jesus’ ancestors.)

First, we get Abraham: the father of all Israelites. Abraham is where the story begins. This is where, for all intent and purpose, God begins his work at rescuing the planet he created. That is effectively the promise given when we first meet Abraham in Genesis 12:

The Lord said to Abram: Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Gen. 12:1-3, HCSB).

There, in a nutshell is God’s agenda for Israel. They will be blessed so that through them the whole corrupted world might be rescued. And Matthew is telling his audience up front that the story of Jesus is a critical chapter in that grand narrative.

Secondly, Matthew lands on King David, the high point in Israel’s long history up to the first century. David was the benchmark for Israel in terms of both its political and religious life (as if we could separate those from Israel’s perspective; they are one and the same, really). Not only that, but it had been promised David that he would have a son whose kingdom would never end, because of its intimate connection to YHWH (2 Sam. 7:11b-16).

"Call of St Matthew" by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Call of St Matthew” by Lawrence OP used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Matthew is again giving a massive exaggerated wink to his audience: Remember the hopes we received as a people from our great King David’s story; this story about Jesus is that story.

Lastly, Matthew highlights with exile in Babylon. This is probably the one aspect of Israel’s history that most Christians are least familiar with. Israel getting hauled off to faraway Babylon doesn’t make for a simple Sunday school story. What do you do when the supposed heroes of the Bible become so corrupted? (These days, you make a Netflix original out of it, but whatever.)

But the exile is terribly important to Jews, especially those of Jesus’ own day. Although by then many Jews had long since returned to Jerusalem and its environs, they still had a strong sense that the exile was not yet over. In the Bible itself, this is probably most clearly expressed by the prophets Nehemiah and Malachi. Nehemiah has a critical passage in which he cries out to the Lord over the nation’s political situation, still operating under the jurisdiction of the pagan Medo-Persians (Neh. 9:36-37). Malachi speaks of the people still awaiting the return of YHWH to his people, the very passage Mark had used in his introduction (Mal. 3:1-4).

Again, what is Matthew up to with this genealogy? Like the opposite of putting the medicine in the candy, Matthew has masked the treat with boiled spinach. His genealogy carries the delicious meaning in its structure: Jesus’ gospel is about exile coming to its end and a new stage opening in the history of YHWH’s people.

What is Matthew’s gospel? His story of Jesus is the story of saving promise given to Abraham centuries earlier. It is the story of the new and greater son of David ascending his everlasting throne. It is the final end to the incessant exile Israel had suffered under for over 500 years. According to Matthew, Jesus’ life is about all these at once, and much more.

Starting from Scratch on the Gospel: It’s Already Bigger than We Thought

Many today are frustrated by classical Evangelical tellings of the gospel, whether because they don’t like the way it paints God as a wrath-filled deity, or they don’t like the individualistic message, or they’re suspecting Jesus’ work on the cross means a lot more than evangelistic tools have given it credit.

Scrapping some of those classical models, for the moment, what might happen if we began from scratch? How might we begin to describe what Jesus was doing in this death and resurrection, of course, but also in his life? Does that have anything to do with it?

While so many treatments of the gospel draw their influence from Paul’s writings—Romans most of all—I’m going to begin with the gospel accounts themselves.

Let’s begin with what many regard as the first gospel committed to parchment, the book of Mark.

Mark famously opens with a line telling his audience that his entire work is about this good news: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mk 1:1). Already, this ought to tell us something important about the way Mark conceives the gospel: it has something to do with the entirety of Jesus’ life, in addition to his death and resurrection.

This is rarely considered in traditional representations of the gospel. These, once they have thoroughly established how sinful we all are, typically move to Jesus’ death straight away. Faced with such a gospel, you’d have to be excused for wondering whether Jesus had do anything at all before going to the cross.

Back to Mark’s gospel. Immediately following the introductory phrase, he does something else we might not have expected: he turns to the Old Testament.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way. A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make His paths straight!” (Mk 1:2-3, HCSB)

Isaiah” by Missional Volunteer used under license CC BY-SA 2.0

The gospel of Jesus Christ has something to do, Mark tells us, with ancient prophetic words spoken by Isaiah (40:3) and Malachi (3:1), and possibly Moses (Exo 23:20). Those who have looked into such things tell us that Mark is trying to say that the gospel story he is about to tell has something to do with (1) the Exodus (that’s the Exodus 23:20 reference), (2) the prophesied New Exodus (a major theme in Isaiah), and (3) the return of YHWH to his people (Malachi).

Incidentally, this is a major aspect to the recent movement in fresh articulations of the gospel. This was one of Scot McKnight’s bones to pick in The King Jesus Gospel, citing the according-to-the-Scriptures in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (the lone place where Paul looks like he’s defining the gospel). Further, this was one of four major themes in N.T. Wright’s How God Became King, reminding us that the story of Jesus is the culmination of the story of Israel.

What is Mark trying to tell us in his introduction? Mark’s first three verses tell us (1) that the gospel is first and foremost about Jesus Christ, and all of Jesus’ story, at that; (2) that the gospel has its roots in Israel’s long story; (3) specifically that the gospel is about a long awaited exodus for God’s people; and (4) that the gospel is about the return of YHWH himself to Jerusalem.

All this is a far cry from—and far bigger than—hearing that we’re awful sinners in need of the cross in order to get to heaven. But we’re just getting started.