choose your own adventure

This entry was posted by on Sunday, 14 January, 2007 at

It’s a pretty standard thing for Christians to say that the Bible is important. Typically we like to say that it is our ultimate authority for faith and life. But what on earth does that mean?

One problem is that there are so many areas of our lives where the Bible simply doesn’t tell us how we should behave. Another is that when we try to force the Bible to speak about every part of our lives, we end up twisting it and reading all kinds of stuff into it based on our modern assumptions and personal experiences. And where is the source of authority in that case? A final difficulty is that no matter how we squint at it, the Bible refuses to be a book of basic instructions for life. It remains, stubbornly and frustratingly, a great big sprawling messy story. And how can a story have authority over our lives?

Tom Wright has a bold suggestion that just might help. It’s so simple and profound it blows my little mind. He asks us to imagine that someone discovers a lost Shakespeare play, but that the fifth and final act has been lost. Rather than have someone write a fifth act, the existing parts are given to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who are asked to immerse themselves in the story, and then work out a fifth act for themselves. You can see where this is going:

The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that some character was now behaving inconsistently, or that some sub-plot or theme… had not reached its proper conclusion. This authority of the first four acts would not consist – could not consist! – in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier parts of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, containing its own impetus and forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in an appropriate manner. It would require of the actors a free and responsible entering into the story…

Wright suggests that in the Bible we have been given the first four acts of the Story (Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus), as well as hints as to how it will end. Our job is to immerse ourselves in the Story, and then improvise the fifth act in the power of the Spirit. Simple!

There’s so much that is beautiful about this model. It allows the biblical Story to be a story. It means that we have been given a real part to play in the drama – we can’t simply ‘look up’ what we should do, or copy the actions of people in the Bible. We have to use our God-given common sense and capacity for responsible choice. There is an element of choose-your-own adventure to the Christian life. And there is room for colourful variety and diversity, since there will be many ways of continuing the Story which may be equally appropriate and consistent.

But at the same time we live under the authority of the Story. By immersing ourselves in it we have to repeatedly humble ourselves and submit ourselves to God’s Story, and allow it to question our lives. Crucially, you can challenge my improvisation if it seems to be in discord with the first four acts, if it is not in harmony with the whole flow and direction and spirit of the Story.

From where I’m standing, it seems like genius. What do you think?

11 Responses to “choose your own adventure”

  1. I love this idea. I’ve explored (or well, maybe explored is a bit too strong – been introduced to … ) the idea of us as students of a great maestro. The maestro knows His art – He creates and composes and conducts great music, and weaves His movements and masterpieces together into the greatest symphony. We are learning from Him. WE are part of the creative process both created and getting a chance to play at creating. Not told what to do. Not given a rule book to follow. But shown riffs and melodies and encouraged to use them to paint with the music.

    Perhaps this analogy tends towards gushyness a bit too much, but there is something in this which allows for personal expression and following at the same time. I love it.

    Being very honest, I loved what you wrote … until the last paragraph and you used the word authority. There was something magical and freeing and beautiful about being able to take part and take a place in God’s story. There is something I have been discovering about expression and being yourself which I do not want to let go of. I feel/know/reason that most of the time I am stumbling about in the darkness – not playing or messing about with evil, but living in a place of imperfect knowledge. We can never know fully – it’s part of being human. And part of grace, of God’s abundant love is allowing for that – it has to be, otherwise there’d be no excuse for messes we as the church have made over the years.

    So, in this darkness, in the shadow, straining for the light, sometimes recognising it, sometimes not, I want to and do stumble about. I’m trying to relax here and not stress that I don’t know it all. When I hear/read the word “authority” I’m (wrongly or rightly) calling up “absolutes”, “do’s and don’ts”, “just how it is” – seriously, it both annoys me and makes me shudder.

    I know and want to live in authority to God. And I want to be part of God’s story. And like the final act in a movie, it has to fit with the characters and plotlines established in the first four acts. This kind of authority, a creative baseline, the cherished precedents and history which have gone before, I KNOW I cannot ignore.

    Perhaps I just have a problem with authority like all the cool post-moderners.

  2. wylie

    Jaybercrow you wreck my head! it has taken me 2 days just to figure out what this post was trying to say never mind the implications of it! but now that i am beginning to understand it (with help of the dictionary!) all i can say is ‘bloody hell it’s brilliant’! It’s true and it changes everything. I loved what you said about the bible stubbornly remaining as a big messy story – beautiful! it always feels big and messy to me and i’m beginning to love that – (it kinda makes me wanna jump in and swim around!)

  3. jaybercrow

    R. Daneel – what’s with the name? You can’t fool me! I totally undestand your feelings about the word authority – I guess the word has been damaged by bad experiences of forms of Christianity with an ugly and harsh view of God. In the end I don’t think we can give up the idea of God’s authority over us, even if we want to use different language. Our relationship with him is not a relationship between equals. But we maybe need to recapture the sense that it’s not merely the authority of power, but also the authority of love, of compelling goodness and beauty. I loved hearing your thoughts.

    Wylie – What a legend. We miss you.

  4. I loved this post so much, I went and wrote my own response on Zoomtard. Great post Jaybercow, with great comments too. Quit that college course and just write fulltime.

  5. mark mck

    I’ve just come to the end of an afternoons studying for an OT exam….skim read 2 Samuel and a bit of 1 Kings. The thought struck me that this is a great story, excellently written and weaved together. Then I thought how excatly would I preach on it…it doesn’t neatly lend itself to a 3 point sermon!

    Then I read your blog and this post sheds so much light on it, we need to see God’s actions and reactions in a story, we need to see how characters mess up, yet get on with it.

    I haven’t read it, but I hear Eugene Peterson has a book out on bible study called “Eat this book”. The title sounds amazing, we don’t study to inform our minds, but we eat and digest the bible stories in the way we eat our food, a mouthful tantatilsies our taste buds for a moment, but sustains our lives for a day, even a lifetime?

    That’s an inital response…I’ll be digesting your post for a while.

    Any wylie – you are a legend.

  6. jaybercrow

    Everyone go and read what Zoomtard says – he’s quite right that the Story is more like a Charlie Kaufman script than a Shakespeare play. I never did like Shakespeare much.

    Mark – you are a prince among Presbyterians. Great to hear your thoughts.

  7. Bob

    Interesting stuff. I wrote a response (of sorts) at my own blog. The trackback thing doesn’t seem to be working (most probably a problem on my end) so I thought I’d mention that fact here.

  8. -mm

    i’m at the hylton’s with giz and abby while joel and cindy are in the states. listening to their itunes when what to my wondering ears should i hear but a distinctly northern lilting voice talking about God’s confident sons.

    miss you guys. so glad that for at least some part of the story, our characters got to work together for the kingdom.


  1. Now I Am Choosing My Own Adventure at Zoomtard
  2. Everyone In Cork Is A Clown at Zoomtard
  3. The Right Authority at Zoomtard

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