Same Story, Different Players

When it comes to the Bible, does it ever feel like you are reading the same story over and over again? In his book The Art of Biblical Narrative, author Robert Alter observes that one of the most common features of the narratives in the Old Testament is their use of repetition. He sees this as an indication of “literary purposefulness” on the part of the authors. Alter writes,“The most crucial case in point is the perplexing fact that in biblical narrative more or less the same story often seems to be told two or three or more times about different characters, or sometimes even about the same character in different sets of circumstances.”

No doubt he is correct. But I think there may be an additional reason. It is because people do the same dumb things. Any pastor can tell you this. Not only do different people do the same stupid things but people often make the same mistakes repeatedly. Actually, you don’t have to be a pastor to spot this. If you’ve attended more than one church, you’ve probably already noticed that it seems like the same story is unfolding with different faces. “Really?” we are tempted to say.  “You did that too?”

It’s a comfort, in a way. There is a certain warm familiarity in driving past the same broken down barn every day. The wreckage is a landmark, part of what makes the landscape feel like home to us. The same is often true of our lives. Over here is the secret drunk. Over there is the important man, whose voice must always be heard. And there is the queen of the kitchen, who likes to tell everyone else how things are done. But after a while, it starts to feel like a cliché. We grow weary of the storyline. This is especially true once we spot ourselves among the cast of characters. “Really?” we want to say to ourselves. “You did that again? Will you ever learn?”

In view of the Bible’s Old Testament narratives, the answer might actually be no. But if this is the case, the point is not our own stupidity. The message is something else altogether. This repetition is intended to draw our attention to the other main character who shows up again and again. It seems that the story was not about us after all, but about God. He does not always rescue us from the consequences of what we have done. Sometimes, He lets us complete the narrative arc of our foolish choices. He does not show up at the last minute to save the day. Instead, when He enters the story, it is to save us.

This Empire of Ruins

5033798748_08d987c2e0_oThe images coming out of Oklahoma City are so painful to see that it is hard to say anything about them without somehow trivializing the tragedy. It seems better to hear from someone who has lived through a comparable experience. I was reminded of a passage from Helmut Thielicke’s series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. Thielicke was a Lutheran pastor who preached these sermons to his congregation in Stuttgart, Germany during the collapse of the Third Reich and as allied bombs rained down on the city.

In the sermon based on the phrase “Thy Kingdom come,” Thielicke writes:

When we, inhabitants of a severely damaged city, walk through a flourishing undamaged section, almost involuntarily our eyes perform a little trick upon us and suddenly the intact facades are transformed into horribly mutilated walls and horror dwells behind the bleak and empty windows. We know what a house looks like beneath its sleek surface, and it is shockingly easy for our imagination to produce this little inversion in which the order system of beams are seen as a chaotic confusion of bizarre and splintered fragments of wood. Again and again the face of death peers out from behind the features of the living, and the shadow of ruins leers at us from the ordered peace of respectable homes…In this world of death, in this empire of ruins and shell torn fields we pray: “Thy kingdom come! We pray it more than ever.”

In his sermon, Thielicke goes on to say that God’s kingdom is to be sought at the point where two lines of the Bible intersect. One is the descending line of divine judgment. This rarely consists in God’s destroying offenders with a thunderbolt from heaven but rather in leaving them to their own wretchedness. “There is nothing more terrible than the man who is left to himself,” Thielicke observes.

The other line is the ascending line of God’s kingdom. This is not a matter of evolution, human development, or the gradual Christianization of the world. Rather, it is a mysterious exercise of God’s dominion which is simultaneous with and contiguous to the other. Thielicke explains, “The manifestations of God’s will are emerging ever more clearly and conclusively in the very midst of decline and decay, and God’s sovereignty rules in power above all rebels and usurpers, bringing his great and ultimate plans for the world to fulfillment.”

This is as true of those natural events which shake the foundations of our world as it is of human affairs. Jesus is the one of whom the disciples said, “the wind and the sea obey Him” (Mark 4:41). Perhaps it is not so surprising that instead of being comforted by such a thought, they were filled with fear. Jesus controls the winds. He is the living one who died and is alive forevermore. He alone holds the keys to death and the grave (Rev. 1:18).

Since You Asked

I was on the radio yesterday morning. It was one of those call-in programs where people ask questions about the Bible. The regular person (the man who has all the answers) was gone. So they called me. I didn’t mind. But I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at it. My answers were too tentative. Too qualified. Too many long pauses while I tried to locate the chapter and verse. On radio the rule is talk first and think later. Or at least, think while you talk. I can do both. But I find that it usually works better if I think first.

Still, I stumbled through to the best of my ability. Do this sort of thing often enough and I suppose you eventually come up with a supply of stock answers. I have answered questions on the radio often enough to notice that they are almost always along the same line. The questions themselves are not exactly the same. But they usually fall into the same basic categories. They are the sort of questions that everyone asks:

“If God is a God of love, why is there suffering?”

“Will God really punish the wicked?”

“Are we free to choose God or does he choose us?”

“And just who does God think he is anyway?”

 About half-way through the program (somewhere between the question about the Nephilim and the one about the origin of evil) it dawned on me that most of my callers were not looking for answers so much as they were hoping for air-time. They were not asking questions. They were making a point. And they are not the only ones. We all ask questions like this. We say things like, “Is there a reason you left your unwashed dishes in the sink?” or “Do I have to do it myself?”

 These are questions but only in the technical sense of the word. They are not intended to solicit information. Not really. More often than not the answer is implied in the question. So why do we ask them? Sometimes we ask them to make the other person feel foolish. The point made by the question is self-contradictory. More often the question is intended to provoke a response. The Bible is full of these kinds of questions.

God, in particular, seems fond of them:

“Where are you?”

“Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

“Who do people say I am?”

 If the Bible is any indication, we are just as prone to ask such questions of God:

“How long, O Lord, how long?”

“Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”

“Are you the One who was to come, or should we expect another?”

 Usually, our aim in asking God such questions is the same as my callers. We hope to make a point. We want God to see the inconsistency of his position. We aim to provoke him to action. And sometimes, we are even interested in his answer.

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.