If I were to say to you these days, ‘Of course the Bible is just a story’, you would probably be highly offended, thinking that I was claiming that it is untrue. ‘Don’t tell stories’, we say to a child, meaning ‘Don’t tell lies’.
But imagine yourself back in childhood for a moment. And let us assume (at least for the purposes of this post) that it was at that age, at your mother’s (or father’s!) knee, you first learnt of God. It was also at that age you would have learnt about Father Christmas, nursery rhymes and stories of dungeons and dragons. All mythical – except the story that isn’t. And somehow over the next few years you (fairly easily) learned to distinguish between the two. But you still (again for the purposes of this post) continued to read stories, only now you call it fiction.
Why is that so? Why do people read fiction (or watch films) which they know not to be a real depiction of events? Isn’t the answer that fiction very often is true, even if it isn’t real. If you want to understand the human heart, read the novels of Dickens. Or Balzac. Or Trollope. Or…
The Bible is full of stories, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. I expect you know the hymn, ‘Tell Me the Old Old Story’, which illustrates this piece. It was written by a member of the Clapham Sect, born just before Queen Victoria came to the throne. And now I will tell you a story about that:
This excellent hymn by Miss Hankey, of London, has been translated into many languages, and has been set to several tunes. Dr. Doane has this to say regarding the music by which it has become popular, and the occasion on which he composed it: “In 1867 I was attending the International Convention of the Young Men’s Christian Association, in Montreal. Among those present was Major-General Russell, then in command of the English force during the Fenian excitement. He arose in the meeting and recited the words of this song from a sheet of foolscap paper—tears streaming down his bronzed cheeks as he read. I wrote the music for the song one hot afternoon while on the stage-coach between the Glen Falls House and the Crawford House in the White Mountains. That evening we sung it in the parlors of the hotel. We thought it pretty, although we scarcely anticipated the popularity which was subsequently accorded it.” Sankey, pp. 256-7
Human beings love stories. Mark seems in no doubt in his gospel that he is telling us a story. He gets off to a cracking start, not with the birth of Jesus, but his baptism by John. John, as it were, is the warm-up act for Jesus, who appears in verse 9. He is baptised (v9); the Spirit descends on him like a dove (v10); a voice from heaven says ‘thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased(v11); the Spirit drives him into the wilderness (v12); he is tempted by Satan during 40 days in the wilderness (v13); he comes into Galilee and begins to preach (v14). How’s that for narrative pace!
C S Lewis ends ‘The Last Battle’ with his idea about the story that we are all caught up in:
“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”