My view is that one of the main challenges that the church in the West faces—at least from my late-Protestant and somewhat post-evangelical perspective—is to learn to tell our “story” differently. This has to do, in the first place, with how we understand ourselves as a biblical people, but it also has powerful missional implications: the story we tell about ourselves determines how we present ourselves to the world and how we engage with the world. Most of what I have written on this site is an attempt to address this challenge, one way or another. Here I want to try a more animated approach—a simple overview of how different stories work and why I favour a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament. An up-to-date browser may be required, so I apologise if you cannot get the animations to work.
1. The theological metanarrative about humanity
From roughly the third century to the dawn of modernity Christian peoples believed in a simple theological metanarrative: the world began with creation and fall as described in Genesis 1-3; at the turning point of history the Word became flesh and died to redeem humankind; and at the end there would be a final judgment, when the wicked would be separated from the righteous like goats from sheep. It was a “metanarrative” in the sense that it framed and accounted for the whole of human existence: beginning, middle and end. The Bible was understood to tell a universal story—no, the universal story—in grand cosmic terms about what it means to be human.
2. The modern evangelical story about me
In the modern period people in the West began to lose faith in this metanarrative—because of Galileo, because of Darwin, because of Nietzsche, because of Marx, because of Freud, because of two devastating world wars, and so on. One consequence of this loss of public faith was the shift towards the modern evangelical focus on private faith. The dominant narrative for modern evangelicalism has had intensely personal dimensions: I am a sinner, I cannot save myself, but if I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour I will be reconciled to God in this brief life and will enjoy his presence in heaven for eternity. A late modern version of the story places the emphasis much more on personal fulfilment in the here-and-now. This is how the church in the West has managed to sustain faith despite the collapse of the overarching theological worldview. By and large, we have accepted the rationalist-scientific account of the cosmos, but we have reserved the right to tell a drastically scaled-down version of the biblical story in order to address the issue of the individual’s relationship with God, and that has undoubtedly been a good and necessary thing.
3. The biblical story about Israel and the nations
The problem, however, is that neither the very big cosmic story nor the very small personal story does justice to the narrative shape of the Bible. The Bible is not a theological treatise about human existence, nor is it a manual for my salvation. But over the last thirty or forty years a reading of the New Testament has emerged that resists the reductionism of both the theological metanarrative about humanity and the modern evangelical story about me. It brings to the foreground, instead, the medium-sized story of Israel as it is told in the Old Testament and in the literature of second temple Judaism, and asks how the New Testament takes things from there.
The political story about the people of God can be told told in different ways, some more consistent than others. There is a tendency to present Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s story but then to let a more abstract and essentially systematic theology take over from there. I don’t think that’s good enough.
To my way of thinking what the Bible gives us is the consistently historical story of how the God of Israel came to rule the nations of the Greek-Roman world. It begins with the calling of a new creation people in Abraham in the shadow of empire. Israel struggles to fulfil this calling in the chaotic tension between blessing and catastrophe until Jesus arrives in Galilee to proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand. This means, in the first place, a final judgment in the form of war and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, from which a remnant is saved by the “faithfulness” of Jesus. But this judgment will have more far-reaching consequences because God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him authority to judge and rule over the nations—in fulfilment of the prayer of Psalm 72:8 regarding Israel’s king: “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!” The story, therefore, culminates in judgment on Rome as a violent, blasphemous imperial power and the confession of Jesus as Lord by its peoples. That, I think, is a historically consistent reading of the New Testament narrative.
4. The post-Christendom story of the people of God
The story of the people of God that began with the calling of Abraham did not end with the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world. It continued through the long era of Christendom, during which the church had a powerful role to play in defining and managing the religious life of the nations of Europe. Over the last two hundred years, however, the creator God has been supplanted as supreme authority by critical Reason, and the people of God now finds it very difficult to maintain any sort of meaningful public existence in the West.
Our story includes the transformative apocalyptic crisis described in the New Testament, but the purpose of the new creation family of Abraham today is what it has always been: to bear witness to an alternative way of being human, in relationship with the Creator, in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world, for the sake of his reputation. We do so in the conviction that he will finally make all things new, because he is the creator; but right now it’s our own historical place in the unfolding story of the people of God that we are having urgently to deal with.