The Drama of Scripture – Book Review
The Drama of Scripture is the result of the partnership of biblical scholar Craig Bartholomew and missiologist Michael Goheen. Their intent was to draw together the grand narrative that is inherent in the Bible so that modern believers can live it out accordingly. Thus the subtitle of the book indicates its purpose: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. This echoes a theme which has become common among theologians in the 21st century, that the Bible is not merely a book of propositions to be believed, but a narrative to be acted out. It is more like a map than it is a textbook.
Structure and Organization
Bartholomew and Goheen describe the program for the book in the introduction, which in keeping with the drama metaphor, they call the Prologue. They describe the importance of story in our lives. For instance, it is impossible to understand the meaning of an event or its significance apart from telling a story. Similarly, you cannot get to know someone without finding out about their personal story. What we do and how we live our lives depends in a large measure on what story we perceive ourselves to be living within. “We can have no more than one fundamental story as the basis for what we think and how we act.” (20, emphasis original)
As Christians, then, it is crucially important that we understand the story of our faith, which is the story of the Bible. The biblical story is not merely one story among many, but it claims to be the fundamental story through which we perceive everything else. The authors quote N.T. Wright, who says that the Bible is “the true story of the whole world.” (21) They then pick up Wright’s metaphor to describe how the Bible is authoritative: it is like a Shakespearean play in five acts, where the last part of act five is missing. The actors who wish to enact the play must play their roles exactly, but they cannot simply leave the drama hanging at the end. Instead, the most appropriate thing for them to do would be to improvise the remainder of the play in light of all that has gone before. Wright says that it also contains “hints… of how the play is supposed to end,” (The New Testament and the People of God, 141-42) which Bartholomew and Goheen then expand into a sixth act. The breakdown of the acts are 1-creation; 2-fall; 3-Israel; 4-Jesus; 5-church; 6-final restoration. The book has no chapters per se. Instead each act is given its own section and explored in depth before moving on to the next act.
Act 1 covers the two creation accounts given in Genesis 1 and 2. In this act we are introduced to the main character, God, who creates as a masterful artist. The pinnacle of God’s creation is humankind and the world is God’s kingdom.
In act 2, humanity rebels against God, choosing autonomy from God rather than continuing in loving relationship with him. The consequence is a breakdown in humanity’s relationship with God and with one another.
Act 3 is the longest act, telling the story from Genesis 4 through to the end of the Old Testament. It breaks into two scenes. The first is “A People for the King,” covering God’s calling of the nation of Israel in the Penteteuch. The second scene, “A Land for His People,” describes Israel’s story through the rest of the Old Testament. Israel conquers the land (Joshua), fails in its mission (Judges), gets a king, (Samuel), continues to rebel, and is exiled from the land (Kings, Chronicles). Finally, at the end of the Old Testament, Israel returns to its land.
Between acts 3 and 4 there is an Interlude where the authors discuss the historical events which took place in Israel between the Old and New Testaments, as well as some of this period’s literature, books which are not included in the Protestant biblical canon but are included in the Apocrypha.
Act 4 tells the story of Jesus as found in the gospels. He preaches and enacts the Kingdom throughout his life. Ultimately he is crucified and resurrected.
Act 5, the story of the church, is divided into two scenes. The first scene covers the events recorded in the book of Acts. The second scene is the continuing mission of the church, the part which we must enact today.
Finally, in Act 6 we see the restoration of creation, centered on the book of Revelation.
There is much to appreciate in this book. I resonate with the authors on a personal level because I also have been heavily influenced by the work of N.T. Wright. His book, The New Testament and the People of God, was one of the first works I read in biblical scholarship, and it was the book that first got me to consider coming to seminary. It is among my top five favorite books of all time. Wright’s scholarship comes through Bartholomew and Goheen’s work at so many places that the book could almost serve as a basic introduction to Wright. Unfortunately the authors lack Wright’s own metaphor-laden prose and conflict-filled scholastic rants that make his writings so delightful to read.
Bartholomew and Goheen are right in their understanding of the place of story to define the perspectives of individuals and communities. There are many stories which compete for our allegiance. Over the past several years the Barna group has studied the ethical behaviors of people with different beliefs. They found no major difference between “born-again” Christians and the rest of society in terms of moral behavior (e.g. the divorce rate). However, when they compared people with what they call a “biblical worldview” with the rest of society, moral behaviors were dramatically different. This is the power that is involved in selecting which story has our primary allegiance.
The authors state that they believe the two keys to understanding the drama of Scripture are the twin concepts of covenant and kingdom. They have succeeded in their goal of tracing these two throughout scripture. A strength of the book is how the authors consistently show how covenant and kingdom are found in places we might not expect, like creation. They also show how each of these concepts is also tied to mission at every crucial juncture in scripture; it is not as if there was no mission until the Great Commission (Matt 28).
Bartholomew and Goheen contend that “when we read the Bible in… a fragmented way, we ignore its divine author’s intention to shape our lives through its story.” (12) The Bible must be understood as a comprehensive whole. In their discussion of the church (176), they write,
Though the Spirit-filled community of Acts 2 is in one sense new to history, it also stands in historical continuity with the Old Testament nation that had its origins in Abraham. God formed Israel to be a light to the nations, but the Israelites failed to live up to their calling, so God sent them into exile. Nevertheless, he promised to gather his people again one day, pouring out his Spirit on them so they might at last fulfill their calling.
The weakness, however, is that the authors have limited these explicit discussions to places where the biblical text has already made these relationships explicit. Paragraphs like the one above would have been extremely helpful throughout their discussions of acts 1, 2, and 3. Instead, what we have is essentially a retelling of the biblical stories. The book is really not much more than a survey. This is very disappointing given the high expectations that they created at the start of the book for finding unity in the scriptures.
Another weakness is the strained use of the drama metaphor. N.T. Wright’s original stated purpose for his drama metaphor was to provide a theological model that illustrates how the Bible can be authoritative without simply becoming a series of propositions and proof texts. In Wright’s original (limited) context, the metaphor is an effective way to demonstrate what kind of authority the scriptures exhibit. But there are three fundamental flaws with turning the metaphor into an entire framework for understanding scripture.
First, the Bible is not like a drama. It is not presented to us as a single story arc, but rather as a library of 66 books. To be sure, the books are interrelated, but they do not form a single narrative. Examining the Bible by using an arbitrary six-act grid may help to clarify some relationships between parts, but it is certainly not part of the structure of the Bible itself. This is not merely quibbling over a minor detail. Part of what makes it hard to find the continuity within the Bible is that all the main characters keep changing. I can think of no other drama that spans generations and even centuries as the Bible does.
Second, one problem with a purely narrative approach to the Bible is its failure to take account of the many other types of literature found in scripture. What is the place of the five OT poetic books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs)? What is the place of the non-Pauline epistles? What about ancillary stories, like Ruth and Esther? The Bible contains a lot more than just metanarrative.
Third, and most importantly, this particular structure distorts the content of scripture itself. Acts 1 and 2 draw from only three out of 1189 chapters in the Protestant canon. In contrast, the rest of the Old Testament, which comprises 75% of the Bible, is covered in just a single act. In fact, much of Evangelical theology has tended to brush over or completely ignore act 3 altogether. It would be much more faithful to the scriptures if we instead treated creation and “fall” as Prologue, and treated the two scenes of Act 3 as the first two acts. This would put the emphasis in our theology in the same places that scripture does: Moses; kingdom and exile; Christ.