“The Story” (Zondervan): Reading the Bible?

As a kind of resolution for 2010, our rector has decided that we’ll be reading the Bible this year (I pause here for jokes about the Episcopal Church and knowing nods; better now? okay). The initial vehicle will be a ten-week reading group, working through The Story: Read the Bible as One Seamless Story from Beginning to End (revised edition; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008). Amazon/Publisher

I should say right away that, on balance, I am excited that we’re pushing Bible and finding ways to encourage familiarity with it. This church happens to have racked up some pretty staggering accomplishments in outreach, in community service, in local and international charity, and (less quantitatively but not less noticeably) in growing a community marked by a joyous mutual love. A more solid biblical foundation can only strengthen the kind of theological thinking that already drives the congregation.

Now for the gripes.

The Story starts with the TNIV as a base text. Put positively: at least it’s not a paraphrastic, expansionistic re-telling of the biblical text tending toward commentary (like at least one prominent translation I could name). Put negatively: I didn’t have any use for the NIV, and the TNIV doesn’t do anything to change that assessment. I believe strongly in the educational value of underscoring, rather than denying, tensions among the biblical texts. Harmonizing translations interfere with that project of teaching and learning, so I normally avoid them except for illustrations of the problems I associate with the harmonizing project. Overall, then: could be worse.

In terms of “Seamless Story from Beginning to End”: obviously the editors have had to decide on a timeline. Decisions made here are predictable: early patriarchs and exodus; Isa 40–66 as predictive prophecy; Solomon as pious but ultimately satyric author of Proverbs (but not, apparently, Ecclesiastes. Hey, where the heck is Ecclesiastes? Holy mo…where’s Job!? I guess there’s no room for the “dissenting wisdom” in The Story). And so on.

Where The Story skips or summarizes parts of the Bible, their stated plan is to put such summaries in italics, so that this editorial material can be distinguished from the biblical text itself. A couple of observations:

  • That transitional material can run to heavy-handedness (for Noah’s generation, life had become “one big party”? How do you get that from the biblical text’s description of “wickedness” and an inclination toward “evil”?).
  • The book inserts plenty of non-biblical commentary that is not set into italics. For example, this piece, that follows Gen 15:16 (“it was credited to him as righteousness”):

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.

Similarly, after Gen 22:

Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a matter of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

The perspicacious reader will observe that Paul of Tarsus has been set amok here, and that a brand of Pauline hermeneutic is shamelessly passing itself off as Hebrew Bible.

All this said: our rector is fully aware of the strengths and shortcomings of any attempt to abridge and narrativize the Bible, and she has invited the congregation up front to argue, wrestle, denounce, and question (which I’ve no doubt they will do). So, on balance, again, it’s a project that I can totally get behind and get excited about.

Anybody out there already have experience with The Story? Any stories about The Story?

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5 Responses

  1. This is what I would call short-sighted biblical education in the church. It is a highly accessible way to get people to read the Bible and to become more familiar with its contents. Unfortunately, the whole concept of redacting the bible to fit a neat historical timeline will come back to stunt further biblical study. Especially when the decisions and interpretative choices of the editors are not made clear to the reader. The silver lining I can see is that at some point perhaps someone will ask the nagging question, “Why isn’t the Bible in chronological order, anyway? ” Opening up some space to at least introduce parishioners to the idea of document/source theories, even superficially.

  2. I disagree Amanda. Though there are certainly significant shortcomings to this kind of curricula (and Brooke is right about all the ones he lists), the long and short of it is that in the beginning people find linear stories more accessible. This is probably a cultural thing, but it’s a thing nonetheless. It is unrealisitic to suggest that people first confront the Scriptures in all of their difficult and complicated fullness. Let them begin with milk. The real problem only arises if this is where we leave people as well. It doesn’t bother me a lot that this series doesn’t touch on the counter-witness of Job or Qoheleth, but when the series is over it’s very important that those questions, or questions like them, become the next step.

    I can’t see why this should stunt further study. It seems more likely that it will encourage engagement with the Bible, which will lead those who are interested into deeper study.

    All of this is a long-winded way of saying that you’ve gotta start someplace, and the chronological narrative of the Pent+DH seems as good a place as any.

  3. […] project right now is reading Context of Scripture in a year, mainly with Joseph. But I am also reading The Story with members of my congregation. And of course, I am frequently reading biblical texts along with […]

  4. It never hurts to get anyone into the Word. Never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to guide our hearts to further understanding. Now, that said, I still believe that “application” is very important so reading, studying and “digging deeper” that what “The Story” offers is vital to Christian growth. It is a great place to begin. God’s Word is alive and well and needed in today’s world.

  5. The Story is not so much a bible as it is a marketing campaign.

    Zondervan’s best customers are naturally Christians, but there’s a limit to how many bibles you can sell to Christians who already own multiple bibles that they never use for anything anyway.

    The Story allows Zondervan to sell an edited bible as if it is something new. They’re marketing it to congregations more aggressively than to individuals so if a church decides to use the program they can hope to sell a bible to every single member.

    While that’s quite a haul, the financial icing on the cake is that Zondervan then gets to sell the church all kinds of supplemental materials.

    The omissions in The Story are sometimes very subtle. Obviously, some books and whole sections of others have been removed, but sometimes only a few verses are removed with nothing in The Story to indicate anything is missing.

    When long section are removed there is usually a brief synopsis of what is missing, but these are often incomplete and reek of personal interpretation.

    Ironically, The Story is being embraced by Christians who cry heresy when scholars using textual criticism say that the bible was edited and compiled from previous sources. Generally, conservative Christians believe God would never have allowed that to happen to his inspired word, but they are perfectly happy now that Zondervan is doing just that!

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