Biblical Narrative: Where's the Conflict?
There are three major types of literature in the Bible. The biggest category, making up 45% of the chapters in the Bible, is narrative. Narrative is a person in a place doing something that generates conflict that escalates and must be resolved.
Do we need instruction about how to read narrative stories? It seems like that should be easy. When most people read a Bible story, they might just dive in and expect Bible stories to be exactly like modern stories. But they aren’t. Bible stories are thousands of years and many cultures removed from modern stories and they tell the stories differently. It’s a little bit like making a Mac/PC switch. They’re both computers and it seems like it should be easy, but sometimes they work differently.
The biggest key to successfully reading biblical narrative is to look for the conflict. The reader can identify the Holy Spirit’s intended meaning by locating the conflict and seeing how it gets resolved. But misidentifying the conflict will get the reader totally off track.
For example, consider the micro-story about Gideon and the fleece (Judges 6:36-38). Outside of the larger context, it seems the plot conflict is that Gideon doesn’t know God’s will and the resolution is coming up with a technique of asking God for a sign. That would lead the reader to conclude that he or she should do the same thing. “If I don’t know what to do, ask for a sign.” But in view of the larger story arc through all of Judges chapter 6, the plot conflict is revealed to actually be that God wants to save his people, but all he has to work with is this coward of a man who lacks faith again. The resolution is God’s amazing generosity and persistence.
To get on the right track, try to identify these steps in a good story:
- Ordinary life
- Call to adventure
- Rising tension
- New normal
Let’s practice using the Gospel lesson of “Doubting Thomas” from the Second Sunday of Easter (John 20:19-31). Try to put a verse number next to each to the six steps above and then read my suggested answers below.
- What is ordinary life in this story? Naturally, ordinary life is described by the author right at the beginning. In verse 19, the disciples are hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews.
- What is the call to adventure? This is the element in the story that shakes things up. Without the call to adventure, ordinary life would have just continued as ordinary. Here the call to adventure is in verse 21 and is quite literally a call. Jesus said, “I am sending you.”
- What is the rising tension? Things in stories never go smoothly, so the rising tension introduces a number of “hiccups” or obstacles to overcome along the way. Here the hiccup is revealed in verses 24 and 25—Thomas was not there and doubted the report of his friends. The reader is meant to wonder, “Will Thomas be included in Jesus’ commission?! What will happen to him?!” (Bonus: click here to do a word search for the phrase “one of the Twelve” to deepen the tension!)
- What is the climax where things finally turn around? In verses 26 and 27 Jesus appeared again as before, only this time Thomas was there too and Jesus invited him to do exactly what he had demanded.
- What is the resolution of the conflict? Thomas emphatically believed in the resurrection of Jesus, and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” in verse 28.
- What is the new normal or “moral of the story”? Thomas believed, and Jesus goes on to bless all people who believe, whether they have seen or not in verse 29. In this text, we get a bonus that rarely happens in narrative—the author, St. John, steps in to directly give the application to the reader in verse 31.
The centerpiece is identifying the conflict of the story. Only then can the reader correctly put himself or herself into the story and make personal application. The reader of this text is meant to ask the same question about himself that he asked about Thomas. “Will I be included in Jesus’ commission? Or will I demand proof that might not ever come? Will I exclude myself?” And then the resolution correctly applies to the reader as well, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The story is a form of virtual reality, inside which the reader is meant to place himself or herself. The Bible isn’t just a history textbook, saying, “This interesting thing happened.” The biblical authors have a theological message that they are trying to communicate to us about big things—where we are, who we are, who God is, what the real problem in the world is, what the hope for a solution is. The big questions of human existence are being communicated through the medium of these well-crafted biblical narratives.