It’s an age-old problem—distinguishing between stories on the one hand and stories on the other. (Yes, that’s what I meant to say.) The problem is precisely that the word “story” can be used in more than one way!
“Let me tell you a story about the storied history of a three-story house.”
Do you think a story that begins that way would be just a story, or will it be history? The plot might thicken, or it might not.
Children’s bedtime stories might include “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Curious George Goes to the Fair” and “Peter Rabbit” and “Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and Bible stories and something about pigs and pancakes. How will a child learn to distinguish and interpret all this? (Then there is the comparison between stories about Santa Claus and stories about Jesus, but that’s another story. I worry about this off and on, but I don’t recall having trouble separating fact from fiction as I moved into preteen years, so I guess my son will be okay, too.)
As skeptics are quick to point out, not every element in a biblical story may be “true” as a 21st-century western mind conceives of “true.” To be sure, some discrepancies and inconsistencies appear. I think some of the difficulties may be traced to textual provenance and editing concerns—i.e., we don’t have the original text or even a 2nd-generation copy of it, so we can’t pinpoint how a new word or different spelling crept in. Other incongruities indicate that ancient writers weren’t concerned with the accurate reporting of “fact” in the same way we are. Yet the narratives in our Bibles were written to convey important truths, and they are largely structured around historical realities such as the Herodian dynasty, the 2nd/rebuilt temple, the Philistines, or ancient Egypt.
In interpreting narrative, it is both important and helpful to pay attention to the tools of the storytelling trade, such as . . .
- the presentation and development of characters
- the pacing of a story—where it slows down and spends time, and where its gaps occur
- the setting
In the area of “setting,” I recommend this short video produced by The Bible Project
After you’ve watched that video, I’d be interested in your thoughts on it, and/or on these comments that appear under the video on that YouTube page:
“Love lots of your stuff, but I think this errs on the side of imposing too much on the biblical authors. Maybe the author of Matthew was cognizant of the irony of Egypt as a place of safety and Jerusalem as one of danger for Jesus, but does that mean he literarily orchestrated those locations to “mess with you”? They were just the facts, right? If anything, it’s a brilliant move on the part of God as the ultimate author of redemption stories.” I agree.
Biblical authors tend not to get enough attention in my experience, so I appreciated the emphasis on authorial intent. In some sense, God—the One behind the human author or community—is “Author,” but the texts so often show human inventiveness, method, and personality.
A kind of meta-narrative can run along on top of a story through such comments that are often seen in web-based forums. Comments can become a supra-literature literature, i.e., a story on top of a story. I wonder what comments might have been uttered, or at least thought, the other day when I (a stickler-type) helped someone else with a piece of writing referred to as a “narrative.” This piece contained gaps and featured a bit of “spin.” This particular narrative wasn’t a very interesting story in most people’s worlds, but it certainly contained truth and painted a picture. If you looked at the finished product, you could find evidence of both the author’s and the editor’s work. The underlying history was clear enough, but a strict historian would have issues with it. Using that written material and its account of history as a starting point, one could also begin to construct a narrative of my colleague’s or my work life.
I’m not much of a storyteller myself. Narrative is not how my creative genes show themselves, so I’ve rarely written stories. For more on story and narrative, may I recommend one previous post of my own and two external opportunities: