David A. Booth
How Bible Stories Work: A Guided Study of Biblical Narrative, by Leland Ryken. Wooster, OH: Weaver, 2015, 129 pages, $9.99, paper.
A large part of becoming educated is learning to read well. For the Christian, far more is at stake than merely cultivating erudition. Rightly knowing God through his Word is dependent upon our skill as listeners and as readers. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a series of reliable and accessible guides designed to teach lay people how to read God’s Word better? Now there is. For nearly half a century Leland Ryken has been teaching Christians to read God’s Word with greater care, sensitivity, and depth. How Bible Stories Work is the first of six volumes by Professor Ryken, published by Weaver Books, designed “to equip Christians to understand and teach the Bible effectively by giving them reliable tools for handling the biblical text” (7). We could scarcely ask for, or even imagine, a better guide.
Every pastor and ruling elder faces the challenge of teaching Christians that proverbs are not unconditional promises from God and that figurative language should not be understood woodenly. In these obvious ways we are already modeling and teaching aspects of hermeneutics. Nevertheless, I suspect that few pastors have ever systematically taught their congregations how stories work, even though the majority of God’s Word comes to us in the form of historical narrative. This book provides a clear and helpful framework for rectifying this oversight.
The basic premise of this book is that understanding how stories work precedes grasping what the stories are trying to teach. To put the matter positively, the better we become at interpreting the Bible as literature the more fully and accurately we will grasp the Bible’s theology. The opening chapter explains how “the subject of literature (whatever the genre) is universal human experience, concretely embodied” (17). Unless readers fully grasp this principle, they will have great difficulty relating literature, including biblical literature, to life (25). Regretfully, Professor Ryken sometimes pushes this principle in unhelpful ways. For example, Professor Ryken describes God’s judgment on the Tower of Babel by saying: “This story tells us about a failed experiment in living on a grand scale” (22). Now, it might be easier to relate to a story “about a failed experiment in living on a grand scale” than to one about God judging all the people on earth who were united in rebellion against him, but the story of the Tower of Babel is about wickedness and judgment rather than a failed experiment. What makes literature engaging is the combination of “universal human experience” and the particular, even sometimes the unique, ways in which those experiences are “concretely embodied.”
In my judgment, one of the most common errors in evangelical Bible study is the over-identification of the reader’s experiences with the events of biblical history. If the Bible were a collection of moralistic fairy tales it would be essential for the reader to be just like Moses when the LORD meets with him at the burning bush. But since the Bible is a revelation of God’s character and saving work, rather than a collection of moralistic fairy tales, such distinct encounters teach us the most when we don’t attempt to flatten them to fit within our own experiences. Thankfully, this book contains few such lapses.
The heart of the book is found in six chapters which explore setting, characterization, and plot. Trained pastors, and other experienced readers, will have largely internalized how they assess the setting and characterization in stories, and therefore we can easily forget that most lay people need to be taught how to analyze these literary features. Professor Ryken strikes a helpful balance toward this goal by providing sufficient detail to be clear without overwhelming the reader with minutia. The heart of the book is rounded out with insightful chapters on “plot structure and unity” and “plot devices.” Professor Ryken notes that “the track record of study Bibles and commentaries on the subjects of plot structure and unity is not as good as it should be” (78); he helpfully warns against some of the common pitfalls found in in “published material on Bible stories” (79). While these warnings are important, one of the most helpful features of this book is that it guides individuals into thinking clearly about how stories work rather than providing readers with a long list of technical rules to apply. The book closes with a chapter on “Hero Stories,” which Ryken calls “a neglected and fruitful narrative genre,” and a final chapter on how we find theological significance in narrative texts.
This thin volume is an excellent resource for a pastor or elder who wants to lead an eight- to ten-week study on how to read biblical narrative. Each of the eight chapters in this book is crafted with the right balance of detail, illustration, and brevity to be covered in a single class. This book would also work well in a discussion-based adult Bible study where each participant reads through the book on his or her own prior to class. Pastors will want to augment this book by explaining how Hebrew narrative differs from modern English stories and also by demonstrating how the didactic portions of the Bible both explain and limit the ways in which biblical stories are to be read. In the series preface Professor Ryken writes: “The Bible can be trusted to reveal its extraordinary qualities if we approach it with ordinary methods of literary analysis” (8). That is undoubtedly true, and this book will help God’s people use the tools of literary analysis to grasp better the priceless treasure of his Word and apply it to their lives.
David A. Booth is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church in North Andover, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, March 2017.