Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Pinterest Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr Connect on YouTube

Rediscovering The”Plot”of Sacred Scripture

December 21, 2009

One of the most significant losses in the modern era has been the loss of the Biblical narrative in the hearts and minds of most people. Scripture is the story of the human family told by God himself. In story form He tells us how we were made and why. What happened so that things are the way they are today. Why do we have infinite longing in a finite world? Why do we struggle with sin so much? How can we be rescued from sin and death and find our hearts true  satisfaction? The Biblical narrative answers these sorts of questions and more. The Biblical story or narrative, mediates reality to us in a memorable way. God, like any good Father tells us our story and asks us to tell our own children. To know our story is to understand ourselves in relation to God, the world and others.

And what a story it is! It has more of passion, conflict and drama than any great epic. It is the “greatest story ever told” but most people have lost its details and no longer know the story. Hence they are detached from the reality that the story mediates. Many are adrift in a world of little meaning, or competing “meanings” with no way to sort it all out. They have few explanations as to the most basic questions of the meaning of life, the meaning of suffering, our ultimate destiny and so forth. Without the story, life looses its meaning.

To illustrate the loss of the narrative, I was talking to Catholic seventh graders a couple of years ago and I made reference to Adam and Eve. As our discussion progressed it became evident to me that they did not really know who Adam and Eve were. They had heard the names before but couldn’t say who they really were or what they had done. About the most erudite statement that came from one of the students was from a young man in the second row who said, “Aren’t they in the Bible or something?” No other specifics emerged from the discussion. I resolved that day to scrap our compartmentalized religious programs and switch every grade level to a “back to basics” program that emphasized the Biblical narrative.

How has this loss of the narrative happened?  Some argue that the Church stopped telling the story. Poor preaching, poor catechesis and pretty soon no one knows the story any more. I do not doubt there is substance to this explanation. But the explanation is still too general for it hardly seems likely that “the Church” just decided one day to stop telling the story. What seems more specifically to have happened is that we stopped telling the story effectively. And what I would like to argue is that we lost touch with the “plot” of sacred Scripture and because of this we were no longer able to tell the story in a compelling and interesting way.

What then is a plot? The plot in a story in the focal point to which all the events and characters relate. It is like the center point of a wheel around which everything else revolves. Now a plot, if it is to be successful, always involves some sort of conflict or negative development that must be resolved. This is what holds our interest as the question emerges, “How will this problem be resolved?!” If, in scene one of story, everything is just fine, and scene two everything is fine and in scene three still fine, people start tuning out. It is the conflict or negative development that renders the plot interesting. Plots usually have five stages:

  1. Exposition – where we are introduced to the main characters and elements of the Story
  2. Conflict – where the negative development occurs that must be resolved
  3. Climax – where the conflict reaches its highest point and the tension is greatest. Here there is often an epic battle, or experience of the conflict. And here the conflict is resolved usually by an heroic figure or striking event.
  4. Falling action – Here is shown the result of the climax, and its effects on the characters, setting, and proceeding events.
  5. Resolution – The Conflict having been resolved,  this last stage of the story shows either a return to normality for the characters or an attainment of an even higher state for our characters than the situation than existed before the conflict. This results in a sense of catharsis (or release of tension and anxiety) for the reader.

What then is the plot of sacred scripture? Simply this:

  1. Exposition – God created Man as an act of love and made him to live in union with his God. In the beginning Adam and Eve accepted this love and experienced a garden paradise. The heart of their happiness was to know the Lord and walk with Him in a loving and trusting relationship.
  2. Conflict – But man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his creator die in his heart and he willfully rejected the God who given him everything by listening to an evil tempter who had given him nothing. Adam rebelled against God and refused to be under his loving authority and care. The led to a complete unraveling of everything. Paradise vanished, Adam and Eve experienced a deep and personal disintegration of their inmost being. Confused, ashamed, angry, accusatory and embarrassed they withdraw into hiding and cover up. They can no longer tolerate the presence and glory of the God who still loved them and must live apart from Him. God makes an initial promise to one day bring healing but when is not clear. So here is the initial conflict or negative development that defines the plot and rivets our attention. How will this tragic development be resolved? Will Adam and Eve turn back to God? Will they ever be able to experience peace in his presence again? How will Adam and Eve ever recover from the self inflicted wounds they have?  A great love story between humanity and God has gone very sour. Will our lovers ever reunite? Will paradise reopen again? When will God act? How?
  3. Climax – In continually rising action things go from bad to worse: Adam and Eve’s rebelliousness is passed on to their children as Cain kills Abel. Wickedness multiplies so rapidly that God must take action, first confusing the languages of Man and humbling him at Babel, then practically starting all over again with the flood. In a sudden development in the plot God chooses the family of Abram and his descendants to set the initial stage for a final conflict with his opponent the devil and to restore Man. Through a series of covenants and actions God prepares a people to receive the great Savior who will resolve this terrible problem. But God must take this chosen people through a series of shocking and powerful purifications so that at least some can be humble enough to receive the cure and be healed. God purifies them through slavery in Egypt, a terrifying but glorious freedom ride through the desert, the giving of the Law, the settlement in a Promised Land. But they are STILL rebellious and more and escalating purifications are necessary: an invasion by Assyrians, then by Babylonians, then exile, then return to their land. All through God sent prophets to rebuke and console. The conflicts and waiting have been continuously escalating. Then at last our savior steps on the scene! our God hero, wonderful counselor Father forever and Prince of Peace (Is 9:6). He is named Jesus for he would save his people from their sins! (Matt 1:21) In a crucial and epic battle between God and the devil, Jesus mounts a cross and defeats the devil at his own game. By dying he destroys death! The climax is now reached. The devil seems victorious but on the third day our Savior and God Hero Jesus casts off death like a garment. Ascending forty days later he reopens the gates of paradise.
  4. Falling Action– Now that the epic battle is won, Jesus sends out Apostles to announce the Good News of His victory over sin and death. His apostles go forth with the message that the long reign of sin is over and that, through grace it is increasingly possible to live a transformed life, a life no longer dominated by sin, anger, resentment, fear, bitterness, greed, lust, hatred and the like but rather a life dominated by love, mercy, joy, serenity, confidence, holiness, chastity, self control and more. A new world has been opened. Up ahead lie open the gates of paradise.
  5. Resolution – God has resolved the terrible consequences of the rebellion of Adam and Eve just as he promised. But things do not merely return to normal, they return to supernormal for the paradise that God now offers is not an earthly one, it is a heavenly one. It’s happiness is not merely natural, it is supernatural. And we the reader experience the catharsis of knowing that God is faithful and he has saved us from this present evil age.

But the plot has been lost  by many – What a story and what a ride. But notice that the plot hinges on a key and negative development: SIN. Without that development there is no plot. And here is where the Church lost the ability to hand on the narrative: we lost the plot, and in particular the negative development that is necessary for a plot and makes it interesting. About fifty years ago there seems to have been a conscious effort to move away from talking vigorously about sin. It was said that we should be more “positive” and that “honey attracted more bees than vinegar.”  Crosses (too negative) were removed from Churches and replaced with “resurrection Jesus.”  Thinking our numbers would increase by a kinder, gentler Church we set aside the key element of the plot. Suddenly our narrative no longer made a lot sense. Everything is basically OK, everyone is really fine, just about everyone will go to heaven. And all along we thought we would be more relevant and inviting to people. In end all we had to say was “God loves you.”

But increasingly we have become irrelevant. If I’m really OK why go to Church, why receive sacraments, why pray, why call on God at all? If I’m fine, who needs a savior?  Who needs Jesus, God or religion? And then comes  the most obvious critique: “Church is boring” and “The Bible is boring!”  Well sure, every story without a well developed plot IS boring. In fact, if it is poorly developed enough I might just stop reading the story or walk outof the movie. And that is just what people have done. Only 27% of Catholics go to Church anymore. To over 70% our story is irrelevant and uncompelling. Why? Collectively we jettisoned the “negative development” that makes the plot. Without a rich understanding of sin, salvation makes little sense.

Regarding the story, most people no longer “get it” because the whole point has been lost. People no longer remember a story that makes little sense to them. And so it is that I found myself in a class of Catholic seventh graders who had never heard of Adam and Eve. It’s time to rediscover the central element of the “plot” of  Sacred Scripture, sin. It’s time to speak of it, creatively, in a compelling way. In so doing we will once again set forth a plot that is compelling and interesting and help people rediscover the greatest story ever told.

Here is a very creative muscial telling of “the Story”

Filed in: Bible, Church, Faith • Tags: ,

Comments (15)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Bender says:

    I know — or at least, I presume — that the folks running religious education back in the 70s were acting in good faith. They thought that they were doing the right thing. But judging from personal experience in CCD, and the experience of countless others, it was a disaster. (Of course, I quit CCD because it was so much substanceless fluff, so I really cannot judge too much from personal experience, but from what I understand of the experience of others, I didn’t miss a whole lot in those classes.)

    So, for me to say that I don’t know how someone could teach religious education without first teaching the material you mention Monsignor would be incorrect — I do know how they could because I’ve seen it first-hand . . . but still.

    I suppose I should say that, what with the knowledge of how much of a disaster those programs were, no matter how well-intentioned, I don’t know how anyone today could teach any course in religious education without starting the year with the fundamental questions of: (1) Who and what is God? (2) Who and what is man? (3) Who and what is Jesus Christ? (4) Who and what is the Holy Spirit?

    How could anyone teach any level of CCD or Catholic school without first addressing these foundational questions? How could any year not start with “In the beginning” and then go on to discuss, as shown in the examples of “the man” and “the woman,” just exactly who we are and why we are and what we are and where we come from?

    Why do we exist? Why are we here? Or, more to the point that is on everyone’s mind in the class — Why are we here in this class? Why should I care about what you are teaching me?

    Thankfully, we have had in recent years a greater understanding of the importance of these fundamental, foundational questions, which were explored so brilliantly by Venerable Servant of God John Paul II.

  2. Bender says:

    Actually, you could spend several weeks on the first couple chapters of Genesis alone. There are so many layers of meaning in both the creation accounts and the story of the Fall. Each succeeding step in the action says so much and stimulates so much discussion and thought — Did God make a mistake and change His mind when He saw that “it is not good that man should be alone”? Just exactly what was that first “Original” sin, what did it consist of? How does the man jumping into the bushes, trying to hide from God, describe the experience of mankind in general, especially when one has done wrong?

    Every step in these accounts is so deep in meaning. You could spend weeks on them (and John Paul even spent a few years teaching on them in his Theology of the Body).

  3. crazylikeknoxes says:

    I currently teach a seventh-grade PSR class. At the beginning of the year, I asked them, “what is the plot of the Bible?” Silence. Cricket chirping. I think you are absolutely correct that “sin,” I typically refer to “the fall,” is the sine qua non without which Sacred Scripture has no context. I explained that in the beginning there was “the fall,” everything after that is the story of God’s efforts to redeem mankind and undo the damage. (Of course, the damage will be undone with interest–oh happy fall!) The Old Testament is the story of redemption by the Law and the New Testament is the story of redemption through Jesus Christ and grace. But the plot of the story is still redemption. I’m not sure if this is the best way to put it, but I tell them, “yes, we are born damned,” otherwise why would we need to be redeemed.

    So the next week I ask them, “what is the plot of the Bible.” Silence. Crickets chirping.

    • Repetitio mater studiorum (Reptition is the Mother of Studies). Also, I guess it pertains to seventh graders to pretend they don’t know something, even after you’ve just told them. They’ve got to be “cool”

      • crazylikeknoxes says:

        If we ever get past the idea of “redemption” being the plot of the Bible, I would suggest to them that this is the plot or narrative of their own lives as well.

  4. John Harden says:

    Msgr, I couldn’t agree with you more. The first time I tried to read the Bible cover-to-cover, I was lost in it. The story of it wasn’t apparent to me, and the events didn’t make sense. But the “plot” of the Bible became clear to me after I found The Great Adventure Bible Timeline by Jeff Cavins. The Bible Timeline showed me how all of the events of the story relate to each other, and how the story flows throughout the narrative books of the Bible. Now I am leading a “Quick Journey through the Bible” study at my parish, and the people are experiencing the same renewed understanding and appreciation of Scripture that I did. Check it out at http://www.greatadventureonline.com.

  5. Brad says:

    This was magnificent, Msgr!! I am a Reverting Catholic, who left the Church as a teenager because my family found a Protestant church which dug more deeply into the Bible. It was within Protestant circles that I came to love the Scriptures, and learn about sin, its impact on Creation’s relationship with God, and the sad effects of ignoring sin in the “Church growth movement.” THEN, it was re-examining the Church of my youth which showed me the seamless integration of the Scriptures into the practice of the Catholic Church, with the best understanding and harmonization of all the Divine Revelation!

    What you describe is a need, indeed, to show our children from their earliest days the narrative of our Lord’s intimate and radical involvement in His Creation – to captivate them with a sense of wonder as they contemplate the “big-ness” and “other-ness” of the God who created them, loved them, and saved them from eternal death through that love and sacrifice. As a former Presbyterian and children’s Sunday School teacher, I’ve seen great results of memorization of Scripture verses and Catechism questions (as we’ve become Catholic, we’ve begun using the New St. Joseph First Communion Catechism with our 6, 4, and 2 year olds). We also use a wonderful children’s Bible called the “Jesus Storybook Bible,” which uses fun, easy language to introduce children to typology, and where all Old Covenant stories point to the “Great Rescuer” – Christ!

    I suppose I’m seeing the world through my own wavering eyes, wanting to prevent my children from “wandering” as I did. I think that’s why your article resonated so deeply with me. Thank you so much, Monsignor. God bless you as you celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord!

    • Thanks for your testimony. It is too bad that you had to develop a love for the scriptures away from the Catholic Church but I hear this a lot and we clearly have to do better, a lot better at teaching and loving the scriptures. thanks for the witness and the reminder!

  6. Anne B. says:

    I will never forget our local superintendent of Catholic schools (a religious sister, no less) looking at me with horror and asking, “You don’t really teach them all those myths, do you?”

    Sister has been gone for many years now, but yes, I continue to teach my third graders those holy and sacred myths which are truer than true and which provide the firm and solid ground of our Faith.

  7. Bender says:

    In story form He tells us how we were made and why. What happened so that things are the way they are today.

    It is pretty clear that Mayor Fenty was never told the story. Or perhaps he missed the point or just doesn’t care.

    Maybe now that he is done purposely sticking it to the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations by having his little signing ceremony in a church building (All Souls Unitarian), he could read the following story from Genesis —

    “Then God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ . . . God created man in his image; in the divine image He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them, saying: ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.'”

    and

    “The LORD God said: ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.’ So the LORD God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and He brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none proved to be the suitable partner for the man.
    “So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, He took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The LORD God then built up into a woman the rib that He had taken from the man. When He brought her to the man, the man said: ‘This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.’
    “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.”

    Mayor — this first story speaks of the original unity of man and woman — a male does not complete another male, and a female does not complete another female, rather, it is male and female who complete each other — “in the divine image He created [man]; male and female He created them” — it is male and female, and only male and female, who can be “married,” i.e. joined, to one another in unity. It is only male and female who can “be fruitful and multiply.”

    The second story, which Mayor Fenty needs to read, or reread, likewise tells of how only a male and a female can be two joined so as to form one body. It was not another male that was made from the man’s rib, but a female. And since it was a female made from the man’s rib, it can only be a female that can fill the resulting hole in the man’s side. And if that wasn’t obvious enough, the story makes it abundantly clear – “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.”

    • Yes, when God says I will make a suitable partner for the man he made Eve, not Steve. The suitable partner for a man is a woman this is waht God intends in setting forth marriage: the suitable and fertile relationship that should be till death do them part.

  8. Jim Mazzarelli says:

    Monsignor – I realize this is an old blog, but in it you said:

    ” … I resolved that day to scrap our compartmentalized religious programs and switch every grade level to a “back to basics” program that emphasized the Biblical narrative.”

    I teach in our PSR (parish school of religion and I’m curious what your “back to basics” program looks like.

    Thank you for this and your many, many Spirit filled posts.

    God Bless,

    Jim Mazzarelli