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 why 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.
Thus, 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 is 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:
- Exposition – where we are introduced to the main characters and elements of the story.
- Conflict – where the negative development occurs that must be resolved.
- 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.
- Falling action – Here is shown the result of the climax, and its effects on the characters, setting, and proceeding events.
- 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:
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.
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. This 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?
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 are been continuously escalating.
Climax – The curtain rises and the scene is unexpected. A small backwater town of perhaps 300 people called Nazareth. An Angel, dispatched from God greets a humble virgin named Mary. God has a plan to save his people, and to begin its unfolding he goes not to any King or army commander, but to Mary of Nazareth. A great paradox but a fitting one as well. Where Eve of old had said, “No’ the new Eve, Mary, says, “Yes.” This “fiat” opens the door to our savior, 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).
After thirty hidden years in Nazareth he steps forth in public ministry of three years where he announces the Gospel and summons the human family to faith and trust.
Then 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.
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.
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 super-normal 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.”
As a result we in the Church have increasingly 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 out of the movie. And that is just what people have done. Only 25% 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.
N.B I originally published this article about two years ago in Homiletic and Pastoral Review
32 Replies to “How Rediscovering the“Plot” of Sacred Scripture is Essential to Evangelization”
Msgr, you really are a blessing on this world.
God love you and keep you.
You are spot on! The Holy Spirit is with you!
You are the salt of the earth!!!!
Boy, when I’m ready to write my screen play, you’ll be the first that I will contact!
“boy” is not directed at you Msgr., sorry, just an expression.
The subject of sin has been somewhat neglected in catechesis and preaching, I reckon, since Blessed Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 with this admonition: “Nowadays, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnation.”
That set the tone for the Spirit of the Council, and many hard truths were swept under the rug, along with the confessionals.
I think the reason for the admonition is that Vatican II the resolution had been often misunderstood and the “happy ending” had gotten lost.
With too heavy an emphasis on sin, the story is often misunderstood as man needing to reconcile himself to God, with the burden being entirely or almost entirely on man. This has been rejected as heresy many times (Pelegianism), but it keeps cropping up. Because this is something that man cannot do on his own, eventually, man gives up in frustration.
The point of John XXIII’s admonition is that the Church must teach from reason and mercy and not out of fear. He was entirely correct, but easily misunderstood.
Only hopeful statement I can give about the 7th graders: when I was in school, I was shy, and if a crowd of “popular kids” started answering a question, I didn’t try to raise my hand or chime in, even if I knew the answer. May have been several kids like that, in the class?
Yes, I realize too that there may have been the “too cool for school” attitude going on.
Too much honey has led many to “spiritual diabetes” and/or “spiritual death.” Many don’t realize that we have life in our souls and that life, whether in our souls or in our bodies, must be respected and nourished with a “proper diet,” spiritual/physical exercise (e.g., prayer, loving works of mercy, the Sacraments and other work), and rest. Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth and the life” that we may come before Him fully alive one day, being recognizable to Him and able to know Him as He Is, that we may attain to our ultimate purpose which is beyond our earthly experience.
If the Church was given the ability to cameo persoins from the past who had rebelled and sinned to the point of deserving Hell (whether in Purgatory or actually reaching Hell), showing the world the result of a person’s rebellion, e.g., an image of a person as that person really exists in Hell similar to that granted by Our Lady of Fatima to the children, it would cause many to change course I think. But then, would the result be that many do good not out of love but out of fear of the loss of their souls?
People: “Give us a sign that we may believe!”
Lord: “Many signs have been given, but you have not believed.”
People: “Give us the sign that we desire.”
Lord: “But what you desire is not true. You are lost in the silliness of your own imagination because you have not accepted my Word.”
People: “Then we will not believe.”
Lord: “Then, against My Will, you have chosen to seal your own fate. For I AM the way, the truth and the life, and I can not lie. I AM love. In rejecting me, you have rejected all of these. Accept Me, and you will be saved; reject Me, and you will lose yourself forever.”
As a Catechist for the preparing the young for confirmation i would say the failling falls onto the parents of the children, the brak down of the family and the sugary coated feel good of spreading the gospel. I being Catholic and my wife raised Lutheran(she converted to Catholisim) joined as one in the formation of our childrens understanding and belief in the Almighty as soon as they were born, forming a base for their faith, the church is the integral part of this belief system. The church offers the chance of salvation through the development of our relationshipo with jesus and the sacraments. If I do not believe my sins will bring me to hell then, as a growing number of beleivers think, then as Msgr said why celebrate Mass. Most of the confirmant candidates, in our Diocese, have a healthy fear of sin and it’s consequences, could it be because we live in a rural, family, faith oriented life style?
Yes, our God is as loving God, however if we do not fear the lose of his love, through committing sin and do not face him in complete obedience, then hell is really scarry. I fear God more than anythign else in this textile world and hell is scarry only because it is void of Gods’ Love, through our commitment of sin.
I try to read the readings for the Mass before we go each Sunday. I am shocked at how little I know about the Old Testament and as you put it “the story.” I’ll often find myself looking up references for the first readings in particular. I wonder how many people are sitting there in the pews, not having a clue about what is really being said.
As for religious ed, many of the curriculums out there are not-so-great. I supplement with the Faith and Life series at home. You can even just read the textbook together. And for an added bonus, as a parent, you will re-learn your catechism as well.
Great post, Father. Could you recommend a Bible Study suitable for doing at home? I’ve tried the ones at the parish, they usually involve “faith-sharing” and little learning…
May I suggest the awe-full (as in full-of-awe) http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/. Most excellently in conformity with Catholic Teaching. It will surpass your expectations!
May God Bless you and yours.
I forgot the Awe-Full (full of Awe) Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D. site,
Both have many, many invaluable Catholic Bible resources that are free!
Pax et bonum
Thank you, Father for highlighting this issue. You have described the problem very well. For me, the solution to the issue you raise was the Great Adventure: Bible Timeline scripture study by Ascension Press.
Jeff Cavins, who was born and raised a Catholic, left the church and became a Protestant minister, and then returned to the faith (founding host of EWTN’s Life on the Rock show, author, etc.) has brought Catholics and the Church a great gift in his understanding of the narrative structure of the story of salvation. His Bible Timeline scripture study helped me finally understand this plot by reading the Bible in a different order than it occurs in the canon, which is ordinarily not arranged in a way which promotes a clear understanding of that story narrative. In the course of that study you read the 14 books of scripture which follow the plot, which is divided into 12 “chapters” or periods. Each period is color coded to help you remember it, and the non-narrative books are color-coded to the period to which they apply, so they help you understand the context of these other books, and when and why they were written. Through the course of the study you realize that the Bible is an integral, coherent collection of scripture, sewn together by the royal red bloodline of Adam, Abraham, Moses, the Davidic Kings and, finally, Jesus. This story of salvation is the real seamless garment, (no apologies to Cardinal Bernardin, RIP.)
The Bible Timeline presents the big picture, looking at the whole of scripture in the context of that narrative story of salvation as well as in the context of Catholic understanding of God’s Revelation.
Here’s a short video describing the Bible Timeline study in more depth:
The Great Adventure Catholic Bible Study
I don’t have any affiliation with the publisher and no financial interest in this series – I’m just very grateful for having embarked on this study of scripture six years ago because it has helped me understand my Catholic faith and Sacred Scripture so much better than I ever had before, and it has brought me closer to God. I highly recommend it.
Love this post! God is the most amazing Author!
When I was a little boy, my mom gave me a picture bible. I remember it had a gruesome picture of Absalom hanging by his hair–that was great. I also remember being touched by Moses not being allowed to enter the promise land, though eventually he made it into the Promised Land.
Msgr., you really got to the root of the problem.
Interesting, Cardinal Dolan recently encouraged the use of Confession as a valued component of the New Evangelization. He also mentioned that some of his fellow Bishops may have a serious problem with this. I think he got it wrong, the lay faithful, once again, have a problem with this proclamation. Namely, what possible objection could any consecrated person have with Confession unless they do not believe in this sacrament. It is almost as if the Devil and Sin do not exist. Are we so into “ecumenism” that salvation is by belief alone or relative among religions? Cardinal Dolan’s qualifier indirectly points to the real crisis within the Church . . . the perception of the loss of authentic Catholic Faith by some of our Bishops.
I am just finishing up reading “The Sinner’s Guide” by Venerable Louis of Grenada. A great book in my novice view. What hits me about your recent posts, including your insight into Dr. Martin’s “Will Many be Saved, is the thought that we not only dance around sin and it’s consequence, but we have lost the critical sense of “Christ the King”. After all, isn’t this concept essential within our core belief of Catholicism? Venerable Louis, although not a modern man nor enlightened by the Spirit of Vatican II, is spot on in his teachings. By my Catholic faith, I can guarantee that to anyone.
Not judging, just my humble view. . . all in Christ the King .
Wow, awesome post, Msgr Pope! Thank you.
As always, Monsignor, you are spot on. There is, however, a critical element missing from this excellent discourse. Technology. The Church today, in attempting to tell the scriptural narrative, is competing in a world filled with televisions, computers and cell phones. You have done a masterful job of juxtaposing them in your postings, as has Fr. Barron in reaching out to the masses through his ‘Word on Fire’ series. Not long ago, parents spent time reading books to their children. Today, from the time they are born, children are introduced to messaging via electronic devices. The “din” of all this noise, inhibits anyone from spending time in quiet prayer and conversation with God. Therein lies the greatest challenge of all: introducing youth to silence.
I disagree with Father’s idea of what the plot of the Bibile is and what God is about. God is not primarily focused on man, ie., us. He is primarily focused on Himself and glorifying Himself (read Aquinas on this). Everything that God does for man is secondary to HIs will to glorify Himself. Therefore God chooses some to salvation and the rest, not being chosen, are damned. This is complex and mysterious stuff. And it always opens up a can of worms of questions, debates, and many people acusing other people of heresy. But the bottom line about the Bible and the story is that it is about God glorifying Himself. II wont argue with anybody on this issue because either God will give the truth to you or he wont. It’s not up to me whom God chooses to know this mystery and and whom He does not choose.
God is Love. Your remarks are possibly an example of trolling or tweaking. But God does not have an ego issue as you presume. You are projecting human issues on to God.
Wrong, and you just do not understand. But God does not give understanding to all. Some are chosen, others are not. I’m not taking any credit for knowing this mystery better than you. I give credit to God for everything. I wish you did understand. You’d be a wiser and more effective priest.
“Without a rich understanding of sin, salvation makes little sense.”
True enough, Monsignor. Of course, we need to try to get the balance right in emphasizing the reality of sin and hell on the one hand and hope and heaven on the other. This is the point made in an excellent post by John Zmirak at the National Catholic Register site. I think this particular point is spot on:
“Apologetics often do drive theology, since a theory that’s so repulsive that it keeps people from accepting the Faith is probably not true. Such arguments helped the Church reject Augustine’s belief that unbaptized babies were damned.”
Read the whole thing here:
The article from Professor Zmirak has crystallized for me an aspect of the present disaster:
“Apologetics often do drive theology,”
>>Apologetics only drives theology when theology becomes convinced that there is something repulsive about the Faith once delivered, and the theologians intend to set about correcting the problem.
“since a theory that’s so repulsive that it keeps people from accepting the Faith is probably not true.”
>> What an absurd statement. In essence we are being informed that any dogmas sufficiently repulsive is probably not true.
This is of course exactly the same argument the Pharisees advanced against Our Lord, when He informed them solemnly that they must *EAT HIS FLESH* and *DRINK HIS BLOOD*, something more repulsive than which it is very difficult to imagine, especially for a Jew.
Professor Zmirak’s incredible assertion above would have served to remove the foundational Truth of the Holy Eucharist from the Faith once delivered, on grounds that, being sufficiently repulsive, it probably wasn’t true.
Our problem is that we allowed our selves to embrace apologists for the sensitivities of those who do not hold the Faith in the first place, and what is infinitely worse, we have embraced the notion that the Fqith itself must be changed so as to better please the sensibilities of those who reject it in the first place.
When the Catholic Church taught in full clarity and vigor the DOGMA that there is no salvation outside the Church, She thrived and grew throughout the world, and created what we now call European civilization precisely by *converting those who did not believe*.
Now that we fret over how to soften the “repulsive” aspects of the Faith once delivered (rather than examining how it is that we could be *repulsed* by Jesus Christ’s Own Words that we “must be born again of water and the spirit)……
We shrink, we fade, we equivocate, we falter.
The Faith is not true because it adequately avoids offending the senisbilities of the unbeliever.
The Faith is true because Jesus Christ has said so.
“Unless a man be born again of water and then spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
I will leave it to the theologians to quibble with Him.
From the Catholic Encyclopedia:
“The fate of infants who die without baptism must be briefly considered here. The Catholic teaching is uncompromising on this point, that all who depart this life without baptism, be it of water, or blood, or desire, are perpetually excluded from the vision of God. This teaching is grounded, as we have seen, on Scripture and tradition, and the decrees of the Church. Moreover, that those who die in original sin, without ever having contracted any actual sin, are deprived of the happiness of heaven is stated explicitly in the Confession of Faith of the Eastern Emperor Michael Palæologus, which had been proposed to him by Pope Clement IV in 1267, and which he accepted in the presence of Gregory X at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. The same doctrine is found also in the Decree of Union of the Greeks, in the Bull “Lætentur Caeli” of Pope Eugene IV, in the Profession of Faith prescribed for the Greeks by Pope Gregory XIII, and in that authorized for the Orientals by Urban VIII and Benedict XIV. Many Catholic theologians have declared that infants dying without baptism are excluded from the beatific vision; but as to the exact state of these souls in the next world they are not agreed.”
Original sin is indeed a highly repulsive thing.
“Many Catholic theologians have declared that infants dying without baptism are excluded from the beatific vision; but as to the exact state of these souls in the next world they are not agreed.”
True enough, Rick. Two of the major doctors of the Church, Augustine and Cardinal Bellarmine, took the view that unbaptized infants experience a “pain sense” (poena sensus) in limbo. Is this the correct view?
What He has chosen to tell us is that we cannot enjoy eternity with Him unless we are translated from the condition of child of Adam to child of God.
Since the promulgation of the Gospel this cannot be effectuated apart from baptism, or the desire for it.
You ask my opinion, and I tell you that I am completely at peace with the ancient and well-attested teaching of Limbo.
Our duty is to see to it that every child receives the laver of regeneration.
Let us evangelize.
I agree completely. Along these same lines, I’ve experienced good success with 7th and 8th graders using an expanded form of these brief, illustrated on-line presentations:
There’s just no substitute for great Catholic artwork coupled with pertinent passages from the Bible, along with superb traditional Catholic theology.
Now I think I am beginning to see God’s plan…He allowed Catholics to leave the Church for various Protestant denominations so that they could become steeped in Scripture and “the story” of salvation. Then He prompted their return so that they could instruct Catholics in what the Church has failed to teach. It all makes sense now.
Certainly God allows anyone to leave the Church, but never “so that they could become steeped in Scripture”.
Scripture is Catholic.
As to whether the Church has failed to teach- can there be any serious doubt about this, given the woeful state of catechesis since the Council?
The bishops have made it very clear that this problem exists, and it is a serious one.
God is certainly glorified in the return to the Church of any Protestant (or Jew or Hindu or atheist for that matter).
Let them bring with them whatever good gifts they can- and let the Church teach them the Catholic Faith.
Well said, Rick
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