One of the most significant losses in the modern era is that the biblical narrative is no longer in the hearts and minds of most people. Scripture is the history of the human family, told in story form by God Himself. He tells us how and why we were made and why, as well as what happened to make things the way they are today. Why do we experience infinite longing though we live in a finite world? Why do we struggle with sin? How can we be rescued from sin and death? How can we find true satisfaction? The biblical narrative answers all these 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 pass it on to 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 passion, conflict, and drama than any great epic. Although it has been called “the greatest story ever told,” most people no longer know the details of the story. As a result, they are detached from the reality 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 answers to the most basic questions about the meaning of life, the role and meaning of suffering, our ultimate destiny, and so forth. Without the story, life loses its meaning.
As an example of the widespread loss of the biblical narrative, I’d like to relate an experience I had a few years ago. I was talking to a group of Catholic seventh graders and at one point referred to Adam and Eve. As our discussion progressed it became clear that they did not really know who Adam and Eve were or what they had done. One young man piped up and asked, “Aren’t they in the Bible or something?” No one could come up with anything remotely specific. I resolved that day to scrap our compartmentalized religious programs and change the instruction at every grade level to a “back to basics” approach emphasizing the biblical narrative.
How has this loss of the narrative happened? Some argue that the Church stopped telling the story. If you have poor preaching and poor catechesis, pretty soon no one knows the story anymore. I don’t doubt there is some truth to this, but it hardly seems likely that “the Church” just decided one day to stop telling the story. Rather, what seems to have happened is that we stopped telling the story effectively. I believe that we lost touch with the “plot” of Sacred Scripture and because of this were no longer able to present the story in a compelling way.
What exactly is a plot? The plot in a story is the focal point to which all the events and characters relate. It is like the hub of a wheel around which everything else revolves. If it is to be engaging, a plot involves some sort of conflict or problem that must be resolved. This holds our interest as we wonder how the problem will be resolved. If in the first scene in the story everything is fine, and in scene two everything is fine, and in scene three everything is still fine, people start tuning out. It is the conflict, problem, or negative development that renders the plot interesting. Plots usually have five stages:
1. Exposition – In this stage we are introduced to the main characters and elements of the story.
2. Rising Action (Conflict) – This is the portion in which the conflict or problem that is focus of the story is introduced and developed.
3. Climax – This is the turning point of the story. The conflict has reached its acme and the tension is nearly unbearable. Here there is often an epic struggle, physical or otherwise, frequently involving a heroic figure or some striking event, in which the central conflict is addressed.
4. Falling Action – During this stage, events occur that will help to fully resolve the central conflict, and we see the effects of the climax on the characters and on proceeding events.
5. Resolution – This is the final portion of the story. The main conflict has been largely resolved and any “loose ends” are tied up. We learn of the final outcome for the main characters, which often involves either a return to normalcy or the attainment of some higher state than existed previously. The reader often experiences emotional catharsis at this point, as the tension/anxiety has dissipated.
Let’s identify these stages in Sacred Scripture:
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.
Rising Action/Conflict – Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his creator die in his heart. He willfully rejected God, who had 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 and Adam and Eve experienced the disintegration of their innermost being.
Confused, ashamed, angry, accusatory, and embarrassed, they withdraw into hiding and cover up. They can no longer tolerate the presence and glory of God, who still loves them, and must now live apart from Him. God makes an initial promise to one day bring healing but when He will do so is not clear. This 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 recover from their self-inflicted wounds? A great love story between humanity and God has soured. Will our lovers ever reunite? Will paradise reopen again? When will God act? How?
Things go from bad to worse: Adam and Eve’s rebelliousness is passed on to their children, as we see when Cain kills his brother Abel. Wickedness multiplies so rapidly that God must act. First, He humbles mankind by confusing the spoken languages at Babel. Later, He brings the flood, practically starting all over again.
In a sudden plot development, God chooses Abram and his descendants to set the 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. First, however, God must take this chosen people through a series of powerful purifications so that at least some of them can be made 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, and the settlement in the Promised Land.
They are still rebellious, however, and more drastic purifications are necessary: invasions by Assyrians and Babylonians, exile, and then return to their land. Throughout, God sends prophets to rebuke and console them. The conflicts and waiting are been continuously escalating.
Climax – The curtain rises, and we see a small backwater town of perhaps 300 people called Nazareth. An angel, dispatched from God, greets a humble virgin named Mary. God’s plan to save His people begins unfolding not with a king or a military commander but with Mary of Nazareth. It’s a great paradox but a fitting one. Whereas Eve had said no, Mary—the new Eve—says yes. Mary’s “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 living in obscurity for thirty years in Nazareth, Jesus steps forth into public ministry. For three 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 devil seems victorious, but on the third day our Savior and God-hero, Jesus, casts off death like a garment. Forty days later, He ascends and reopens the gates of paradise.
Falling Action – Now that the epic battle has been won, Jesus sends out apostles to announce the Good News of His victory over sin and death. His apostles go forth with this message: the long reign of sin is over; through grace it is possible to live a transformed life, one no longer dominated by sin, anger, resentment, fear, bitterness, greed, lust, and hatred but by love, mercy, joy, serenity, confidence, holiness, chastity, and self-control. 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. Things do not just return to normal, however. They return to “super-normal,” for the paradise that God now offers is not an earthly one but a heavenly one. Its happiness is not merely natural; it is supernatural. We, the reader, experience the catharsis of knowing that God is faithful and that He has saved us from this present evil age.
Notice that the plot hinges on a crucial negative development: sin. Without that there is nothing compelling about the story. This is how the Church failed to hand on the narrative effectively: by downplaying the negative development necessary to make it interesting.
About fifty years ago there seems to have been a conscious effort on the part of the Church to move away from talking vigorously about sin. It was said that we should be more “positive” because you can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar. Crucifixes (too negative!) were removed from Churches and replaced with crosses featuring “Resurrection Jesus.” Thinking our numbers would increase if we were a “kinder, gentler Church,” we set aside the key element of the plot. The story now was that everything is pretty much fine and just about everyone will go to Heaven. In the end, all we had to say was “God loves you.”
Our narrative no longer made a lot sense. The Church became increasingly irrelevant. If I’m really OK, why should I go to Mass? Why receive the sacraments? Why pray? Why call on God at all? If I’m fine, why do I need a savior? Who needs Jesus, God, or religion? And then there were the obvious critiques: Church is boring; the Bible is boring. Well, sure, a story without a well-developed plot is boring. In fact, if it is poorly developed enough, I might just stop reading the book or walk out of the movie—and that is just what people have done. Fewer than one-fourth of Catholics today attend Mass regularly.
To the majority of people, even Catholics, the story is irrelevant and uncompelling. Why? Because we jettisoned the “negative development” that makes a good plot. Without a rich understanding of sin, salvation makes little sense.
Most people no longer “get” the story because the whole point has been lost. People don’t usually remember stories that are boring or make little sense to them.
So it is that I found myself in a class of Catholic seventh graders who had barely heard of Adam and Eve.
It’s time to rediscover the central element of the “plot” of Sacred Scripture: sin. It’s time to talk about it, creatively, in a compelling way. In so doing we will once again set forth a riveting story and help people to rediscover the greatest story ever told.
Note: I originally published a version of this article about nine years ago in “Homiletic and Pastoral Review.”
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Rediscovering the “Plot” of Sacred Scripture is Essential to Evangelization