Show, Don't Tell: The Theology of Stories


At a recent gathering of seminary students who were engaged in ministry internships, one of the students began talking about her work as a children's minister. She was enjoying the experience, and the children all seemed to be enjoying their time with her on Sundays, but she expressed her concern that the curriculum she was using was not theological enough. "I don't want them just to hear Bible stories all the time," she said. "I want them to learn theology."

At first, it seems like a fair statement. I certainly commend her desire to provide solid teaching, and the church is definitely in need of a more rigorous education for its members. Everyone from the History Channel to Peter Singer to the local Mormon missionary is attacking Christian faith and doctrine. If the church is to withstand these attacks, then we certainly need to be educating our children about what we believe and why we believe it.

I find it troubling, however, that evangelical ministers who claim the authority and inspiration of Scripture would reject the notion that children's Bible stories can provide this education.

I realize that VeggieTales' Dave and the Giant Pickle may not be quite on par with the writings of Carl Henry, but does that mean that the story of David and Goliath is substandard as well? The vast majority of the Old Testament is narrative; in the New Testament, the four Gospels and Acts are also in story rather than propositional form. Jesus Himself primarily taught through telling stories! Biblical narrative is much more than mere entertainment, biography, or history. While they may not always conclude with an explicit moral (as do Aesop's fables), they are deeply theological. Let me give an example.

As a child, I always loved Genesis 24's story of Isaac and Rebekah. That story had it all: romance, travel, jewelry, and my name in it. What’s not to love? As with many Old Testament stories, however, a surface glance at this episode might leave adults with their theological antennae up, grasping for the point.

Fortunately, Genesis makes it easy for us to figure it out. If a Hebrew writer wants to emphasize something, he repeats it. So, for example, the angels who surround God's throne don't just call Him "holy," they call Him "holy, holy, holy." Three holies. God is VERY holy. When God calls Abraham in Genesis 12, he tells him that he will "bless" him and make him a "blessing" and everyone will be "blessed." It will be a GREAT blessing.

Genesis does the same thing here on a much larger scale: It basically tells the same story three times. He tells what happens; then the servant retells it to Rebecca's family, then Genesis says that the servant tells the story again to Isaac. It seems that what Genesis wants to emphasize is the story itself.

And for good reason: This story is about God's faithfulness in keeping His covenant promises. Remember that God called Abraham to leave his home, everything that was familiar and safe, and to go to a new land that God would show him. Because Abraham obeyed, God established this covenant with him. And the covenant was this: Because of your faith, God said, I will bless you, and this great land is going to be yours, and you will be the father of more people than there are stars in the sky, and because I bless YOU, the whole world will be blessed (Gen 12). Isaac was the first child of this promise, but if there was going to be a whole nation, then Isaac needed a wife.

Abraham knows that his son cannot marry one of the Canaanites, so he sends his most trusted servant back to his homeland to find a suitable bride. This servant had been with Abraham for many years and seen how God had faithfully kept his promises to Abraham. On this basis, the servant begins his search with prayer, asking God for a little help—which God gives. Even before the servant finishes his prayer, God sends Rebekah as its answer. Now all the servant has to do is persuade Rebekah to leave her family and marry someone she's never met.

Rebekah's family probably did not worship the God of Abraham, which is why I think the servant of Abraham repeats his story in such detail. He is not simply describing what happened to him; he is describing the character of Yahweh. When I was an English major in college, my professors constantly urged me to "show, not tell" in my writing. Genesis shows us who God is through stories rather than just telling us who God is. This story shows that this God is both powerful and loving, and that he provides for his people and keeps all his promises: "the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments" (Deut 7:9).

The servant is not really asking Rebekah to trust himself or even Abraham (whose wealth was shown by the jewelry); he's asking her to trust Yahweh and the covenant promises he has made to Abraham's family.

This beautiful, engaging, exciting story is rich with theology. The events that take place here play a key role in the course of salvation history. God kept his covenant with Abraham and provided a bride for Isaac so that they would have children and so that one day their descendant, a man named Jesus, could make a new covenant. Jesus Christ, the Lord God Almighty, has made promises to us and He asks us to trust his faithfulness.

As we are teaching our children, we do not have to worry that the Bible stories we tell them are inadequate. Stories such as the one found in Genesis 24 clearly demonstrate the character and nature of God. How much more theological could they be?

Rebecca Poe Hays is a student at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. She co-edited C. S. Lewis Remembered (Zondervan, 2006) and The Good, the True, and the Beautiful: Meditations (Chalice, 2007) and has written devotional material for several publications.

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Bible Stories
I have spent my life in Evangelical churches and I often expressed my desire to understand more of the Old Testament stories. I now participate in a class that has helped me to see the history, culture, and a cohesive overview of scripture. I cannot express in words how much more depth and understanding it has given me to see the panorama of the Word and God's purpose.
I completely agree with your statements, Rebecca. All except the part about Mormons "attacking Christian faith and doctrine." We are Christians as well, which includes searching, pondering and praying about the Bible. I am sixteen, which means I go to Seminary (basically a scripture study class), in which we are reading about the Old Testiment this year. And before people start saying anything about our Bibles being typed different or being changed, I will say that we read the King James version, the one that is most closely related to the original writing (the one before the Catholic church changed it to say what they wanted). I'm not bashing Catholics, but once upon a time, back when only the higher ups could read the Latin Bible, they would change it to suit their needs so they could get money and power. If you want to know what Mormons really believe and stand for, then go to Mormon.org, because that is one of the only sites that will tell the full truth about us. Or ask a Mormon yourself!

I am a Mormon, and I approve this message.
Ravi Zacherias would have been writing an interpretation of the Bible that would be pleasing, not the Bible.
Ravi Zacharias has told this story in a fascinating way in "I, Isaac, Take Thee, Rebekah". While the book is excellent, I highly recommend the audio version. Dr. Zacharias tells his own story of his older brother who, following Indian custom, had his parents arrange a marriage to a woman the brother had never met. It's a lot like what Isaac faced: What if I think she's ugly? What if she thinks *I'm* ugly? What if our personalities are mismatched? A seemingly dull story becomes edge-of-your-seat exciting in Dr. Zacharias's telling.

But your main point is an excellent one, Rebecca; all too often we read Scripture aloud with all the passion we'd give to reading aloud an End User License Agreement for some software we just got. To young people, that communicates the message that Scripture and the Christian life are dull, dull, dull - so they seek excitement elsewhere.

The passion of Scripture can be found by putting yourself in the scene, and asking how the people may have felt. Dr. Zacharias emphasizes that Rebekah watered all the servant's camels, and asked if we've ever thought about how much just one thirsty camel can drink - when you have to pull each bucketful up from a well, and carry it to the trough? It would be a huge, exhausting undertaking, with no guarantee of reward from some stranger. Imagine finding a beautiful girl willing to do that. Imagine *being* a beautiful girl willing to do that. Talk about your miracles!

When we exercise such sanctified imagination, we indeed can begin to feel the faithfulness and love of God. Bravo, Rebecca. Keep up the good work.
The thing is, though, I find it hard to get into Bible stories as stories per se.