This book is not the Bible. It’s important to say that right off the bat, I think, because expectations and preconceptions so often color our readings. It’s true of me more often than I care to admit, regardless of what I read. What, then, are we looking at here? A translation? Sort of. A transliteration? No, I think not. A paraphrase? Yes, perhaps that’s best.
Like turning any great book into a good movie, the creators of The Story have left a lot out while still finding moments of new illumination in a new format. Like when I saw the Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings movies, there were things I appreciated about this new version but also a great deal that I missed.
Where I think The Story succeeds is in mobilizing and enlivening much of the Old Testament. I read the Bible nearly every day, and have even gone cover to cover over the course of a couple of years. Nevertheless, I found myself understanding the ebb and flow of Israel’s wars in a new way. In the past, those stories seemed like a relentless pounding, over and over and over again, filled with the relentless futility of banging your head against a stone wall. In this reading, however, the wars of conquest and kingdom seemed much more like a dialogue between God and his people. When Israel remained faithful, their efforts succeeded. When they turned from God’s path, they failed. War became a vehicle for punishment and rebuke, but one which seemed to create only short-term changes. Given current events, I feel compelled to say that I am speaking only of the historical Israel here. How much these concepts apply to the current nation is a whole other kettle of fish…fish with big teeth…and tanks. But, I digress.
As a reader of The Story, I continually felt frustrated by Israel’s forgetfulness. No matter how often God saved them, was gracious to them, eventually they returned to living as though He meant nothing. And as with any good character (for, truly, I think the nation of Israel often functions as a single character), I began to see my life reflected in this plot. God has come through for me time and again, in big ways and small, and yet I will still act as though He never has. I get angry, anxious, impatient with the conditions of my life, and in doing so, I forget my professed belief in His statement “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). So, in this respect, I found The Story wonderfully eye-opening. It is also wonderfully reassuring, because God never gave up on Israel, thus He will not give up on me either. In other places, however, in books and passages from which I have drawn comfort and strength for years, I was woefully disappointed.
Where the creators of The Story struggled most is with the non-linear parts of the Bible–the poetry and letters. Some of each are included, true. They work in a few of the Psalms and attempt to cobble Paul’s epistles into a narrative structure, but the vast majority of this kind of text is absent. All of Job is gone, as is the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes (one of my personal favorites), and, curiously, the book of Jonah. It is one of the most recognizable Biblical stories, and certainly a clear narrative. Why skip it? And while they tackled much of Revelation (not all, not nearly all), they lopped off the apocalyptic part of Daniel. Look, I get it, translating Hebrew poetry into English is one of the trickiest things in scholarship (or so I’ve been lead to believe. I’ve not tried it myself), but I think a responsible editor has to give an accounting of what was skipped and why. The omissions I note above are only a few which jumped out to me personally; there are plenty others.
One such disappearance which really stuck in my craw had to do with King David. He is a pillar of the faith, no doubt, and part of that status is because he was imperfect. What has to be said, and is too often overlooked, is that David blew it beyond Bathsheba. In 2 Samuel, chapters 13 through about 19, we learn that he was a pretty rotten father. This entire part of David’s life is ignored in The Story. As a reader and armature scholar, I didn’t see a good reason for the exclusion. In fact, it seemed to fit the mold of the book quite well. It is a linear, dramatic (even traumatic) story which demonstrates God’s continued grace to His people. As it stands, David looks to have made just one serious mistake, and while it’s heartening that he returned to God, I have made waaaaaay more than one mistake in my life. As I read, this became a chief concern of mine because it presents a skewed picture of King David to someone who has never read the original material. This strikes me as not only irresponsible, but downright dangerous. David’s story is inspirational, but I think you risk losing some people by not telling the whole story. And when we’re talking about people’s faith, indeed, their salvation, that’s a big deal. Likewise, I think it’s important for new believers to understand that it’s okay to be angry or disappointed when life gets hard. The Psalms validate these feelings (see under Psalm 22:1), and Job or Jeremiah’s bitter lamenting reminds us that it’s okay to ask questions of God, so long as we do not forsake Him. The entire range of human emotion is present in the Bible–and it’s all there for a reason–, so to eliminate or minimize that range is problematic at best.
What I would have loved to see in this book is some sort of explanatory afterword to address issues like this. I’m not even totally clear on who put this book together. Sure, Max Lucado and Randy Frazee wrote the foreword, but does that imply that they did all the work? I’m not sure, and that bothers me to no end. Moreover, I think there needs to be an explicit call to read the full Bible after this book. They sort of beat around the bush that there’s more to be had in the Bible than in The Story, but it strikes me as disingenuous to be so coy. Explain to people what they have and what they still need to learn if they are to understand God. One of the great things about our God is that he has revealed himself in writing through a variety of authors over the millennia. It’s unfair to short change people who are new to the faith by not acknowledging the length and breadth of that revelation.
As someone who has read the Bible extensively, I don’t know that this book was really meant for me. I can see how, as a reader just starting to explore the faith, this would be an attractive entry point. I don’t think, however, that would have stopped me from asking some from of the questions I’ve raised above. As a result, I believe this book would have been lost on me without good teaching to back it up. Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland is my home church. I spend a lot of time serving there. I’m biased, I know. All the same, I think the preaching staff did a great job of handling the church-wide reading of this book. They were thoughtful and considerate, approaching this new text with eyes wide open. They did not pretend that it was a substitute for the Bible, but did see the potential good that a novel-like presentation could do. If you decide to take up this book, wherever you are on The Way, I heartily encourage you to supplement it with their sermons. You can find them here (you may need to scroll down a bit), or on iTunes (search “Mountain Christian Church” and then choose either the audio or video podcast).
“We could see other fires–great leaping bonfires as well as cooking fires–all the way down the beach to the twinkling metropolis of Joyland. They made a lovely chain of burning jewelry. Such fires are probably illegal in the twenty-first century; the powers that be have a way of outlawing many beautiful things made by ordinary people.”
~Devin Jones, in Stephen King’s Joyland