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The Drama of Scripture: Finding our place in the biblical story by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen sets out to present the Bible as a coherent narrative within which readers can locate themselves. They criticize readings which treat the Bible as a “religious flea market” containing “a basket of history and old doctrines”, “a shelf full of pious stories” and “promises and commands scattered throughout”, declaring that these fail to do justice either to the unity or the shape of the work (213). Instead, they want to present crucial events within the Bible as presenting an unfolding drama which, correctly understood, interpolates the reader and points towards the culmination of that drama.

drama of scriptureThey borrow and modify N.T. Wright’s image of the Bible as a drama with multiple acts, from which one has been lost. His original model involves imagining that a “lost play” by Shakespeare turns up, but the last act is missing. For him, creating the last act would not involve textual analysis of the document as is exists, or repetition of the earlier acts, but handing it over to actors who are versed in Shakespeare, who inhabit the text to the extent that they can develop the arc revealed in the earlier acts into the last developments.[1] Bartholomew and Goheen change the analogy by suggesting that there six acts, and that the fifth is missing: there is a gap between the early church and the vision presented in Revelation, which the modern reader is to fill.

This inevitably shifts the emphasis of Wright’s model: where there was uncertainty and a focus on what we might call “faithful creativity”, the drama now has an ending and the modern actors are essentially linking up loose ends and waiting for the next scene to kick in. The image now stresses the unstable and performative aspects of drama less, and instead the knowable and manageable sticking to a script. This is echoed by the book’s concern with “worldview”, which for them is a determining framework of assumptions and values which has almost complete control over each person’s interpretation of reality. Reading the Bible within a humanist “worldview” will render it idolatrous no matter what theological or ethical principles also result.

It’s difficult to feel comfortable with this very a priori account of “views”, which is keen to slide a broad wedge through a network of cultural influences, philosophical assumptions, intellectual traditions and religious practices, bracketing them all as either for or against the “biblical worldview”. There’s an impatience here with detail, with the resistances and surprises of the Biblical books which won’t immediately fit into the overall narrative scheme.

Nonetheless, there is enormous value in a narrative approach which brings together the canonical criticism’s emphasis on the final shape of the documents, literary criticism’s feel for narrative and genre, and an alertness to the way particular episodes contribute to an ongoing arc. The Drama of Scripture helpfully boils down a lot of material into an easily readable format, and reduces scholarly debates to the terms in which they affect this narrative scheme. As a theological reading of the text it is effective and accessible.

It’s less clear how the volume can cope with the fact that other people read the Bible differently: there is little capacity here to appreciate why scholars might bother disagreeing with each other, or why Christians should have found themselves in different churches. The sweeping aside of theology and religion produces an oddly abstract vision of some people who have read the “story” correctly, and everyone else who must have a wrong “worldview”. The rhetoric slightly reminds one of some materials written for university student groups which steer clear of specific doctrinal statements or advising on religious practices, because they know their readership will be provided with the “correct” versions by their environment. The result is theology which is hasty to deny the charge of being theology, an uncomfortable position and one which doesn’t encourage self-awareness or reflection.

The Drama of Scripture: Finding our place in the biblical story, by Craig G Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen,   2nd edition,   SPCK: 2014.  I am grateful to the publisher for providing a review copy.

[1] This is not the place to tackle the topic, but there are issues with Wright’s analogy, not least that over in Shakespeare Studies they did actually find what may be a “lost play” by Shakespeare, and the process involved the kind of close textual scholarship, academic debate and lack of incontrovertible proof which Wright seems to be hurrying past in this model.