On Reading Yourself in the Story

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In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter answered Edmund — when Edmund asked if they really wanted to follow a bird they didn’t know in a world they didn’t know — this way:

“That’s a nasty idea. Still — a robin you know. They’re good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read. I’m sure a robin wouldn’t be on the wrong side” (p. 59).

And so they followed the robin, which was the more excellent way.

One of the reasons why the Scripture tells us so many stories is that we are supposed to get the feel of them down into our bones. We are supposed to do this because we are in stories ourselves, and we need to learn how to recognize who is who and what is what.

“Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted” (1 Cor. 10:6).

“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

What we often fail to recognize is that true moral choices come in the context of the interplay of relationships between characters. Moral choices occur within stories, and if you don’t understand the stories, then you won’t understand the moral choices. Aaron wasn’t walking along in the wilderness one day until he came across a golden calf which he then decided to worship. No, he was pressured by other characters in the story, characters he was afraid of. To use this instance in application, if you can’t see the characters you are afraid of, then you won’t be able to see the golden calf either.

In this world, in real time, in every well-written story there is a protagonist and antagonist, but it doesn’t follow that identifying them is necessarily simple. God writes stories, but they are not always short stories, or moralistic fables in the tradition of Aesop. At the same time, they do have have a moral point.

It would be a mistake to assume the protagonist is identified as the one who goes from strength to strength — that would be the protagonist in a David story. Or rather, in a David story, the protagonist goes from weakness to strength to weakness to strength to weakness to strength. The protagonist in a Jeremiah story has a rougher time of it. Some rout armies and others are sawn in two. Job was a protagonist. The man born blind was not the antagonist — the Pharisees were.

This why, when we read our own stories, it is important to guard against over-reading Bible stories into our own stories in too much detail. Stories line up mutatis mutandis, after making the necessary adjustments. Not all Sauls in Saul stories are murderers, for example. Saul was a Laban type, but their sins were on different levels entirely. You could have a Saul/David story in a junior high race for student council president, where all the sins were petty and everybody involved grew up to be good Christians. So reading the story is not the same thing as reading every crime to be found in one story into the other one.

At the same time, the warnings are there for a reason. Baby vipers are never your friend. Lust grows into adultery. Hatred grows into murder. Being a Saul in a petty situation can grow into a situation where you are being that way when real money is involved.

If we are steeped in the scriptural stories, then we are more likely to be able to faithfully read what is going on around us. I do not mean that we can take a few frames out of our day, and then declaim on it learnedly. But in any situation where a recognizable story arc starts to develop, if we are marinated in Scripture, we should start to get our bearings pretty quickly.

So I do see protagonists and antagonists in the stories that unfold around me, but that is not unique to me. Everybody does that — we are story-telling, story-reading creatures. Everyone is always the protagonist in his own story — the challenge is to read your story rightly, while looking in the mirror of Scripture. We are called to thinks God’s thoughts after Him, and this applies to far more than doctrines. We are to riff off His stories. Appealing to Scripture won’t make us think we are always the protagonist — we already do that. Appealing to Scripture creates the possibility that we might recognize that we are Mr. Collins, and not Mr. Darcy. And if that makes you think, “Ah, good, a clergyman,” you are still not reading as you ought.

When someone realizes that he has been reading the story wrong (reading himself as a protagonist when he was actually an antagonist), then that realization is one of a now repentant protagonist. But it not possible to see yourself as an antagonist simpliciter. Everyone is either a protagonist or a faux-protagonist.

Since Scripture tells all kinds of stories, we have to determine what kind of story we are in, and then seek to read who the protagonists and antagonists are. It has nothing to do with being “in the ascendancy.” Saul was in the ascendancy and threw it away because of his inability to read the story. David was on the run and yet because of faith the rock he was sitting on in the wilderness was as good as a throne. So it is nothing so crass as identifying with the protagonists so that you can be “ascendant.” If you are reading all the stories trying to find out who the winners are so you can join them . . . well, that is what losers in the stories do.

It is more like identifying where the Spirit is, so you can be there with Him. And sometimes He is in throne rooms, sometimes down in cisterns in mud up to the armpits, sometimes in Philippian jails singing psalms, sometimes tied to stakes, sometimes thronged by admiring crowds in cathedrals. The Spirit moves just like the cloud did. And we are called to read it all the right way. Do I go with Luther or stay with Erasmus? Quick . . . the train is leaving.

Fundamentally, all these things have to be read by faith. A closer reading would be by looking for where the joy, self-pity, competition, faith, envy, restraint, love, anger, etc. are located and where they tend to cluster. Who was the pill? Edmund or Lucy? Bless me, the professor would say. What do they teach them in these schools?

It is easy to ask epistemological questions — how can we know which kind of character we are being? But all such question could have easily been asked during the lifetime of the biblical characters as they were living out their story. In fact, some of them were asked. They were responsible to see and call it right by faith. The just shall live by faith. If David, or Daniel, or Joseph were brought up short by such a question, it would have done them no good to take them aside and encourage them by telling them they were a character “in a Bible story, for pity’s sake.” That’s not how they knew, and it is not how we are to know. How would you answer the question that Zedekiah asked Micaiah. “Then Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah came near, and smote Micaiah upon the cheek, and said, Which way went the Spirit of the LORD from me to speak unto thee?” (2 Chron. 18:23).

If we cannot learn how to read our lives from this discipline of reading in Scripture, then what’s the point? If there is a Micaiah now, I want to be able to know who it is so I can stand with him. And when I stand with him, having made a choice, from Athanasius to Machen, somebody else is going to tell me that I don’t have a clue what I am doing. At least that’s what happens in all the stories. But God is going to say well done to me someday if I call it right.

Life is not a melodrama, and reading your life in terms of the scriptural stories should not be done in trite or simplistic ways. Everyone is a mix, and all of us have plenty of antagonist material down in our hearts. I think of Solzhenitsyn’s point about the line between good and evil running down the middle of every human heart. And reading the story wisely excludes simplistic demonization of others on the basis of parties or factions, especially when conflicts are going on between Christian brothers. There can be godly Abners on the other side, and scheming Joabs on my side.

We can read about Joseph with the whole story in mind, but we have to be Joseph (or not) from the middle of our story. Joseph had to be Joseph from the middle. We are taught to read stories where we are given the whole thing, along with the outcome, in order that we might have guidance in trying to read our own story from the middle of it. So of course this reading has to be more provisional than the other, although the broad strokes should be related.

Reading life as a story does not need to distract from other values like friendship or denominational affiliations because if the story is read correctly, all values are included in the story. They are a part of it. Loyalty to friends is a plot point. Starting from the chapter that introduced you is how it works. So this is one of Rushdoony’s inescapable concepts — it is not whether you are reading a story in life around you, but rather which story you are reading.

For example, if you have friends in conflict with each other — let us call them Euodia and Syntyche — to identify with one of them is to label the other as an antagonist. That might be the right thing to do, depending (so long as you remember Proverbs 18:17), or you might need to go the other way, or you might need to do what Paul did, which was refuse to get into the weeds. Paul was not refusing to step into the story — he was telling a larger story. What is not possible, however, is to take sides without recognizing that you have done so. That is failure to read the story — never a good trait in a character, even though lots of people do it.

Paul doesn’t just tell us that Scripture is good for correction of life. He says that all Scripture is.

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

Scripture is authoritative. Scriptural stories are therefore authoritative. That means we have to obey them. But to obey them, we have to understand them, and then reapply them in a new setting, in our own stories. But in our own stories, in our own conflicts, we will be sorely tempted to make ourselves the honorary protagonists, no matter what. But as I said earlier, it is not the Scriptures that create this kind of self-centered narrative. Scripture actually creates the only possibility of escaping it.

For those serious about learning how to do this better, I would recommend two books by Peter Leithart — A Son to Me and A House for My Name.



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Becky Pliego
Becky Pliego
7 years ago

Very, very helpful.