From Story to Meaning

“All writers have, and must have, to compose any kind of story, some picture of the world, and of what is right and wrong in that world. And the great writers are obsessed with their theme.” — Joyce Cary, Art and Reality

As we read the stories of the Bible, we find many compelling plots, but in all of them, the storytellers’ purpose is not simply to entertain.  Setting, characterization and plot all work together to raise significant issues about God, people, and the world.  At this level, the stories in the Bible tell us how to live.  Narrative form (the “how” of the story) exists to embody and communicate meaning (the “what” of the story).  A summary statement is that to tell a story is to (a) entertain and (b) make a statement.  We do not need to apologize for finding the stories of the Bible entertaining, nor do we need to apologize for believing that these stories show us how to live (not only tell us but, in keeping with the nature of literature, show us).

Storytellers, said 19th-century French author Charles Baudelaire, choose to tell tales “in which the deep significance of life reveals itself.”  If this is true of narrative in general, it is doubly and triply true of a book as religious and moral in purpose as the Bible.

In some Bible stories, the lesson is readily clear, but in others, the stories’ meaning is more ambiguous or hard to pin down.  If you want to understand the meaning of a Bible story, first ask what the story is about (bearing in mind that it may be about more than one thing).  Then begin to analyze what the story says about that subject.

A good assumption to make of every story in the Bible is that it is an example story, demonstrating a positive example to emulate and/or a negative example to avoid.  A good clue as to what a story means is what the storyteller chooses to repeat, and it can be either an action or character trait.