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The importance of story: Finding our place

We often think of sermons today as the preaching of the doctrine, law, and living of the Catholic faith. While certainly true, what we don’t tend to hear as much of is the importance of the preaching of story — in particular, the story of salvation history, as recorded for us in the Sacred Scriptures: Who is God, who is man, where did man come from, what is God’s plan for man, who were the characters and places and events in which God’s plan was made manifest, and so on and so forth. The problem with a lack of story is that without the setting of the scene, without the context, which is provided by story, we often can’t see the forest through the trees. We must know the story in order to find our place in it.

How many of you reading this, for example, have made the New Year’s resolution to read the Bible from cover to cover? Many hands would go up, were we to ask that question gathered in-person. But the follow up question — how many of you fulfilled that resolution — sees most hands go down. The last question — how many of you who fulfilled that resolution understood what you were reading — rarely sees any hands stay up. We start off great in January, for example, with the Book of Genesis: everybody has heard of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, incredible stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Likewise, we are all familiar with the Book of Exodus: Moses, the 10 Plagues, the Red Sea. But then we read Leviticus and rather quickly start to lose the plot: sacrifices, blood, clean and unclean dietary laws, clothes one must wear, and on and on with what seems like an endless list of minutely detailed laws. Maybe we jump forward to the New Testament, presuming that our reading will go easier since we have more familiarity with the Gospels. But all the while, we are still left with one lingering question: Why did they kill Jesus? 

What is this difficulty that we have with reading the Bible? The short of it is that we lose track of the story, the big picture, the narrative thread that binds all of the different books of the Bible into one cohesive whole. So many people are hungry to read the Word of God, but intimidated by it, scared by it, confused by it, puzzled by a world so far removed from our own. If only we knew the story!

The preaching of the story of salvation history is ever prominent within the Bible itself. When Moses, for example, writes the Book of Deuteronomy to the generation of Israelites about to take over the Promised Land, he gives them an account of what had happened during the previous eventful period of 40 years. Why? Because he’s trying to win the hearts of a new generation of believers, using story. St. Paul similarly writes his epistles with the Old Testament background always in mind. How is one, for instance, supposed to understand the writings of St. Paul without knowing the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, David, or any of the other great Old Testament characters that St. Paul so frequently references? 

Perhaps there is no greater example in scripture of the power of knowing the story as the encounter of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus with the risen Jesus in Luke 24:13-35. These two disciples, Cleopas and another unnamed disciple, are discussing the Passion and death of Jesus as they are leaving Jerusalem. Jesus, however, comes in their midst, although these two disciples don’t recognize him at first. What follows is a Bible study from Jesus, who opens up the scriptures to these two, teaching them everything about himself in the Scriptures. In fact, he even rebukes them at one point for being hard of heart, for had they known the story of the Old Testament, they wouldn’t have abandoned their faith and hope in Christ as the Messiah. Why? Because as paragraph 134 of the Catechism writes, “all Sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ, ‘because all Divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all Divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ’ (Hugh of St. Victor).” If only they knew the story! 

Sacred Scripture is clearly instrumental to our relationship with Jesus, otherwise he wouldn’t have spent so much time teaching these two disciples scripture on the Road to Emmaus. As St. Jerome famously said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” We must know the story in order to know Jesus Christ! The apostles evangelized the world by preaching the story of Jesus Christ. We, too, will only find our place in God’s plan and conquer our culture for Christ in this new apostolic age by knowing the story ourselves, as the first disciples did.

This is also our exact approach to the scriptures in our four-year Denver Catholic Biblical School program, during which students learn about and read all the books of the Bible. The overarching goal of the program is to give you the narrative thread from Genesis to Revelation in the story of the Bible. We want to help you understand the narrative history of God’s saving acts through his patriarchs, prophets, and people, leading up to the fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ. Going back to that quote from St. Jerome, the heart of our teaching of scripture at the Biblical School is to try and give you an encounter with Jesus Christ through the scriptures precisely by teaching you how every part of the scriptures is about Jesus Christ. This is why our curriculum focuses on the “narrative approach” to scripture, a thorough study of salvation history in every book of the Bible to see how God’s promises, prophesies, and covenants of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the person and mission of Jesus Christ and his Church. We’re here to help you discover all of these elements of the history of salvation that bind the various stories of the Bible together as a cohesive whole, setting the stage for Christ. And we want to give you the tools and skills that you need to understand salvation history and hear anew the invitation of our Lord in the pages of the Bible: to follow him

Daniel Campbell
Daniel Campbell is the Director of the Lay Division at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.
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