My six-year-old grandson and five-year-old granddaughter have become writers and illustrators of children’s books. Most of their books feature animal characters like Blue Jay and Little Parrot. They compose the story themselves but ask their dad or mom to write down the text.
This past Sunday, I was the amanuensis for my granddaughter’s latest illustrated book, “Little Parrot Loses His Mom.” I was pleased to see that she, like her older brother, is beginning to grasp the basics of story writing.
For one thing, she gives us an interesting character in Little Parrot. Why is this little guy all alone? Will he be alright? Good stories depend on a protagonist that matters.
My granddaughter understands that her protagonist must have a problem. Little Parrot’s mother is missing. A absent mother is a big problem, both for little parrots and for little authors.
As Little Parrot tries to resolve his problem, obstacles arise. He is in danger of getting lost as he searches ever deeper into the forest. He encounters wild animals in the hope that they can lead him to his mother. But each new encounter ends in disappointment. In this way, the tension builds, and our interest is sustained.
Finally, my young author provides a resolution to the problem. After repeated failures, Little Parrot finds his mother, who has been gathering food for the family. The tension is relieved, the problem solved. Our protagonist is safe.
It occurs to me that the Bible does something similar. It gives us a story with a protagonist we care about, introduces a world-shattering problem, and narrates attempts to resolve the problem, along with the obstacles that arise to delay success. In the end, the problem is resolved, the tension relieved, and the protagonist succeeds.
People familiar with the Bible will recognize these components. There is a protagonist we care about, a problem that matters, obstacles that arise, and a final, glorious resolution, what J. R. R. Tolkien called the “eucatastrophe.” Most biblical authorities would agree that these elements are present, but they might not agree on their nature.
For example, on one reading of the Bible, the protagonist is human. One could even say that the protagonist is the reader, which makes this approach to the sacred text both humanistic and highly individualistic.
In this way of reading the Bible, the story is a quest, and the object is to reach heaven. The problem is sin, which destines people to hell, which is so unthinkably bad that it must be avoided at all costs. Nevertheless, humans are ineluctably headed there. Then comes the eucatastrophe, when God sends his Son to rescue humanity through his own sacrifice, enabling people to enter heaven and live happily ever after.
There is much that is true and helpful about this reading. However, there is another reading that is more consistent with the biblical authors’ intent. It sees God, rather than humans, as the protagonist. The problem is still sin – or better, rebellion – which has derailed God’s plan to justly rule his creation through wise and loving human regents (this is Genesis 1:26-28).
God acts to restore his creation through a man (Abraham) and his family (the Jews), but – obstacle alert – they become enslaved in a foreign country. He frees them, gives them the wonderful gift of his law, but – another obstacle – they fail to heed it. He gives them a good king to rule them (David), but he and his offspring also fail, which leads to an enormous obstacle: exile and the dissolution of the nation.
It is in the light of this story that the coming of Jesus is good news in the biblical sense. It is the eucatastrophe, the sudden turn of events that ensures the protagonist – God – of his victory.
In this reading of the story, the quest is not man’s but God’s. The goal is not to escape hell but to restore creation, which includes in a fundamental way the remaking of humanity. This theocentric reading of the Bible retains all the key elements, including sin, humanity’s terrible plight, and God’s rescue through Christ. But it keeps the story centered where it belongs – on God.
(First published by Gannett.)