Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Most Biblical Narratives Don't Have a Main Point

Most Biblical Narratives Don't Have a Main Point

Ifemelu is sitting in a salon, having extensions braided into her hair when another customer notices that she’s is reading. The other customer innocently asks: what’s the book about? Annoyed—mostly for other reasons—the question rankles Ifemelu. She thinks, “Why did people ask ‘What is it about?’ as if a novel had to be about only one thing.” This brief scene is from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. It’s a work well worth reflecting on, but in this post I want to focus on Ifemelu’s ire towards the question: what’s the story about? Because I’m convinced that most novels aren’t explicitly “about only one thing.” This is also true of most biblical narratives.

Now, I’ve read Dig Deeper, did a ministry apprenticeship, sat through my fair share of preaching workshops, and even did three years of homiletics as well as biblical studies at Bible college. And I’ve reached the conclusion that the protagonist from Americanah, Ifemelu, speaks more sense concerning biblical narratives than most of my training ever managed. For stories, novels, and narratives rarely have a main point. The insistence that they do is usually a sign that someone has read more books about literary criticism than actual literature.

We Don’t Suggest Novels Are About “One Thing”

Consider the greatest story every written, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. What’s it about: our innate longing for rest, the pursuit of power, friendship, the existence of goodness and truth, or the human condition? Well, it’s about all of these. In fact, in his essay Time and Tide, C. S. Lewis called Lord of the Rings a literary “master key,” going on to say: “use it on what door you like.” While you might disagree with Lewis’ bombastic hyperbole and obvious affection for Tolkien, he’s undoubtedly more correct than the person who tries to tell you that Lord of the Rings is about one thing. It isn’t. Nor is any worthwhile novel.

No one puts down Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and says: “of course, if God doesn’t exist then everything is permitted.” As if that’s all there is to it. I mean, it’s over 1000 pages long, penned by one of the greatest novelists who ever lived.

What is Fight Club about? Or Watership Down? Does William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies have a main point? What about Gilead or Home? I imagine those authors—at least those who’re still alive—would be uncomfortable with the question Ifemelu was asked in Americanah: “What is it about?” For the answer is almost certainly: many things. Not every novel is a “master key.” Yet even the most ham-fisted airport literature offers some variety and nuance, rather than a single point.

If you’re still reading I can only assume you agree with my thesis: great stories don’t necessarily have main points. So why do we treat biblical narratives differently? Why will grown men attending preaching seminars argue over the main point of a narrative in Judges, as if we were considering an episode of Paw Patrol?

Why Do We Read Novels and Biblical Narratives Differently?

Firstly, as Robert Alter notes in The Art of Biblical Narrative that by overemphasising the seriousness of the biblical text we’ve overlooked the sheer enjoyment of the stories therein. Alter continues, “the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us.” This is a profoundly important observation. By crossing all our exegetical ‘Ts’ and dotting every syntactical ‘i’ we easily lose the wood for the trees, dissecting stories as if they were arguments or Pauline epistles. But they aren’t. They’re stories.

Secondly, anticipating the accusation of postmodern polyvalence, I’m not suggesting that stories can mean whatever we want them to. There are such things as authorial intent, purpose, structure, and all that. I recently watched Disney’ Luca. It’s is a delightful coming of age story, focused on an intimate friendship between two young boys. Unsurprisingly, claims have been made that there are undertones of homoerotic love, desire, and romance. But that’s a poor ‘reading’ of Luca. There are meanings, themes, and ideas that we can rule out in our interpretation of stories. Yet affirming this doesn’t force us into insisting on a single point.

Robert Alter is again helpful here. While he is hesitant to enshrine a fixed, absolute meaning for any story, he nevertheless rejects an agnostic or postmodern approach. We needn’t choose between modernity’s denuded interpretation of stories and postmodernity’s diorama of meanings. Well-told stories are nuanced—sometimes deliberately elusive. On top of that, the subjective as well as contextually located reader is bound up in the process of interpretation. In my opinion, extracting a main point with unwavering insistence is a poor reading of many biblical narratives.

Sermons Must Have Main Points, but Stories Might Not

Let me conclude by putting some of your concerns to bed. As Alan Stibbs writes in his outstanding work on preaching, Expounding God’s Word: “Instead of using…the Bible as a peg on which to hang a string of ideas collected from elsewhere, the chosen text itself is allowed to provide the ideas.” Amen. This is as true for narratives as it is for epistles. However, we mustn’t paint ourselves into the corner of a main idea or point, especially when it comes to stories.

Sermons can have main points. Only we mustn’t be so wedded to the idea that ‘the main point of the text is the main point of the sermon’ that we retrofit the sermon’s main point onto biblical narratives. As Stibbs writes, “The intending preacher must develop his expository treatment of the text in relation to a single dominant theme, and in its presentation must concentrate on the realisation of a corresponding practical aim in his instruction and exhortation.” With Stibbs I’d sooner concede that most stories have a “dominant theme.” For God did inspire narratives, many of them. These exist to teach and transform us (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But to do that they don’t need a main point. I can’t find that hermeneutical conviction in what it means to “rightly divide” the word of God (2 Timothy 2:15).

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