You Can’t Have Ethics Without Stories

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Biblical illiteracy is a problem, not just for the theological integrity of the church, but for the ethics of our everyday lives. You can’t have morality or justice without stories.

In a previous post, I discussed biblical illiteracy by interacting with a new book, A Concise Guide to Reading the New Testament (Baker). The introduction to this volume makes a persuasive case that many contemporary Christians no longer know how to engage with the story arc of the Bible. He goes on, though, to argue that we often forget what the Bible actually is. If not a dictionary or an encyclopedia, what is it? The Bible is, among other things, he writes, “a faith-forming narrative.”

The book further makes the case that to understand the Bible we must understand “the irreducibility of narrative.” Most of us who are conservative evangelicals rightly reject the idea that the history of the Bible is merely illustrative–stories not grounded in fact but that point to the “real issue” of some experience with God or some demonstration of the way to live. The problem is though that sometimes we use the Bible the same way, only with the understanding that these stories really happened in space and in time. That’s true, they did in fact happen, but we sometimes assume that the narrative is simply the way God is feeding us the abstractions of moral principles or doctrinal axioms.

We sometimes assume that the narrative is simply the way God is feeding us the abstractions of moral principles or doctrinal axioms.

Moral principles are important, as are doctrinal axioms, but they are rooted and grounded in the storyline of the Scripture. If we were to boil the Bible down to a perfectly accurate summary of doctrines or directives, we would not be improving upon the Bible. We would not be drilling past extraneous stuff. We would be losing something essential: the story.

This is what Nienhuis means by the “irreducibility of narrative.” As he puts it, “no moral or summary of a story can take the place of the story itself.” That’s because stories in the human experience, as created by God, are more than just hangers on which to place abstractions. Stories speak not just to the cognitive capacity but to the imaginative as well. As he explains, “Stories immerse us temporally in a world other than our own, and in doing so, they provide us with a deeper understanding of our own identities, values, choices, and purpose.” This is precisely right.

Russell Kirk spoke of this as the shaping of the “moral imagination.” Stories, rightly told, shape us, almost always unconsciously at first. We vicariously are delighted or surprised or disgusted or outraged. It’s not just that we cognitively connect the dots but that, at some level, we actually experience these things. That power can be used in terrifying ways—see the use of Germanic volk myths in the rise of Hitler—or in life-giving, redemptive ways.

The prophet Nathan confronted King David with his sexual predation by telling the story of a wealthy man robbing the poor of his one ewe lamb (2 Sam. 12:1-15). This was not just to “illustrate” for David the meaning of the commandment against immorality. The story Nathan told bypassed the hardened conscience and the rationalizing intellect of David to allow him to experience horror and disgust at what turned out to be his own sin. Jesus did the same, repeatedly. The story of the “good Samaritan,” for instance, is again, not just an illustration but a vehicle for a resistant conscience to experience what it doesn’t want to acknowledge: compassion for the ‘outsider’ whom culture compelled to be ignored.

That’s how ethics works. It’s not simply that we are given a list of “dos” and “don’ts,” and we comply, or that we are convinced of all of the positive and negative consequences of our actions, and we are persuaded.

The Ten Commandments don’t work that way. This code of objective morality begins with “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). The Sermon on the Mount, likewise, comes in the context of Jesus’ announcement of himself as the fulfillment of Israel’s story, the year of Jubilee in the flesh. Likewise, the moral admonitions of the New Testament epistles are situated within the story of the gospel, a story personalized in the constantly repeated testimony of the Apostle Paul.

Stories are often the vehicle for a resistant conscience to experience what it doesn’t want to acknowledge.

As Nienhuis puts it, “The faith-forming narrative of Scripture provides us with a plotline within which we may orient our own lives today.”

We need abstract commands. “Love the stranger.” But those abstract commands come to us in the context of a story about ourselves and about the universe. “Love the stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We tell ourselves stories to justify our actions, and often we convince ourselves of false stories. We can even lull our consciences by repeating these false stories. We become like Christ by following his commands by the power of the Spirit, yes, but, beyond that, by joining ourselves to his life, to his story, as branches to a vine.

Some seem to believe that the times are so perilous that we should boil down the biblical witness to what’s absolutely necessary: the fundamental doctrines and the lists of biblical principles on how to obey God and how to make it in life. Why would we, with the stakes so high and the time so limited, teach people the difference between Melchizedek and Jehoiakim? If we bypass the story, though, we bypass the core of the person. More importantly, we bypass the way God speaks to us. And that, the Word of God, is what can sanctify, can make us holy.

We can’t have ethics or morality or justice without stories, without the Story.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).