by Sharon Warkentin Short
The need to make sense of our lives seems to be a fundamental human drive. We all do it by interpreting our individual experiences in light of some larger controlling story. The “small stories” of our everyday lives take on whatever meaning corresponds to the “big story” around which we organize our existence. Therefore, the same event can be portrayed in radically different ways depending on the foundational story through which it is interpreted.
In the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, individuals are not only experiencing and responding to these events in different ways, they are also explaining what is happening in different ways—corresponding to whatever core story they believe in.
As congregations cautiously but hopefully make plans to begin gathering again, we would do well to create opportunities for our people to share their particular stories of the past months. As ministry leaders, we need to be prepared to help individuals situate these personal stories within the context of the Christian story rather than within some other underlying narrative.
For followers of Jesus, the overarching story within which we interpret the countless episodes of our daily lives is the one that unfolds across the pages of Scripture. The Bible as a whole, composed of 66 separate and distinctly different books, presents one cohesive meta-narrative about God’s involvement in the world from the very beginning to the very end. The setting (our world) and characters (humans) are introduced in the first two chapters of Genesis, followed immediately by the conflict in Genesis 3. The rest of the Bible then develops the long and complex plot—climaxing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—through which God desires to restore humanity and all of creation to their originally intended design. The final chapters of Revelation give a tantalizing glimpse of the still-future conclusion to this grand story.
What is fascinating to observe in Scripture is that at pivotal events in this long history of God’s people, we find devout individuals recounting the Big Story of the Bible up to the point which they find themselves. Importantly, these storytellers always view themselves as current participants in the same ancient story; what has happened in the past has led right up to their present situation. Even more significantly, they review the Big Story for their audiences in order to motivate their hearers to join this unfolding story and to live in a manner that is consistent with its already-revealed ending.
What, then, might it look like to depict experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that are consistent with the Bible’s Great Story? And, conversely, how might these same incidents be represented in terms of false controlling stories? Consider the following examples:
A) Biblical Story: God is in control. God has known from the beginning every detail of what is going on, and none of it has, for even a moment, evaded God’s limitless power.
Secular Narrative: COVID-19 is a random global accident over which nobody has any control.
B) Biblical Story: God is good. No matter what happens, God is purely, thoroughly good. We trust this goodness in the midst of profound uncertainty.
Secular Narrative: If a god exists at all, he is either cruel to permit this epidemic or powerless to stop it.
C) Biblical Story: The world is broken due to sin. The natural environment we occupy is severely damaged as a consequence of rebellious human choices, and therefore we sometimes encounter disasters and disease.
Secular Narrative: Violent disruptions from entirely physical causes have always been inherent in geological and biological history.
D) Biblical Story: Suffering is not forever. At some future time, God will end all sorrow and pain, restoring human life and all creation to total joy and flourishing.
Secular Narrative: Eventually the sun will burn out and our planet will disintegrate and disappear.
E) Biblical Story: Loving our neighbors might entail sacrifice. We participate gladly in efforts to limit the spread of disease, even when the efforts are uncomfortable or inconvenient.
Secular Narrative: If my actions put me at risk to contract a disease, that is my business and nobody else’s.
Most of us, most of the time, give little thought to the meta-narratives through which we understand our everyday experiences. Christian leaders have the opportunity and responsibility to help believers bring to conscious awareness their most deeply held convictions and examine them in light of God’s revealed truth in Scripture. How well do the stories we tell about ourselves and our experiences fit into God’s Big Story? In what ways do our stories of what we are living through in these days connect to God’s Big Story?