I was struck by what Nicholas Carr reported1 about how reading narrative affects readers, based on the research of Keith Oatley and other psychologists. ‘Every reader of a book creates, in Oatley’s terms, his own dream of the work — and he inhabits that dream as if it were an actual place.’1
But what if the dream was real? If that world was real? I’m thinking in terms of the Bible. Why is so much of the Bible narrative? And why did the living God choose to reveal himself through the word and the Word? Could it be that we were created to respond to stories this way so that we might enter into the greatest story of all: the reality above and beyond the merely physical and temporal? Reading the Bible then would not be merely reading for doctrinal instruction, but could be almost like a virtual reality preparation for eternal reality. It could be a flight simulator to train us for the real flight where we would learn the responses required for eternity.
If it is true that ‘readers routinely speak of how books have changed them’1, and the research reported would seem to confirm that, then reading Bible narrative will actually assist the transformation that Christians call sanctification. That would underscore the divine wisdom in not providing us with a book of theology, or one entirely filled with doctrinal teaching like the New Testament letters. Narrative and doctrine are included in the Bible for good reason. God is not trying to brainwash us without our knowledge by giving us stories. He is not content for the changes that readers of biblical narrative experience to be unconscious. The overt teaching of the letters and other biblical books spell out the changes required, and explain the consequences of the undesirable lifestyle of rebellion against him. The Christian is required to engage his or her brain (Rom 12:1-2). And even in biblical narrative there are explicit evaluatory statements made about characters and actions that will guide our thinking. Generally evaluation is guided by the artful construction of the narrative, which requires the brain to be engaged.
And what of the social dimension of reading? Carr reports on the misunderstanding of the social experience of reading in the digital age as e-book publishers add interactivity features to their creations. He quotes David Comer Kidd: ‘Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience’ and comments ‘The reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply.’ If this is true of fiction, then what kind of social experience can reading the true narrative of the Bible produce? The impact must be much greater when we consider that Bible reading is not simply a solitary activity for the Christian, but frequently done in the context of God’s new society, the church. That is not to reduce a church Bible study group to the level of a literary reading group. But could it be that corporate Bible reading and study, attending to the preaching of the Word, and private Bible reading and study can make a much greater impact on us than we realise? Unlike fiction, believing readers of the Bible get the opportunity to live out their changed attitudes and lifestyle in a like-minded society in advance of the eternal reality.
All this relates to reading, but I wonder if a similar impact is made by storytelling. If so, that would have huge implications for how Bible narrative is preached. How great the impact of deviating from the biblical story. And it might suggest that not reading the whole story when one is preaching from a narrative passage will greatly lessen the impact of the sermon.
Well, back to living the dream . . .
1. Nicholas Carr, ‘The Dreams of Readers’, Rough Type blog, 9 Jan 2014 [online] available at http://www.roughtype.com/?p=4120