Discernment / The Skill

Discernment 301: From Story to Drama

I wish I could read this aloud to you, but I can’t. We aren’t in the same room, for one thing, which is a problem. I suppose I could take the time to record it and post an mp3 file on our web site, but too few of you would stop and listen to it—life is too busy. So, here it is, in print. I know this is hard, but please try to imagine it being read aloud to you, because a good story is even better when someone who loves stories reads a story aloud to you. Children understand the truth of this instinctively but many adults somehow forget it, or come to believe they are too busy to put reading aloud into their schedule. The ancients rightly called such failures in adults a lack of wisdom. Anyway, here is the beginning of a story, one story out of many—the opening pages of a remarkable novel by Hwee Hwee Tan—that I would read aloud to you if I could:

“Are you a Singaporean citizen, over twenty-one, and a lawyer?” he said.

I recognized that voice at once, the English accent, the voice roughened by too much tar and endless lager sagas. It could only be Andy. Now the above question might seem fairly innocuous to the casual eavesdropper, but in this instance it caused me a great deal of aggravation. Believe me, if Mother Teresa was in my place, if she was asked the same question under the same controlled circumstances, it would be enough to make her chuck her role as the saint of the century and send her screaming down the streets, going apeshit, looking for babies to kick. Why was Andy’s question so provocative? I’ll tell you why. Firstly, not only because it was one in the morning (and looking at my glow-in-the-dark Casio clock, I saw that it was 1:16 a.m. to be exact), but secondly, and more importantly, Andy knew, that I knew, that he knew, the answer to all three questions, because five hours earlier he was supposed to meet me outside Tung Lok Shark’s Fin Restaurant to celebrate my getting the license to practice law. Of course, Andy didn’t turn up. I hate eating alone, so I went home early, and woe to me—I returned to the flat only to find my mother having a karaoke night with her mah-jong playmates. So instead of feasting on Abalone Delight and Peking Duck, I spent my evening trying to block out the sound of fifty-something housewives wailing songs from the Karaoke Hit List From Hell, songs like “Sealed With A Kiss”, “Singapura, Oh Singapura (Sunny Island Set In The Sea)”, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree”, “Que Será Será”, and “Ne Xin Li Ken Ben Mei Yao Wo” (or “Your Heart Never Had Me”). Trust me, you haven’t seen something truly Satanic until you’ve seen your mother belting out “Chain Reaction” complete with Diana Ross hand actions and bum wiggles. So, as you can imagine, when Andy phoned, I was in less than a good mood. What would you do—after the pain in your ears has subsided, when you’ve finally managed to fall asleep—what would you do, if you were woken at one in the morning by someone who had stood you up five hours earlier, and asked three completely inane questions?

I pondered my options, rolled over the choices that came to mind, and finally decided upon the calmest, the most apposite, indeed, the most mature response. I slammed down the phone. It rang again, and I picked it up and said, “I’m very pissed off now, and you have about five seconds to make me un-pissed-off, preferably using a technique which involves three words or less, or else this phone is going down again.”

Silence on the other end as Andy paused to think of those all-important three words. As our Andrew ponders upon those crucial phrases, perhaps now would be a good time to introduce him. This is a tricky process because of the Eugene Connection. Andy wasn’t really a friend, he was more like a friend-in-law—I knew him through Eugene. Eugene was my neighbor-cum-childhood playmate. When we were kids, we had great adventures together, like investigating “The Case of Mrs. Lam’s (possibly) Murdered Maid”, but that’s another story. Now pay attention, here’s where it gets complicated, because Eugene is one of those people with those intricate, exotic backgrounds that most normal people like me would kill for. During his teens, Eugene and his parents emigrated to Holland to open a Chinese restaurant. He returned to Singapore for a few years to complete his National Service, then he went to university in England, where he met Andy. They became best friends, and spent their undergraduate years cultivating their passion for soccer, kebabs, and Cocoa Bombs. Anyway, post-graduation, when Andy (unsurprisingly) couldn’t get a job in England, he decided to go East to seek his fortune.

Andy finally thought of those three magic words—“I’m in jail.”

What is it about a good story that captures us so intensely? Sometimes, after we have made tea and lit candles, especially on a wintry evening when it gets dark early here in Minnesota, we find comfortable spots in the living room to listen to a story. Friends who join us have commented that it’s like being a child again, but that’s just the surface memory I think. What’s really happening is that something deeply human is occurring. Life is inexplicable without story, so to hear a good story is to be transported in imagination to the deepest intersection of mystery, reality, and meaning.

We need to visit that intersection regularly because our lives are a story. We often speak in such terms, as when we ask a new friend to tell us their story, meaning of course the story of their life. And we all live out our stories in a greater or larger narrative in history in which we play only a small part but which defines our story, shapes its details and significance, its twists and turns, its ups and downs, its outcome. Finding meaning and a sense of direction in life requires that we locate our individual story in a larger story that will give it significance in a way that transcends the details of the here and now. This is why religious traditions always involve narratives, myths that give a wider perspective on things. For the Christian the Scriptures provide us with a story: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. John Stott correctly says this 4-fold story provides the “true perspective from which to view the unfolding process between two eternities, the vision of God working out his purposes. It gives us a framework in which to fit everything, a way of integrating our understanding, the possibility of thinking straight, even about the most complex issues.”

Though he doesn’t use the term, Stott is talking here about being discerning. As we learn to see things through the lens of the biblical Story, we will increasingly be discerning. Instead of merely reacting to things or being non-committal and withdrawn, we will be responding in a way that is in keeping with The Story even as we live its reality out in novel situations.

The increasing diversity and pluralism of our world means that our neighbors, colleagues, and friends do not necessarily share our deepest convictions and values. This means that we tend to find ourselves in situations or presented with challenges that are not addressed in any specific passage in the Bible. On the one hand, if you are behind in your bills and are thinking of holding up a bank, you can find really specific texts about that (they all say don’t do it—that stealing is bad). If, on the other hand, you are wondering if you can drive a Muslim neighbor to the mosque for Friday prayers, no specific verse addresses that specific question. The same goes for attending the housewarming party for an unmarried couple who have just moved in together and who request that gifts in their name be given to the local coalition working to legalize gay marriage. But answer these questions we must, if we want to be faithful to our Lord in our pluralistic world and more than merely reactionary or non-committal—neither of which contribute to human flourishing or are sufficient for Christian faithfulness.

Being discerning is the process by which we apply the revelation of Scripture to life even when we need to respond to something that the Bible does not specifically address. Some believers seem distressed to discover that issues arise for which they can find no proof text on the topic. Distressed to think they might do something wrong, they withdraw, feeling defensive. The problem is that they have failed to understand what God has graciously provided in his written word. The Bible is not primarily a list of instructions on how to live, though it is full of wise instruction about living in a way that both pleases God and causes us to flourish as his creatures. The Bible is not primarily a reference work consisting of a series of proof texts about the details of life because too much of what daily life entails is not addressed in any text. The Bible is not primarily a scholarly systematic theological treatise, though it reveals a rich set of doctrines that can shape our minds, hearts, and imaginations so that by grace we think God’s thoughts after him (though imperfectly, of course). The Bible is, rather, primarily the revelation of Jesus Christ in the unfolding story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, the narrative of history and reality in which we live and in which God is bringing all things to their appointed end in and through his Son for his own glory. The Bible tells us The Story that fulfills and completes every human story in a way that is beyond our wildest dreams.

In The Drama of Doctrine, a rich but dense book, theologian Kevin Vanhoozer proposes that we take the story metaphor one step further. Instead of simply imagining being in a story, he says, imagine life as being in a play, a full drama unfolding on a stage before a watching world. Think of the canon of the Scriptures as a script, in which we have a part to play. The community of God’s people then becomes the company of actors, pastors and elders are unit directors under the directing guidance of the Holy Spirit, and theologians are specialists that help us make proper sense of the script. It’s a divinely inspired script, in which Christian belief, Vanhoozer observes, “serves the church by directing its members in the project of wise living, to the glory of God.”

Vanhoozer’s metaphor won’t make sense if the play we imagine is an amateur production in which the actors are enthusiastic but limited to reproducing the script by rote memory. Instead imagine a production in which professional actors are so immersed in the script that they become their character to an extent that only those whose true vocation is in the theater can achieve. This sort of actor becomes the character they are playing and the plot becomes their story. Something magical happens at moments like that that reveals the inner essential wonder of the art of the theater. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1989), Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (2010), Francis McDormand in Fargo (1997), and Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice (1983) all represent fine examples from film. It isn’t just that the actors give fine performances, though there is that. It’s that somehow the actors stop being themselves, transcend their own identity and become their character. The phenomenon isn’t limited to serious plays or movies, either. Watch Jimmy Stewart in Harvey (1950). His co-star, though we never see him is Harvey, an invisible six-foot white rabbit. Stewart’s brilliance as an actor makes us believe Harvey exists, drawing us into a story of family, friendship, and loyalty that utterly transcends the silliness of the fantasy to touch on themes that matter most in life.

“Doctrine tells us not how to pretend to be something that we are not but rather who we really are,” Vanhoozer says, “creatures made new in Christ.” Rather than being an invitation to hypocrisy, seeing faithfulness as a drama is a call to dwell in and live out the unfolding Story of redemption revealed in Scripture that is fully real but not yet fully consummated.

The interesting thing is that this vision of things provides a true basis on which the players can go beyond the script without ever departing from it. The unfolding biblical Story, Vanhoozer argues, “is a guide for the church’s scripted yet spirited gospel performances… The Holy Spirit is both author of the script and the one who guides the church’s contemporary performance—its improvisatory variations—on the script.” Now, when some unexpected twist suddenly occurs during a play accomplished actors improvise not by making something up, but by remaining in character so profoundly that what unfolds on stage would be in the script had the writer addressed such an event. A similar thing happens when film-directors allow accomplished actors to improvise in a scene. They go beyond the script but never go against it, extending it into something new because they have absorbed the story into their soul. In this vision of things, Christian faithfulness does not entail straining to locate proof texts that apply to our situation, or developing legalisms to generate conformity. Instead, faithfulness means being so steeped in God’s word that our responses are shaped by its truth even when applied to situations not specifically addressed in any text of the Bible. “This is what the canon, the church’s Scripture and the Christian’s script, ultimately provides: the ability to make judgments about the true, the good, and the beautiful that are fit ‘in Christ’.” Being in Christ, we can then live as in Christ, even when we are faced with a choice or event or challenge that is not specifically addressed in the script. The canon helps “us discern what, in light of the drama of redemption, is fitting language and action for Christian disciples,” even in novel situations.

Discernment was one of the essential things the prophet Jeremiah mentioned in his letter to the exiles (Jeremiah 29:8-9) who had been carted away to Babylon. Of course they would need to be discerning about the new culture they found themselves in, with its beliefs and values that were very different from those of Jerusalem. On their arrival they were immersed in studying the language and literature of Babylon (Daniel 1:4). In other words they entered into and engaged its culture. Being discerning would be a safeguard. They could learn the material well yet not be drawn in unawares. They were also to be discerning about voices from amongst the people of God who claimed to speak for God but didn’t. The prophet’s letter made clear they were not to rebel, or seek to escape, or withdraw. Instead, for the glory of Yahweh who had ordained them to live in exile, they were to work for the good of the city in which they found themselves. The city in which they found themselves, Babylon, was a diverse place. The Babylonian army had swept across the known world and brought back the best and the brightest to serve Nebuchadnezzar and his empire. The religions, lifestyles, values, beliefs, and languages of the world were there, and the exiled people of God were a minority in the midst of a diverse culture. In precisely the same way and for precisely the same reasons we need to develop skill in discernment as well.

Improvisation in Vanhhoozer’s model does not imply moving beyond the Scriptures but rather involves a display of holy spirited wisdom in fleshing out God’s revelation even when our circumstances do not match any specific biblical text. Rather than moving beyond the Scriptures, the description of moving more deeply into would be more appropriate. This is what Daniel and the other exiles were required to do in Babylon. The Mosaic law was specific about worshipping any god other than God (compare Daniel 3 and Exodus 20:1-4), but it offered no particular guidance on how to respond to being given pagan names (Daniel 1:7). In one case (worshipping an idol) the exiles objected, even though it put their lives at risk, in the other (going by names exalting pagan gods) they raised no objection. In both cases they were faithful to God.

“It is a matter,” Vanhoozer says, “of living well with others in the world to God’s glory.” The exiles properly refused to accept any god other than Yahweh, but they also properly did not object when Babylonians acted as Babylonians do, in ways consistent with their own pagan culture, beliefs, and values, in this case to give the exiles new names. They never compromised the sovereignty of God but never insisted that the Babylonians change to become something they were not.

Like the exiles in Babylon we find ourselves in uncharted territory as the culture in which we are ordained to live becomes more pluralistic and post-Christian. Uncharted in terms of a list of proof-texts that provide rules for every circumstance, that is, but not unscripted. We have a script and can learn to live in it so completely that we see everything in terms of it—even issues and questions that go beyond the details of the script. Anything less cuts us off from God’s word of grace—and whether this involves being reactionary or being non-committed and withdrawn, as we are reminded in the opening poem of the Psalter, both lead to spiritual drought, not human flourishing. This is what C. S. Lewis was referring to when he said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Just as the exiles in Babylon could know they had not been abandoned by God, so we can live in the assurance that the love of God as expressed in the living Word, the Lord Christ and in the written Word, the Scriptures, is unchanged, and will remain so, world without end.


Foreign Bodies by Hwee Hwee Tan (New York, NY: Persea Books, 1997) pp. 1-3
Involvement Volume I: Being a Responsible Christian in a Non-Christian Society by John R. W. Stott (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell; 1985) p. 61
The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) pp. xii, 102, 109, 308, 366.