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The Art of Why

“We have a God who hides things because He loves to be sought out, chewed out and found out.”

As Christians, we are rightly taught that we must not question God’s Word. The problem is that the Scriptures record many things which appear to have been given to us for the precise purpose of triggering questions. Even the provocative parables of Jesus are a breeze next to the arcane stipulations of the Torah. Those dark sayings were given to us as examples. They were not intended to be simple but they were intended to be understood.

We are to read the Bible faithfully, but our familiarity with the text often means that we fail to ask the right questions, the most important of which is simply “Why?” This is not the “Why?” of unbelief or rebellion, which delights in the Word’s crude curiosities, brutish caprice and blatant contradictions because they can serve to justify its dismissal. It is the “Why?” which desires to know the mind of God, to get at the cause behind the effects. It is the “Why?” which diligently searches the Scriptures for clues concerning the things which God has veiled from us. The same God has given us delicious glimpses through that veil of what lies beyond to whet our appetites for more. Our problem is that we have grown so accustomed to the Bible that we have forgotten how astonishingly eccentric it is.

Layout 1It is sad that many faithful Christians are not interested in discovering why the Bible is so strange. They trust in linguistic technicians who most often study without an ounce of the childlike imagination the Bible requires to be understood, and teachers who no longer ask “Why is it so?” For them, it is simply so, and must be accepted without question. They are happy to be challenged morally, intellectually and even spiritually, but not visually, and definitely not “architecturally.” God deals in images, sequences and patterns, so the riches of the wisdom of the Scriptures remain unperceived. Their deep questions skip like tiny pebbles across the face of wondrous literary fathoms. Until they learn to open their minds like children once again, they will remain unteachable. 1One of the reasons why many on the autistic spectrum are innovators is simply the fact that they still perceive the world as children do. They are oblivious to the classifications and demarcations constructed by specialist academics which discourage and even legislate against “generalist thinking.” When commended for thinking outside the box, they might reply, “What box?”

Modern Christians do open their minds like children, but not to the Bible. This is why the best Bible teaching is always that which bridges the gap between popular culture and the ancient text. Like all the biblical prophets, our artists, musicians, novelists and poets not only understand the connection between the everyday and the sublime, they also know how to obscure it just enough to make it tantalising. To become truly wise, the saints must be taught that the skills they gain from well-written books, television and cinema should not be shelved when reading the Bible. The Bible is indeed a good book.

The Art of Story

“Stories are equipment for living.” – Kenneth Burke

We all know when a book or a movie is missing something, even if we cannot put our finger on exactly what is wrong. But the best authors all know how to identify the problems and put them right. That list of best authors would include some screen writers, those who have to say everything the author of a novel says, but in less words. In Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee writes:

From inspiration to last draft you may need as much time to write a screenplay as to write a novel. Screen and prose writers create the same density of world, character, and story, but because screenplay pages have so much white on them, we’re often mislead into thinking that a screenplay is quicker and easier than a novel. But while scribomaniacs fill pages as fast as they can type, film writers cut and cut again, ruthless in their desire to express the absolute maximum in the fewest possible words. Pascal once wrote a long, drawn-out letter to a friend, then apologised in the postscript that he didn’t have time to write a short one. Like Pascal, screenwriters learn that economy is key, that brevity takes time, that excellence means perseverance.

Aaron Sorkin, Academy and Emmy Award winning American screenwriter, producer, and playwright, says that what began his addiction to writing was watching a play and being fascinated by the “music” of the dialogue. Screenwriting teacher and “script doctor” John Truby says that plot is not something you make up as you go along, and that all the best stories use the element of surprise.

In every case, the musical flow, the wonder and surprise are what get people hooked and keep them reading or watching. The Bible was completed two millennia ago, yet it is still coming up with new surprises. However, it is rarely taught this way.

Seed and Fruit

The Bible is much like a screenplay in the way it uses vivid images, clever plotting and careful structure to resonate with us, but it also uses a method very familiar to screen writers, and that is the technique of “plant and payoff.” At the heart of every narrative surprise (the good ones, anyway), there is a clue which leads to a later revelation. A plant without a payoff is not a plant, but a denouement without some prior hint, some dark saying serving as a foundation, is unsatisfying and cheap. The author is sovereign, but we will only revel in his authority if it demonstrates his beguiling wisdom.

“Plant and payoff” is the basis of typology, the earthy type and its glorious antitype, Adam and Eve, Garden and City, so I would argue that this is an application of God’s own Covenantal pattern of “forming and filling.” The writer plants a single seed which seems utterly insignificant, if not irrelevant. It dies in the ground and is forgotten, but later produces a miraculous harvest.

The clues in the Bible are generally images and sequences of events, but sometimes they are technicalities which seem superfluous to the modern mind. As in every good story, there are no trivialities in Scripture. Every jot and tittle must earn its keep, awaiting the time when its potential will be fulfilled (Matthew 5:18). We must eye with suspicion every petty detail because, like its Author, it is self-effacing, that is, it points to the glory of something else. In the Bible, there are dark sayings, but there are no idle words, and no red herrings. (That is the opinion of Satan who leads men not to glory but to oblivion.) Even if its purpose is not immediately apparent, each strange word is a seed carefully planted for a payoff later on. The insignificant stone overlooked by the builders becomes the head of the corner.

Fertile Minds

Some teachers claim that the only true types in the Bible are those which are explicitly explained. This is why they cannot make much sense of either the Bible or the world around them, since these are written in the same language, the language of image. They have no excuse because we in this age not only have the complete Word of God, putting us in possession of all the seeds and all the payoffs, we also have the Spirit of Christ who reveals the relationships between them. Every payoff is paid forward by God, invested in an even greater harvest. As we study, the Spirit fills the deliberate gaps between the lines, the isolated textual neurons begin to glow and hum with electric life, and the synapses in the written Word of God are bridged in the fleshy hearts of regenerate men. We become part of the story as it is written within us, seed and fruit. We ourselves become the conduits for the connections, fertile ground. Biblical theology is an extension of the glory of the Word.

Good storytelling makes excellence possible in any genre, and the best storytelling transforms the reader because it contains elements which must be chewed upon and digested. It engages and involves the reader through the use of mystery and symbol. Lewis and Tolkien understood that the best perspective on this world was from the vantage point of another one. All the visions of the Bible do this. They take place in the heavenly court, whose words and images are expounded in the subsequent events of history. What happens on the earth is glorious exposition of the compact types that issue from the mouth of God. Of course, this is still the case today. The power of the resurrection of Christ is paying a dividend in a billion stories that the world itself will not be able to contain.

“Holy, Holy, Holy, is Jehovah of Hosts, The fulness of all the earth is His glory.” (Isaiah 6:3, Young)

Asking Why

If we are not asking “Why?” the Lord cut into Adam, “Why?” Moses’ hand became leprous, “Why?” David heard angels in the tops of the trees, or “Why?” the ax head floated in the Jordan, we are not sitting like children at our Father’s feet. Instead of desiring to see the logic behind His idiosyncrasies, which are sometimes delightful but most often bizarre, we act like staff members too afraid to question our eccentric boss, yet willing enough to question his character. We look for wisdom elsewhere, as did Adam, and wind up listening to the slanderers of God. We must be bold enough to question God, as was Job, who stood against the accusers and discovered through faithful perseverance that the answers were all around him, hidden in plain sight.

Biblical theology is the art of “Why?” By faith it understands that we have a God who hides things because He loves to be sought out, chewed out and found out by those who love Him. He never opens our eyes without also opening our hearts (John 16:25-33).


This essay was originally published at Theopolis Institute and is included in Inquiétude: Essays for a People Without Eyes.

References   [ + ]

1. One of the reasons why many on the autistic spectrum are innovators is simply the fact that they still perceive the world as children do. They are oblivious to the classifications and demarcations constructed by specialist academics which discourage and even legislate against “generalist thinking.” When commended for thinking outside the box, they might reply, “What box?”

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