Kevin Vanhoozer on the Power of the Christian Story

How does the story of the Bible shape our lives? That’s the topic of conversation on the Bible Study Magazine Podcast.

In the first season, author and Bible Study Magazine writer—and now podcast host—Mark Ward explores why it’s important to really know the story of the Bible. He talks with scholars, pastors, Bible Study Magazine editors, and Logos Bible Software experts.

In this interview from the podcast’s first episode, Ward speaks with Kevin J. Vanhoozer, who teaches theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine (Lexham Press, 2019).

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WARD: A repeated theme in your book, Dr. Vanhoozer, is that Christian people in the West are, sadly, not shaped by the Bible’s big story in the way they ought to be. They’ve let other big stories shape their imagination. So for those who are seeking to be biblically literate, of what story are we a part?

VANHOOZER: Obviously, we’re speaking about the grand story of the Bible. But we need to say more, because people in the West—Christians in the West—they have a place for God, and God is part of their story, but they’re still the heroes of their own stories. And biblical literacy corrects that wrong way of thinking. It’s not that God is part of our story, but that we are part of God’s.

We need to recover biblical literacy. We need to recover the logic of the Lord’s Prayer. We ought to be praying for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, not for our will to sway heaven so that it can be done on earth. That’s a very different story of the God-humanity relationship.

We’re part of the grand story of the Bible that unifies the Old and New Testaments. It starts at creation, the beginning of all things. But it very quickly becomes apparent in the story that creation is a kind of workshop in which God is forming a human people to be his treasured possession. This is a prominent theme in the Old Testament, beginning with God’s promise to Abraham to make his name great and to make of his descendants a great nation. That promise generates the rest of the story. We’re part of a story where the theme is: God is relating to human beings in order to make a people for himself to enjoy life with him forever.

WARD: You said you see many signs of biblical illiteracy, and you talked about the biggest one—that people aren’t organizing their lives by the Bible’s story, even if they’re in the church. What are some of the other signs that you see?

VANHOOZER: Well, at one level, I was simply thinking people don’t know the content of the Bible. It’s harder to make references to the Bible and expect people to catch them. You have to fill in the blank because they don’t know the particular famous bits of the story.

They also don’t know how the story connects. There are pastors just this past year who suggested the Old Testament isn’t necessary for the Christian Church. That’s gross negligence of biblical literacy, I think. But the one that you mentioned, the fact that people simply aren’t orienting their lives biblically—that to me is the biggest sign of the most important kind of illiteracy we need to work against.

WARD: You’ve said you teach future pastors and you speak at churches, so encourage me, Dr. Vanhoozer. Does what you’re describing actually happen in the world? Does the Bible really shape people’s lives?

VANHOOZER: Yes, and there are encouraging signs. I think people are more aware of the role of the imagination, and I think people are more aware of the power of culture.

I do think it is helpful to begin alerting people to how formative the stories culture tells can be, and when I first came to Trinity, culture was something that only missionaries studied. It was something “over there.” Now, I think, we all realize that we’re enculturated and that there are these deep stories that inform what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “social imaginary.” So we’re wrapped up in stories. Charles Taylor suggests that modernity tells a story of liberation from the authority and tradition of the Dark Ages, the medieval Church, Christian tradition. And I think a lot of people are captivated by that particular story of freedom. 

But now I need to encourage you. I think the Bible has the power to liberate people from illusions and lies and falsehoods, and that’s because the light shines through God’s Word. And we see the power of the true story as early as the New Testament when Jesus tells parables. Those were also intended, I think, to subvert false gospels and to liberate captive imaginations.

So I do see more and more people today having a healthy regard for the imagination, looking perhaps to the arts, as well, to give us some semblance of transcendence for which people are starving in a modern, secular age.

Just this week I had the privilege of speaking to 300 Evangelical Free Church of America pastors about the book Hearers and Doers. And I was very encouraged to see how many of them are alert to the spiritually formative power of culture and stories. I was encouraged to hear how they had many stories of how preaching the gospel results in waking people up.

Jesus tells stories to wake people up, and he also told that little story that compared foolish people to those who hear his word but fail to put it into practice. The Bible should enchant our imaginations, and it should prompt people to respond to its story the way the Samaritan woman did to Jesus. She said, “Sir, where can I get this living water? Give me this water.”

That’s what Scripture is. It’s what gives us access to living water. And I think we need to appeal to people’s imaginations—the whole being, not just an intellectual argument, not just a gimmick. We need to help them get real. The Bible answers the most pressing challenges of life.

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Listen to the full interview and the entire first season (12 episodes) of the Bible Study Magazine Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, and other platforms.