“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-47)
I suspect that many in my community would be appalled if they knew how much time I spend each week on social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Indeed, I fear I rival some of our most ardent teenagers in terms of posts posted and tweets tweeted.
This week past I’ve spent a particularly intense time in the Twitter-storm, as I figure I have a duty to each one of my 34,106 Twitter followers (as it was at last count) to keep them up-to-date on what is really going on in Syria, though I do sometimes forget that not every one of those souls is necessarily on the same page with me.
On Thursday I tweeted the latest news I had received from sources inside Damascus – namely, that there had in fact been no chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta
What I reported was that an analysis of soil samples taken by the Russian army had come back, showing no signs of relevant chemical residues. Further, no hospitals in the area had reported dealing with patients carrying injuries consistent with any chemical attack, and that locals were apparently saying that the whole incident had been staged by the notorious ‘White Helmets’ (that supposedly humanitarian aid organisation who are, in my view, merely a propaganda tool of Al Qaeda).
One of the first responses I received to my tweet was from a gentleman who said that I “lost him and every intellectual when I mentioned Russian soil samples”.
I interpreted this to mean that I’d been unclear with regards the investigative work undertaken by the Russian army. After all, I’d kept my report to 140 characters to make it fit as a Twitter tweet. I replied by including more detail on the investigations. It then occurred to me that, of course, clarity wasn’t the issue at all. It was the fact that my source was Russian, when the Russians obviously could not be trusted.
I had forgotten, somehow, that to many people, the Russians are the bad guys, and that their testimony can never be trusted. This led me to question myself – ‘have I come to think of the Russians as the good guys, whose word cannot be questioned?’
Either way, this and my subsequent social media manoeuvrings last week served to remind me that every new fact we try to deal with is inevitably interpreted within the broader framework of related beliefs and assumptions that we already hold to.
With this latest global drama, as each new scene unfolds, we connect what is new to what already has a place in our conscious understanding, and we inevitably do so in a way that makes the new information consistent with the existing storyline, however we understand that greater storyline. I believe the technical term for this greater storyline is the ‘meta-narrative’. In other words, it’s the ‘big story’, which both contains and helps us make sense of all the smaller stories.
Meta-narratives are a part of the scaffolding of our belief system. We may never have noticed the scaffolding going up, and yet these core narratives strengthen and support our particular beliefs and hold them all together. Like scaffolding too though, they are rarely directly on view, and we may not even be aware that they are there!
It took Noam Chomsky, the great linguist, to make me aware of the meta-narrative I’d absorbed as a child regarding the place of the USA in the global community. Chomsky pointed out that the US is cast in the role of a father to the global family, responsible for good behaviour in the household. Sometimes the father acts harshly to discipline a wayward child, but only ever with the child’s best interests at heart.
Once you take on this meta-narrative, you don’t see any hypocrisy in the fact that the US has enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons but nonetheless gets very upset if any other country tries to develop similar weaponry without its permission. After all, it’s OK for father to carry a stick, and to hit an errant child with it if he has to, but God forbid that one of the children should try to get hold of the stick and use it!
Religions too have their meta-narratives – big stories that tie together all the little stories and try to make a consistent whole out of them, and, as with politics, so too with religion, people can have different meta-narratives that string the building blocks of religious belief together in very different (and often competing) ways.
We are told that one of the key things Jesus did with His disciples after the resurrection was that he taught them the Scriptures.
“ [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” (Luke 24:44-45)
I suppose there is more than one way to envisage what this process of ‘opening their minds to understand the Scriptures’ might have looked like, but if by ‘Moses, the prophets and the Psalms’, Jesus meant the three-fold division of the Hebrew Bible (normally referred to nowadays as the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings) Jesus’ point was that He is featured in every section of the Hebrew Bible.
This could, of course, mean simply that there are isolated verses in every one of those books where Jesus is mentioned prophetically. Perhaps He told them:
‘You see where Moses talks about another prophet like himself who will come? That’s a reference to me. And see those passages where the prophet Isaiah talks about the suffering servant? That was me he was talking about too!’
It’s not impossible that this was the process Jesus went through with His disciples after His resurrection – giving them a long list of proof-texts that they could use in future arguments with Jewish non-believers who accepted the Hebrew Bible as God’s word but weren’t convinced regarding the proper identity of Jesus.
It’s not impossible that this was the process but it’s unlikely, as most of these books don’t contain much prophecy! Far more likely, I’d suggest, is that what Jesus was addressing was the meta-narrative – the larger story that He understood to be weaving all the Scriptures together, and in which He played a pivotal role.
Of course, we would have had to have been there to know exactly what Jesus said. Even so, I don’t think it’s too hard to work out, broadly speaking, what Jesus might have taught His disciples, as we are in a pretty good position to grasp how those people understood the greater Biblical narrative prior to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles give us a pretty good idea as to how these same people understood that narrative after the crucifixion and resurrection. Hence, I think it’s fair to assume that what transformed their thinking was, at least in part, what the resurrected Jesus taught them.
What was it that changed in the Biblical meta-narrative of the disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? I don’t think it’s hard for us to answer that question. It was that the post-resurrection community came to see the Biblical meta-narrative as being less ‘Israel-centric’ or perhaps we should say less ‘Rome-centric’.
What was the last question the disciples asked of Jesus before He disappeared from their sight? According to the book of Acts, it was “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
Even at their last meeting the disciples were hanging on to what had been at the core of their earlier religious meta-narrative – namely, that God was going to act in history to end the Roman occupation and to restore Israel as a sovereign nation.
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t answer that question directly and does not deny that political independence for Israel might still be a part of God’s plan. Even so, I think it is beyond debate that while this hope had been at the core of the religious hope of the disciples when they first signed up with Jesus, it played almost no part in the preaching and teaching of the early church as it evolved in the first century.
The change that takes place in the understanding of the disciples, as they make their transition from being the first followers of Jesus to becoming the early church isn’t in any simple reinterpretation of any particular text or group of texts. There’s a fundamental shift in the meta-narrative. Some would see this as a move away from the political towards the spiritual. I’d suggest that this transition might better be understood as a move away from being Israel-centric to being inclusive of all people, but we grasp this best by doing a quick sketch of that meta-narrative.
“In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth”, we’re told (Genesis 1:1). Not long after the beginning, God and human beings have a falling out, and by the end of the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis, things are in a bad state. Humanity have been kicked out of the garden, murder and mayhem have taken place, creation has already started to fold in on itself with a great flood, and human beings are no longer able to talk to each other due to the curse of Babel.
At the beginning of Genesis chapter twelve a new hope emerges in the form of the three-fold promise God makes to Abram – that He will make of Abram a great nation, that He will give Abram’s people a homeland, and that through Abram’s descendants “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The implication is that the process of degeneration that was outlined in the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis will somehow be thrown into reverse through these promises. In many ways, the rest of the Scriptures (both our Old and New Testaments) are concerned with the unfolding of these promises made in Genesis chapter twelve.
God does build a great nation through the seed of Abram, and by the end of the books of Moses God has almost given them a land. Even so, the history of the people in the land is not a consistently happy one, and there is a great deal of murder and bloodshed and idolatry and all-round godlessness, such that the descendants of Abram, instead of becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth, find themselves constantly under judgement, suffering for their sins.
The way people suffer for their sins in this narrative is never arbitrary. The punishment for idolatry (which, biblically speaking, I believe, is really the only sin) is always that you have to live with the God you’ve chosen to serve.
The punishment for the sin of choosing Donald Trump as your President is that you have to live with Donald Trump as your President. Of course, that’s a tragedy that affects the rest of the world too, but it’s not arbitrary. It’s the inevitable consequence of your choice. Likewise, the suffering endured by Israel, enduring occupation by the Babylonians, by the Greeks, and by the Romans (in that order) was not an arbitrary punishment, but the inevitable result of their choice of the wrong leader.
Up to this point the meta-narratives of the disciples of Jesus, both before and after the cross and resurrection, would have been much the same. Where they changed, I’d suggest, is in how they saw this problem of sin and occupation being solved.
There is no doubt that the dominant meta-narrative for Jews in the first century was that God was going to send them a leader who would lead them to victory over their Roman oppressors, and so get the nation back on track towards fulfilling the second promise given to Abram – the promise of a land. What Jesus showed them was that Israel’s problem was not primarily with Rome but with God, and that Israel still needed to suffer for their idolatry. Even so, Jesus would do the suffering for Israel – enduring all that the violence that Rome’s false gods could throw at them!
Further, the way the story would continue from this point, in terms of what the resurrected Jesus must have taught His disciples, was that they would not simply pick up then on the old promise of the land, but would move straight on to the third promise – the promise of being a blessing to all the families of the earth!
Think this through! Get your Biblical meta-narrative right, for getting the big story right is far more important than getting any particular story or verse right. How we understand the core narrative shapes how we interpret all its component parts.
When we find ourselves in conflict with other believers, differing in our interpretation of particular passages on issues of sexuality or gender or in any number of other areas, the real issue is almost always a clash in meta-narratives, and not a failure in intellectual rigor by the other side, though that’s generally how we like to interpret it.
Allow Jesus to open your mind to the Scriptures, and get your meta-narrative right, though recognise too that this is full of dangers. People call me an Assad apologist because I question the official Syrian meta-narrative have doubts about the Syrian army’s use of chemical weapons. They called me an apologise for Saddam Hussein years earlier when I didn’t buy into the weapons of mass destruction propaganda.
Don’t underestimate what it can cost you to be true to the core narrative of Scripture either – to hold fast to a belief in inclusiveness, mercy, forgiveness and love.
First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 15, 2018.