Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible by Sean Gladding (IVP, 2010).
★★★★☆ and ★★☆☆☆
The Story of God seeks to retell the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, mission, and consummation in a new and engaging way. Rather than just summarizing the story, Gladding weaves his own narrative to help us see the story from two very different perspectives. In the process, he draws out some aspects of the story that we often overlook, and helps us see it in new and interesting ways. If you’re already familiar with the biblical narrative and are looking for a fresh take that will challenge you in new ways, this is well-worth considering. But, if you were hoping for a solid introduction to the biblical story and its key ideas, I suggest you look elsewhere. And, that’s why I’ve given the book two different scores.
Gladding divides the book into two halves. In the first half, he tells the story of a group of Jews living during the Babylonian exile who struggling to make sense of their status as God’s people and what has happened to them. An older teacher leads them in a re-telling of the story from Genesis through exile and, in the process, reminds them of who the story is really about, what God has been trying to do since the beginning, how they ended up where they are, and how they should continue to live in response to this story. The second half of the book jumps forward a few hundred years and picks up the story in the New Testament period. Here we find a non-Christian merchant coming into contact with an early Christian community, and we watch as he comes to understand both their lifestyle and their message, gradually becoming a part of the community himself. So, these two narratives serve as the lenses through which Gladding presents the biblical story.
The book’s greatest strengths lie in its readability and creativity. Gladding writes well and offers several interesting characters that help the reader stay engaged. I particularly enjoyed the story-teller approach in the first half of the book. I was able to picture some of what it would have been like for Jews in the exile to struggle with the difficult questions of identity, purpose, and destiny that must have plagued them as they lived outside the promised land. And, Gladding doesn’t back away from engaging the difficult questions that people in a situation like that would have been asking.
I also appreciated that Gladding doesn’t try to offer simple answers to difficult questions. He often portrays his story-teller as struggling with a particularly tough question and openly acknowledging that he doesn’t have all the answers. Instead, he continually returns to the overall narrative as the proper context within which to struggle (continually) with the most difficult questions. Granted, this does feel on occasion like Gladding is just dodging the hard questions, but a book like this can’t do everything. So, Gladding primarily stays focused on the narrative even while raising and occasionally addressing some of the harder questions.
And, I really like the way that Gladding tied the story to identity and mission. For Gladding, we must know and remember the story if we’re going to understand ourselves as the people of God and remain faithful to our calling in the world. To some extent, the book serves as a warning of what happens when we forget the story and an appeal to re-tell that story to ourselves and our children on a regular basis.
One of my bigger concerns about the book is that Gladding sometimes presents his particular interpretations of the story as though they were simply obvious elements of the story itself. The most obvious example of this is Gladding’s egalitarianism. For Gladding, egalitarianism is an obvious implication of the story from the very beginning, even though it gets clouded as the story degenerates into hierarchy and power struggle after the fall. Now, I’m sure that egalitarians will find this to be one of the book’s strengths. My problem is that Gladding offers this interpretation with no indication that there may be other ways of reading the story that many find equally compelling. (He does note a few minor characters who have obviously understood the story differently, but not in a very positive light.) My problem here isn’t so much that he presents the story from an egalitarian perspective, but that he does so without acknowledging that there’s a legitimate question at this point. He’s not afraid to raise, and even wrestle, with other difficult questions. So, by not doing so here, he really obscures the reality of the interpretive situation.
Another key concern is that Gladding doesn’t really do justice to the biblical story when it comes to issues of sin/wrath and guilt/shame. I appreciate that he presents the story consistently in terms of relationship and faithfulness (or its lack). That’s necessary to telling the story well. But, he places little emphasis on the themes of God’s holiness and wrathful response to sin, or the consequent guilt and shame that are so destructive for relationships on every level. Even if you think these elements are often overemphasized in traditional theology, the answer isn’t a corresponding neglect but a more helpful balance.
I also felt that the part of the story focused on the cross and resurrection was sadly lacking. He devotes an entire chapter to the cross and does a nice job identifying some of the amazing benefits that God pours out on his people through the cross. But, he completely dodges the issue of substitutionary atonement. It’s not even that he brings it up and rejects it. He doesn’t even deal with it. He simply points to some (not all) of the great benefits of the atonement and then says it’s a mystery how God in his love brings those about through the cross. Given how he bypassed other key themes earlier in the story, I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t make substitutionary atonement part of his story, but I was surprised that he didn’t even raise the question.
Finally, although I like the emphasis on “story” and find it a helpful way of talking about identity, mission, and faithfulness, I thought it was overdone in places. For example, at one point the Jewish story-teller explains to his people that they’re in exile because they’ve forgotten the story (p. 85). Although that’s true in a sense, it would seem more faithful to the actual narrative to say that they’re in exile because of their rebelliousness and idolatry. Gladding would probably say that this is included in what he means by “forgetting” the story, but it’s hard to see how any modern reader who doesn’t already know the story would make that connection.