I consider myself a child of the 80s. Though I was born in 1972, the decade beginning in 1980 would take me from the age of 8 to the age of 18. These were formative years. So it should be no surprise that what first came to mind when I considered the title Welcome to the Story, sent to me from Crossway for review, was nothing other than the Guns N Roses hit Welcome to the Jungle. This hard rock anthem parades the sins and sinners prevalent in Los Angeles before the hearers. The song points to the evil and depraved practices of citizens of the Californian city. Evil and sin are part of the story; but they are not the whole story. Stephen J. Nichols wants to introduce us to the whole story in all its completeness and wonder. Yes there is sin, but there is much more besides. Welcome to the Story – Reading, Loving, & Living God's Word is a book that attempts to encourage people, primarily believers but non-believers too, to engage their minds with the Bible, enlist their hearts to enjoy God's Word, and encounter life with Scripture's principles. In his own words, Nichols' book “invites you to enter in, to participate in, the story of the Bible” (17). Analysis of The Story, as well as practical advice, are the enticements the author uses to entice the reader to 'enter in' and 'participate in' the story of the Bible.
Nichols introduces and initiates the reader to The Story, the big-picture biblical narrative, by way of literary analysis. As an English teacher, one of the ways in which I teach students to understand stories is through consideration of the elements of fiction. The elements of fiction are exactly what the name indicates. They are the building blocks of a story. The elements we consider in class are plot, conflict, setting, theme, characters and characterization, symbols, and point of view. In diagramming and detailing the big story of God's Word, Nichols focuses on plot, theme and characters.
“The story of the Bible has not just any plot, but the best plot line of them all.” (25) With this in mind, Nichols welcomes the reader to the story through a consideration of the plot of the Bible as a whole. Nichols believes that one of the keys to understanding, appreciating, and applying the Bible is a good grounding in the Bible's storyline. In English classes we teach students that a typical plot has 5 components: an introduction, rising action, a climax, falling action and a conclusion. Nichols mirrors these components through his 4-word synopsis of the Bible's plot; creation, fall, redemption, restoration. Nichols does a thorough job of this plot analysis and this 'big picture' explanation serves the book well in giving it a solid foundation to build on but also serves the reader well in providing a crucial idea for understanding the Bible and ultimately for understanding life. If after having read the book, readers possess this concept alone it would justify the cost of buying it and the time spent reading it.
The theme of a work of fiction is its main point or controlling idea. This is the cohesive concept of the story, the central concept of the author's narrative. Nichols introduces us to this element by writing, “the story is about God. God's ultimate end in creating and redeeming the world is his own glory. God's story is ultimately about God's glory.” (111) The author identifies the importance of understanding this theme with the title of the chapter in which he deals with it; “God's Story, God's Glory; Adventures in not Missing the Point.” If we don't realize that the quadratic plotline of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration are ultimately about God and his glory, we miss the point of life, of the Bible, of everything. We tend, the author purports, to make ourselves the point of the story which results in a minimalistic and misdirected life. “With God at the center, we live broadly and expansively. With ourselves at the center we live narrowly.” (115) Armed with the plot and the theme of the Bible, and thus life, we find ourselves a true compass bearing for life. These two elements of the biblical story dramatically affect how we read the verses, paragraphs, chapters and books of the bible. And thus they affect how we live our lives. This is a significant idea and Nichols elucidates it well.
Any great work of literature requires characters and the development of those characters. We call this characterization. Nichols draws the reader's attention not only to the story's plot and theme, but also to its characters. Characters in general, and biblical characters in particular, can help us make sense of the world says Nichols. They make the storyline come alive and hold our interest. The characters of the Bible, according to Nichols, have their own stories that “tell the grand movement from creation to fall to redemption to restoration.” (94) The characters in the Bible point towards our own life. We see a little bit, or a lot, of ourselves in them. We see how Scripture's plot encompasses and embraces their lives and we understand that we too are enfolded in this grandest of tales that shines forth God's glory. It is this chapter where Nichols brings out a crucial point; we are also characters in the story of God's work. This directs our attention to the fact that the Bible is not a work of fiction, but a real story. “We need to read the Bible in light of the people, real people, we find in its pages.” (101) Those characters, Moses, David, Jesus, are real people and theirs was a real story. And this is significant if we are to be maximally impacted by the biblical narrative. This is the real deal. Nichols examination of the Bible's characters and their characterization reinforces the work of Christ in redeeming and restoring the creation from the fall. This was a powerful chapter.
Throughout the book Nichols often refers to the story within The Story; the gospel. Nichols draws our attention throughout the pages of this book to the central player in the redemption of humankind; Jesus Christ. There is a main character in The Story. It is Christ. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God is the climax of this story and the author regularly brings that to our attention.
“We don't passively watch the story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration play itself out. We're not off in the gallery peering down on the stage. We are part of the story.” (132) Nichols wants to help the reader with applying the Bible to our lives. He follows the head-heart-hand paradigm by encouraging readers to understand and love the Word which should be followed by participation. The author exhorts the readers in a moving chapter to both proclaim The Story and be ministers of The Story. “We are to speak and we are to minister” (139). We must propagate The Story and we must serve God in The Story. Nichols' explanation of how one might apply his teaching and the teaching of the Word is both easy to understand and encouraging to encounter.
To answer the 'What next' question, Nichols provides some tips, tactics, and techniques for reading the Bible. He briefly summarizes some pitfalls that exist when we enter into reading God's Word. He then directs readers to pay attention to a few things:
pay attention to the big picture
pay attention to context
pay attention to your life
Finally, Nichols presents the reader with some resource suggestions as well as some of his own resources. This is an excellent way to complete the book as it gives the reader something tangible to work on.
This book seemed to start slowly but by the end of the second chapter I was intrigued and interested to keep reading. Nichols is easy to understand and writes plainly but not without a bit of flourish. His thoughts and ideas are laid out creatively as is evidenced by the fact that, despite this topic being a popular one for centuries, he brings some freshness to it. I recommend this book for believers who are unfamiliar with these ideas, for believers who need a spark of encouragement in loving the Word, or even for non-believers who want to know what The Story is all about. Anyone who is involved and interested in literature would find this book valuable.