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My studies at Malyon College were a great blessing to me for many different reasons: the fellowship, the input from lecturers, the great Scriptural truths, and the spiritual formation were all monumental in my Christian development. Yet as eagerly as I devoured concepts of perichoresis, hypostasis, the Synoptic Problem, and the incommunicable attributes of God, I found that the most beneficial thing that I learned at Malyon was simply how to read the Bible.
Now as a Pastor, people often ask me how they should read the Bible, or how they are supposed to interpret the biblical passages that they read. Traditionally of course, there are two contrasting interpretative methods we see in practice: exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis, as taught brilliantly at Malyon, is the process by which we take into account all of the historical, cultural, contextual and linguistic considerations, in order to draw the true meaning out of a biblical text. Eisegesis, conversely, is when we start with a conclusion and try to force it into a text, making it say what we want it to say. For example, if you believe you can speak things into existence, “let the weak say I am strong” (Joel 3:10) becomes a text which means people can speak strength into being.
However there is a third idea that we often see people implement: narcigesis. This is named for the Greek myth of Narcissus (from whom the term narcissism also comes), who became obsessed with his own reflection, staring at it until he died. Narcigesis is prolific because the prevailing contemporary worldview is similar to narcissism—we see ourselves in everything, and the world becomes about us. Life is a story in which we are central, and everybody else (including God) is simply a supporting character who props us up and helps us get what we want. If you want to test this out, just post a vague passive-aggressive diatribe on Facebook, asserting that you are sick of people treating you this way. Then watch everybody naturally assume that you are talking about them. Hilarity will ensue.
This self-centredness has implications on how we read Scripture. Because we can become tempted to see ourselves everywhere in the world’s narrative, we also insert ourselves into Scripture and view it as being about us. This is what narcigesis is. We become the central characters of every biblical narrative. To paraphrase Carly Simon: “you’re so vain, I bet you think this verse is about you”.
So when we come to the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17), too often (even in sermons) it becomes about us being a David, identifying the ‘Goliath’ in our life, and the five stones that we need to defeat it. We read ourselves into the story, viewing our spiritual apathy as our own Goliath, and recognising that prayer, devotion, Bible-reading, church attendance and home-group are the five stones we need to slay that pesky old giant. Or perhaps the five stones are the five points of Calvinism; or five financial principles, that will defeat the giant of mediocre living and unlock the wealth and blessings that God wants to bestow upon us. Forget the fact that if anything we are the helpless Israelites, relying on a mediator (that’s Jesus) to defeat the insurmountable enemy and apply the benefits of that victory to us.
So no, David and Goliath isn’t about you. Jeremiah 29:11 is not God personally promising you that nothing bad will ever happen in your life (just read Hebrews chapter 11 to see the calamity that befell God’s faithful, including Jeremiah)—it is about Him working out humanity’s redemption regardless of your personal circumstances. Philippians 4:13 is not God promising to make you good at sport. The book of Daniel is not primarily about how you too can ‘be a Daniel’, and certainly is not a book of dietary advice.
A major problem with this approach is that we end up reducing Scripture to a series of disconnected, moral lessons. We are simply to be more like Jacob and less like Esau, and then move on to the next story to see how it too features us as the supreme being in the centre of it all.
There is a big narrative that explains the history of the world, but this is not your own narrative. You are not the central character of the world, or of Scripture.
Instead, the big narrative of the world is God’s story of redemption and we are simply minor characters connected into this story. From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture tells the story of God perfectly creating the world (Genesis chapter one), and its subsequent corruption by sin (chapter 3). Then immediately we see the story of redemptive history unfolding as God promises to send a redeemer (3:15).
From there, the story of human history is about the anticipation of the saviour coming and redeeming us—everything points to Him. Once He arrives, the story becomes about pointing people to Him and awaiting His return and the glorious restoration of creation.
It is God’s story, which plays out on the stage of human history. We are connected into this story, so of course Scripture has application to us. It is not simply historical narrative with no bearing on contemporary life. When we encounter God’s Word, we encounter God Himself in a very tangible, real and practical way. Yet the application comes from the fact that we are minor characters who have been placed into the big story by God, not the other way.