The Bible is music. Or so Alastair Roberts and Andrew Wilson claim in the introduction to their superb Echoes of Exodus.
I don’t know a lot about classical music, but the crux of the point is that we see various themes in the scriptures, and they are picked up and repeated by repeating stories or story elements.
Ever noticed the similarities between one story in the Bible and another? They’re deliberate. They’re all deliberate. They aren’t due to bad editing as some of the more critical scholars would suggest, but are specific, thoughtful use of the same narrative elements to make broader points and references.
The Bible is a grand story, its supposed to be read in reference to itself. We’re supposed to pick up on the themes.
I’ve used this musical analogy a few times and butchered it badly. One of the staff members at our church who has a musical education has helpfully set me straight, and I think what follows (though all mistakes are mine, not hers) is a helpful analogy.
The Bible is a Symphony
A classical symphony has three ‘sections’, an exposition that presents initial themes (think of Genesis 1-3, though not exclusively), a development that presents the same themes but changing them in various ways, and a recapitulation that returns the initial themes without repeating them (think Revelation 21-22, though not exclusively).
This is one of the ways the Bible works. It’s a carefully formed work of literature that reuses and develops themes specifically and intentionally. A student at our church made a comment to me—that was intended in jest—to the effect that the King’s Church approach to preaching means you always have to pivot to Jesus before the end and show how the story is really about him.
Well, yes. If you’re not doing that you aren’t preaching. It can be done really badly, and we need to do so with an attentive ear to the text to see where the passage does and doesn’t mirror the grand story and main themes of the Bible, but we have to do it.
What’s the Bible all about? It’s about Jesus. We could dress that up into a story—perhaps of God’s new creational kingdom breaking into a world marred by sin to be ruled justly by an king possessing incorruptible life (that’s Genesis 2 in case you were wondering)—but it will always be a story whose climatic moment is the coming of Jesus.
We preached through Joseph’s story at the end of Genesis through the Autumn term last year. It constantly mirrors and matches the story of Genesis so far and the story of Jesus to come. This is not an accident and it’s not forcing the New Testament on the Old, it’s reading the Bible how its supposed to be read.
I’m intrigued that the final section is called a recapitulation, as that’s a theological term associated with St. Irenaeus of Lyon from the second century. It was how Irenaeus explained the cross, that Jesus turned Adam’s story on its head. It’s an explanation of the atonement centred on story: that all our stories find their end in him; Jesus sums up all the themes of history in himself.
There are also elements of what in Wagner’s music would be called leitmotifs, a musical theme associated with one character, emotion, object, or situation that are evoked and played with. Some are obvious, some really aren’t. The Bible is the same, there are obvious repeating patterns that the text points out to us and ones that are less obvious, but the text wants to allude to. Repeating patterns of seven, or of trees, or mountains, set up in Genesis? These are the ones that are meant to be obvious. Noticing what Luke does with comparing Jesus to Elisha? Maybe a step more subtle, but there for finding.
The Bible is a symphony. It’s a tapestry: its carefully woven together. It’s a literary novel, pulling themes and characters together carefully and with the greatest of skill. It’s the work of a master artist, the Author who writes with lives the greatest story ever told: the only story ever told.
We live in an age that’s losing its ability to tell stories, we read the Bible in flat and uninspiring ways as a result. We miss the wood for the trees. Let’s fight back by telling stories.
All our stories, all our songs, find their end in him.
We live in an age that when it does tell stories, makes us the hero of them. The Bible is, on this, incredibly clear: you are not the hero of the story you find yourself in. This is a challenging truth to absorb and live. It’s not your quest and you won’t slay the dragon and rescue the princess.
But someone will.
They already have.
Photo by Julio Rionaldo on Unsplash