The Biblical Story as Worldview

“Scripture Is Our Social Imaginary”: The Biblical Story as Worldview

by Kevin Vanhoozer

Miroslav Volf, looking to the Godhead as a model for human community, once declared, “The Trinity is our social program.”[1] “Program” is the operative term. Worldviews, says Mary Poplin, are “like operating systems on a computer except that they are in our minds.”[2] Worldviews provide instructions for living well, with others, in the material world. They are mental programs for flourishing, individually and socially.

Herman Bavinck acknowledges the importance of the Trinity for a Christian worldview: “The Christian mind remains unsatisfied until all of existence is referred back to the triune God, and until the confession of God’s Trinity functions at the center of our thought and life.”[3] A single doctrine does not a worldview make, however. James Sire and others rightly suggest that a worldview is a fundamental orientation of the heart about the constitution of reality that can be expressed in a set of presuppositions or as a story.[4]

Christians believe the story of Jesus Christ answers the four core questions that worldviews typically address: who am I? what kind of world do I live in? what’s wrong with me (and the world)? How then should I live in order to deal with and flourish in the world? Scripture provides answers to these questions precisely by telling the story of the triune God: Father, Son, and Spirit.

Drama is story made flesh, and the gospel tells the embodied story of how God’s Son was made flesh “for us and our salvation.” We know the triune God only because he has acted out, in history, bringing Israel out of Egypt (Exod 20:2) and Jesus from the grave (Acts 13:30). He has also sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, to unite and conform us to Christ (Gal 4:6).

Of course, this is not how many people view the world. Other stories provide the program that run most people’s lives. Charles Taylor explains our secular age with his notion of the “social imaginary”: “the way people imagine their social existence.”[5] The social imaginary refers to a picture or framework that makes sense of our everyday beliefs and practices. People typically do not learn how to view their world from textbooks or classrooms; rather, the sense of “this is how things are” is carried in images and stories.

The social imaginary is thus the story by which we live, a story not studied and reflected on but soaked up by cultural osmosis. It is the taken-for-granted story of the world assumed and passed on by a society’s characteristic language, images, and practices. What makes our age secular is that society’s characteristic language, images, and practices no longer take their bearings from the story of the God of the gospel. Taylor uses the term “immanent frame” to describe the broad secular (i.e., this-worldly) story for interpreting the world.

If the above analysis has any merit, it follows that the best way to recover and commend the Christian worldview is to recover and commend the primacy of the story of the triune God that lies at the heart of Scripture. In particular: we must retrieve the principle of sola scriptura, not simply as a Reformation slogan about the norm for doctrine, but as a rule for rightly imagining reality. Sola scriptura is the claim that Scripture alone should exercise supreme authority over Christian faith, life, and thought, including the imagination.

Make no mistake: the imagination is indeed a cognitive function. It is more than the faculty for creating images of things that are not really there. The imagination can misdirect and mislead us, but then, so can reason: just think of logical fallacies. When it is functioning rightly, however, the imagination is the ability to make connections and discern patterns. Whereas analysis is reason taking things apart, the imagination is reason putting things together, synthesizing disparate bits into meaningful wholes.

The story that ties the various books of the Bible together is the result of what we might call canonical imagination. Just these books, taken together, enable us to think God’s thoughts after him, and to imagine the world as the stage for God’s saving activity. The story of the Bible sets our secularized imaginations free to see, taste, and inhabit the world as it truly is: a fallen creation into which the Father has sent his Son and Spirit to make things right—a world so loved by God.

According to Nicholas Wolterstorff, everyone who evaluates theories has certain beliefs as to what makes a theory acceptable. He calls these “control beliefs.”[6] N. T. Wright takes this idea one step further, arguing that the Bible articulates its worldview in the form of a “control story.”[7] We gain knowledge when we find things that fit with this story. To view the world through the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not to construct a fantasy land but to discover the only real world there is: a world created by God’s Word, into which God’s Word has entered, and to which God’s Word will return. This is the beginning, middle, and end of the Christian’s biblical “control story.”

Ultimately, to make this story plausible to others, it must be lived out. This is precisely the task of the church. As the body of Christ, its privilege and responsibility is to make Jesus’s story flesh, to inhabit the strange new world of the Bible, and to act the new humanity in Christ. When it inhabits the story of Jesus, the church becomes a living parable of the kingdom of God, and a carrier of the Scriptural imaginary. The biblically disciplined and discipled imagination views the world as it truly is: a divine creation in which the new in Christ struggles to come forth from the old in Adam.

In conclusion: with regard to the Christian worldview, the Trinity may or may not be our social program, but Scripture is definitely our social imaginary.[8]

Notes

[1] Miroslav Volf, “The Trinity is Our Social Program: The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Shape of Social Engagement,” Modern Theology 14 (1998), 403-23.

[2] Mary Poplin, Is Reality Secular? Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 27.

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation vol. 2tr. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 330.

[4] James Sire, The Universe Next Door 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 21.

[5] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 171.

[6] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 63.

[7] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 132-33.

[8] The material in this article is drawn from my Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness, and Wisdom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 17-48 and Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 102-13.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Ph.D., Cambridge University) is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Previously he served as Blanchard Professor of Theology at the Wheaton College Graduate School (2009-2012) and Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (1990-98). He is the author of a dozen books, including The Drama of Doctrine, Remythologizing Theology, and Biblical Authority after Babel. His most recent book is Hearers and Doers: A Pastor's Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine.

Photo credit: Bobby McKay on Visualhunt.com /  CC BY-ND


Quotable

In Groundhog Day, comedian Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an obnoxious Pittsburgh weatherman unhappily assigned—yet again—to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. According to folklore, a cloudy day on February 2 means an early spring; the sight of his shadow sends the groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, back into his burrow—a predictor of more winter to come. So goes the small-town annual event. But after the ceremony, a winter blizzard traps the dispirited Connors and his TV crew, forcing them to spend another night in Punxsutawney. The next morning, in the same bed, at the same B&B, the clock radio comes on at 6:00 a.m. Connors awakes once again to Sonny and Cher singing "l Got You Babe," and discovers that he is reliving Groundhog Day. This happens again the next day, and the next, as Connors suffers through each one inexplicably playing out exactly as before. . . .

Religious leaders of different faiths have all laid claim to Groundhog Day as representing their teachings. One scholar said the film "perfectly illustrates the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that Buddhists regard as suffering that humans must try to escape." A rabbi saw the film as an allegory finding "Jewish resonance in the fact that Mr. Murray's character is rewarded by being returned to earth to perform more mitzvahs—good deeds—rather than gaining a place in heaven, which is the Christian reward, or achieving nirvana, the Buddhist reward." A Jewish film critic, however, read it differently: "The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays," he explained. "And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect." A Catholic scholar argued that it was "a stunning allegory of moral, intellectual, and even religious excellence in the face of postmodern decay, a sort of Christian-Aristotelian Pilgrim's Progress for those lost in the contemporary cosmos." On the other hand, an evangelical Christian in Punxsutawney (the film's setting and shooting location) said her organization did not use the film as an educational tool: “We stick pretty much to Scripture.”

The filmmakers never expected Groundhog Day to resonate with the religious community, though they welcomed it. “It really was always intended as a very human story,” screenwriter Danny Rubin said, admitting that he “was aware in a general way of Buddhist concepts and reincarnation, but it was more something I noticed after writing the original script than anything I did on purpose.” The film's director and cowriter, the late Harold Ramis, was raised in the Jewish tradition, but observed no religion himself. “l am wearing meditation beads on my wrist, but that's because I'm on a Buddhist diet,” he said with characteristic humor. “They're supposed to remind me not to eat, but they actually just get in the way when I'm cutting my steak.” If people found their own faith in the film, “it really was not faith in a God, because there's no God postulated in Groundhog Day,” Ramis maintained. “It's really faith in humanity. And I'm nothing if not a secular humanist. You don't need religion to be a good person.” Groundhog Day shows that even if the film was not conceived with a specific religious intent, a viewer's framework of expectations can make for interesting interpretations, here with regard to religious tradition.

— William D. Romanowski, Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning (Baker Academic, 2019), 11, 12, 13.


Book Highlights

*One of the foundational pillars of a Christian worldview is morality, which Christians derive from the Old and New Testaments.  But it can be challenging figuring out how instructions given in biblical times apply to Christians today.  There are everyday issues we’re confronted with, like questions about sexual morality, divorce, and alcohol and drugs.  And then there are issues that skeptics raise objections about such as slavery, homosexuality, and the Bible’s view of women. 

New Testament scholar David Instone-Brewer has written Moral Questions of the Bible which helpfully treats each of these moral issues, and many others, and we encourage you to check it out for helpful guidance on these challenging subjects.  Drawing on his expertise in the cultural and historical backgrounds of Scripture, he helps readers uncover the unchanging biblical principles that speak to today’s moral questions.

“Does the Bible condone slavery? The subjugation of women? The execution of homosexuals? Readers approaching the Bible with twenty-first-century eyes are often puzzled, confused, and even appalled at what they read. Can this really be God’s unchanging word? As a leading authority on the Jewish and Greco-Roman background of the Bible, David Instone-Brewer is an ideal guide for addressing moral and ethical questions related to the application of Scripture. By examining these texts within their unique cultural contexts, Instone-Brewer shows not only that the biblical commands represent a major ethical advance on the cultures of their day, but also that they reflect the encultured revelation of a just and loving God.”

Mark L. Strauss, University Professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary

The Rev. Dr. David Instone-Brewer is a research fellow at Tyndale House, a research library in biblical studies located in Cambridge, England. He previously served as a Baptist minister. His books include Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, and Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament.

Find Moral Questions of the Bible at Lexham Press, Amazon, and other major booksellers.

* This is a sponsored post.


This engaging book explores how Christians can most profitably and critically hear, read, and view popular culture through the lens of film. William Romanowski, an expert on American culture, offers new insights on theology and the movies as he highlights the benefits of a faith-informed approach that centers on art and perspective. He shows how the cinema functions "religiously" as popular art and how Christian faith contributes to the moviegoing experience, leading to a deeper understanding of movies and life. The book draws examples from classic and contemporary American movies and includes illustrative film stills.

Cinematic Faith will appeal to professors and students in popular culture, theology and film, worldview, and communication courses; Christians looking for an introduction to engaging film and faith; pastors, youth ministers, and church leaders; and campus ministry and student development leaders in undergraduate settings.

William D. Romanowski (PhD, Bowling Green State University) is Arthur H. DeKruyter Chair in Communication at Calvin University and speaks frequently on subjects dealing with American culture and the entertainment industry. He is the widely respected author of a number of books, including the award-winning Reforming Hollywood and Eyes Wide Open.

Praise for Cinematic Faith

"William Romanowski has written another accessible, probing, and stimulating book which engages one of the fastest-growing fields of theological reflection today. Throwing into relief the ways in which movies convey meaning and articulate 'life perspectives,' the book will make an ideal 'way in' to thinking about film for virtually any Christian reader."

— Jeremy Begbie, Thomas A. Langford Distinguished Professor of Theology, Duke University

"Cinematic Faith is the book I didn't know my college-level film students needed. William Romanowski effectively blends cultural insight, critical evaluation, and honest analysis to make this book a fantastic, faith-based follow-up to Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture."

— Kimberly M. Miller, professor and department chair, communication studies, Grove City College

Find Cinematic Faith at Amazon, Baker, and other major booksellers.


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