REVIEW OF THE DRAMA OF SCRIPTURE BY CRAIG G. BARTHOLOMEW AND MICHAEL W. GOHEEN
BY SAMSON COVATCH FEBRUARY 22, 2018
In 1995 I found myself in Toronto, Canada at Second City with my family. The improv comedy group had a unique twist in that you could find yourself directly involved in the performance. If you weren’t back from intermission promptly, you would become part of the show and had to play your role in order to return as a spectator. This same twist is what you will discover in The Drama of Scripture by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen.
The book sets out to tell the metanarrative of Scripture through six acts, as though a play, and one interlude. In doing so, we see the continuity of a Bible that is normally reserved for carving, dicing, and preparing in bite-sized chunks for easy consumption. Our missing the forest for the trees leads us to naturally want to worship the trees we love rather than the Creator of the world in which the forest rests. This form of idolatry is addressed in the program before the curtain goes up. “Hence, the unity of Scripture is no minor matter: a fragmented Bible may actually produce theologically orthodox, morally upright, warmly pious idol worshipers!” (14)
The first two acts come and go quickly; immediately being drawn into the story by ushering us into a cordial meeting of our protagonist before all hell breaks loose, literally. YHWH has, through His eternally creative and loving nature, formed mankind in His image to share the joy of being. Benevolence, love, and immutability are attributes of YHWH first communicated to us, and after our rebellion through sin are the qualities we will question.
The Israelites have been chosen for God’s mission to reveal Himself to the world and redeem all nations to Himself. Before they can embark on this mission, they need to know the story of how they came to be, where they are now, and more importantly who God is. The Pentateuch instructs God’s chosen people in who He is and how he differs from the gods they are familiar with during their bondage in Egypt. They are also told what went wrong and that YHWH is going to restore what once was.
In the third act we see YHWH as king through a series of battles where He destroys each concept of divinity through the plagues in Egypt and even going head to head with the perceived ruling king of the land. Defeating him through the Passover narrative and destroying Pharaoh's army before the eyes of the people solidifies YHWH as Lord of lords and King of kings. The Passover celebration is instituted to annually retell the drama of what God has done.
Told through a series of scenes we are introduced to main themes in each of the Old Testament books. God desires to dwell with His people but not in the sense that He will remain where we are. YHWH makes it clear that He draws near to us by bringing us where we need to be. Our mistake is in thinking that He will change to fit our lifestyle as if He gathered us to do our bidding.
We encounter a cycle of judgment starting with sin and moving through to anger, oppression, distress, crying out, deliverers sent, and finally, rest (88). This continuing pattern is emphasized in the book of Judges. Baal worship was at the center of this problem with the Israelites. In their henotheistic mindset, YHWH was indeed God above gods, but that didn’t mean the minor gods weren’t useful. The physical gratification of cult prostitutes to ensure a bountiful harvest is not replacing God, just usurping Him for a moment. “There thus was a certain perverse logic to Israelite idolatry, but the Lord was not impressed” (88). The veracity of this sentence needs to be my ringtone in life.
The righteousness of the judges and kings of Israel fade before our eyes like the last few copies from an old ditto machine. If you look hard enough, you can see what once was, but the impression of what is to be represented has almost vanished. Thus to preserve His name, YHWH sends His people into exile, although not before warning them and giving comfort and hope through His prophets. Is there none to be found in all of Israel to redeem us? Has God forgotten us? Does He no longer care? Sadness and hope fill our minds as we wait and try to remember what God first revealed to us about Himself in the Garden. The curtain falls.
Intermission is marked by a time of silence from the stage, but more than usual activity from the audience. Costume changes and sets are redesigned for the next act. As we are reminded of the time of silence before Moses with little detail on the exact events leading up to Israelite slavery, but unlike that time we have a chance to peer behind the curtain through recorded history and watch the stagehands. YHWH is still on the throne and hard at work to bring forth His desire for the redemption of the cosmos. Through the military conquests of other nations, Israel finds itself neither free nor enslaved. Free in some aspects but constrained in others by living in a land that is on the border in a dispute between nations. The Maccabean revolt is where we find our costume and set design changes along with a new feast of remembrance through Hanukkah. The Israelites become fiercely monotheistic, and we have the splintering of what hope will look like in the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Sadducees and Priests, the Zealots, and the Common people (131-134).
As we find our way back to our seats, we look to our program for a hint toward the next act and are baffled by the seeming conclusiveness of its subtitle Redemption Accomplished (135). How can this be since there are more acts to come? It would seem at first that we have a shift in the cast as the center of worship and rights afforded to God alone is found in a man! Jesus has come performing miracles and proclaiming the kingdom of God is near, but the Romans are still in control. Even John the Baptist is confused and sends his disciples to seek out Jesus and ask him if he really is the Messiah. Jesus answers them as YHWH would answer by looking to his works for proof. “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22).
Jesus then takes it upon Himself to reintroduce God to His people through teaching and the forgiveness of sins. He sends his disciples to the people to declare the kingdom at two different times, and significantly in two different groups. First, the group of twelve, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel, and second, the group of seventy-two, symbolic of the number of Gentile nations. This is the original model YHWH had planned in the beginning and is now being foreshadowed by the leading of Jesus.
Jesus is tried by the Sanhedrin and is found guilty of blasphemy by claiming to be the Son of Man as foretold in Scripture. To put himself equal with YHWH is to sentence himself to death. This unimaginable death of the hero of our story is necessary for the forgiveness of sin. “Yet God’s purposes move beyond the salvation of individuals. In the death of Jesus, God acts to accomplish the salvation of the entire creation: Jesus dies for the world” (177).
The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is told through the redemptive work that has been done. When Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin he “tells the Jewish leaders the story of their own nation” (194) before proclaiming the resurrection of Christ. His martyrdom does not inhibit the gospel from reaching the whole world.
As the gospel reaches the center of the world, there is a pause in the play. The actors on stage turn to you, the world, to see what you are doing with the story. This part is conveyed to us as an unscripted act we, the audience, are now to tell. Just as I found myself in Toronto, I am required to do my part for a time. When my time is up, the play will conclude with the final act of redemption completed.
In conclusion, this book should be the standard for outlining the overarching truth of the biblical narrative. It is perfect for any new Christian who would be overwhelmed by the size of the Bible or for the seasoned Christian who could benefit from the bird’s-eye view of redemptive history. The Drama of Scripture is one of the few required reading books I would recommend for others to read, and it will be a gift from me to others for years to come.