James was found riding his bike every other Saturday.
Allow me a moment to apply a term to this sentence that isn’t normally used: story*. You understand that the sentence is attributing an action (riding his bike) to a specific person (James) within a certain time frame (every other Saturday)—but this doesn’t have to be a beginning or an ending.
It remains as a self-contained Happening in James’ world. It’s believable to enter into that world. There’s no logical contradictions encountered. It just exists.
From here, you can walk away from this story and remain happy. The story stands on its own.
When reading Scripture we encounter Stories—several in fact. Folk who deny inerrancy have no problem with Story but they have a problem with the placement of Story.
This is a mistake, they say, notice the variance of the story being used here verses there.
Maybe they’re speaking about the chronology of a Gospel account, or maybe they’re talking about the differences of an account recorded in Kings vs. the Chronicles or maybe they’re even highlighting the differences in Paul’s conversion story. Whatever the case may be, they refuse to read the story with a charitable ear to the author; rather they see that the authors are, somehow, mistaken. It doesn’t matter, they say, at least the Author’s point was clear.
What winds up happening is that the Point is treated like a gem, to be lifted up out of the muddied context from whence it came. It’s polished, repositioned, and it is put on display: the messy text, on the other hand, can remain safely ignored.
And yet, this completely ignores the way a story (like words) can be used in different contexts to highlight different points. A story placed next to another might reflect The Actual Point.
For example, let’s go back to James:
Janet, James’ shrew of a wife, spent years complaining that they were growing apart. She screeched. She yelled. She cajoled. Every fortnight of this, he couldn’t help it—he had to get out. James was found riding his bike every other Saturday.
Well, the original story is the same but the context is near another story: the story of James’ Wife. Now that the two stories are next to each other, the Point is not merely that James was found riding his bike but the man was using it to escape!
Now, are there any mistakes? The details of both stories seem pretty important.
“Well,” says the Objector “there are no problems here since it expands on the story of James’ riding.
Well, let’s up the ante:
James’ co-worker Gina was a beautiful woman: friendly, flirtatious and fine. Every other week, she enjoyed swimming, in the buff, at a private lake in the State park. James noted, if he scheduled his day just right, he could catch a late afternoon vision of exquisitely exposed beauty. James was found riding his bike every other Saturday.
Story One (the original) still remains the same but now the story three in the same context gives a naughty edge to James’ bike riding.
But how does it affect Story Two? Has that story now been relegated to wrong? Do we now have an errant account of the life of James with the Point being whatever we can separate from the conflicting accounts?
You see, Story Two and Story Three can both remain as unchanged as Story One. Put next to each other they gives us a picture of James’ Life; told separately, they highlight certain aspects of that life without being contradictory or errant. The only sure thing you see in telling the story is that the Author has a different reason for sharing the information that he does and that using the same story near other contexts may reveal some of the author’s mind.
So what the reader should be doing is entering into the story and notice the details within the story as it stands. And then, the reader should be noting the near context of the story: why was it placed here instead of there? Why is the author organizing his material in this way? What does it say about the Author’s Point?
The Story is important; it’s placement near other Stories is equally important. The Point, then, doesn’t function like a gem—hidden in the grime, just waiting for some person to remove the entire messy Story away from it. Rather each story should function as part of the whole presented by the author—the dimmed lights, the soft jazz, the scented candles, the roses littering the floor—that when put together tell you what’s really going on.
Words are, therefore, special though they mean nothing without context. But Stories define context, and when placed near the vicinity of other Stories, the reader should be careful (and respectful) enough to allow the Author’s positioning of those stories to reveal his flow of thought.
*I borrowed and modified the example from one of my mentors but I don’t want to use his name online. Some of the terms I borrowed from another mentor: J.R.R. Tolkien.