Updated: Mar 31, 2021
A van of young adults arrives at an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods. It’s a dark and stormy night and a fallen tree has blocked the only road out, but no one in the party seems to care. The guys are too busy looking for a hook up, and the girls are too busy with drama. One couple slips away from the main party to go make out in the woods, only to get separated by mischance…
Take a moment and predict what’s about to happen next to our protagonists. But don’t try too hard – I’m not trying to trick you.
Imagine not just knowing what we should and shouldn’t do as Christians but also having a habit of dreaming and imagining what it would be like to live out the biblical story.
Finished? Chances are, your story turned out something like this: the guy who went out in the woods to make out gets killed by [murderer/cannibals/monsters – take your pick] but his girlfriend doesn’t know. She makes it back to the party and convinces everyone to go looking for her boyfriend. One by one the members of the party get picked off by the Villain until only a single heroine is left (perhaps her true lover as well, but he’ll eventually die sacrificing himself to save her). In a final showdown with the Villain, our heroine exerts surprising strength and bravery, fueled by her will to survive. She escapes the isolated cabin, but the audience ominously discovers that the body of the Villain has disappeared.
Photo by Wix.
Check your summary against mine. In broad strokes did they resemble each other? Unless you decided to violate the point of the exercise in order to show off your creativity, I imagine you predicted my summary with a fair degree of accuracy. The question is, how?
Your story was obvious, Kevin, duh! A bunch of five year olds could have predicted it! But could they? Was it really that obvious? If you took a kid whose parents have diligently kept him from anything related to horror his entire life, would he really be able to predict what happens next? Or say we traveled back in time 100 years or so and showed that story to the average adult – would they know what to expect?
When you think of biblical literacy, what may come to mind are polls indicating how few people know all of the Ten Commandments or that most Americans can’t tell a proverb written by Benjamin Franklin from a parable spoken by Jesus.
No. It doesn’t take too much reflection to realize that there’s nothing inherent in the beginning of the story that I shared above that logically leads to the conclusion. In point of fact, if the beginning events happened in real life, it would be quite illogical for the young adults to fear that a monster, zombie, or hillbilly cannibal was about to come and kill them. And yet, as illogical as it might be, if we imagine ourselves in that kind of scenario, I suspect that many of us would harbor that fear secretly.
Why is that? What enables us to predict the end of this story so accurately? And what is it that would cause such irrational fear in light of a fairly innocuous nuisance like getting temporarily stranded in a cabin with a bunch of friends? The answer: tropes.
In all cultures there are patterns of telling stories that become so common that that the audience can easily recognize and even anticipate them. When applied in a dull and overly predictable way, we call them clichés. But, most of the time, storytellers are able to apply these patterns in ways that are recognizable but still fresh and different. Moreover, some of these patterns become so entrenched in the way that we tell stories that it’s hard to even imagine what a story would look like without them. These storytelling patterns are what we refer to as tropes.
The Bible, just like any other story, employs its own set of tropes, although most of them don’t get much attention. Those that do usually belong to a special subset of prophetically-oriented tropes – the Old Testament “typological” patterns that point forward to Jesus. But there are much simpler, more basic biblical tropes as well. If there’s an important social event, it’s likely to happen at a meal. If there’s a woman who seems permanently barren, you can expect her to conceive a child miraculously and for that child to perform wonders. If there’s an arrogant king oppressing faithful Israelites, you know he’s going to get a smack down. If a human is in the direct presence of God, it’s a safe bet that he’ll lose his wits.
If you read the Bible regularly, you know these patterns and it’s not hard for you to recognize when they show up in a specific biblical story. And yet biblical tropes – once an essential element in the West’s cultural encyclopedia – have increasingly fallen into disuse in popular culture. The result is pervasive biblical illiteracy.
When you think of biblical literacy, what may come to mind are polls indicating how few people know all of the Ten Commandments or that most Americans can’t tell a proverb written by Benjamin Franklin from a parable spoken by Jesus. News coverage tends to focus on superficial data points like this both because they’re easy to test and because they make for an engaging headline. In reality, these kinds of factual mistakes, particularly in response to decontextualized polls, are probably not a good indicator of how proficient people are at reading the Bible or identifying allusions to the biblical.
Insufficient awareness of tropes contributes much more to biblical illiteracy than inaccurate factual knowledge. Biblically illiterate readers end up feeling confused and disoriented when they read the Bible precisely because they haven’t been trained in what to expect in particularly narrative situations, and this lack of expectation also prevents them from experiencing the intended excitement, fear, or suspense. Coming to understand and recognize basic biblical tropes is therefore a crucial step in achieving biblical literacy and competency. But there is also a more concrete, real life result as well.
God knows that our behavior is influenced by our imagination. That’s why he hasn’t just given us a bunch of commands to obey using our rational mind. He’s also given us stories.
Earlier I pointed out how, if caught in a typical horror-movie scenario in real life, most of us would experience a degree of illogical fear or anxiety. The tropes instilled into us through regular exposure to horror movies have shaped our imagination, not only as it is applied to fiction but also as it is applied to reality. To put it another way, we can think of tropes as forming a kind of imaginative habit within a culture. They teach us to expect that certain situations – fictional or real – will lead to a predictable range of results. At times, our logical brain is able to step back and rationally evaluate the improbability of these expectations, but just as often we respond to situations on the basis of what we imagine, not on the basis of what is rationally probable.
Want a test case? Observe someone who has “fallen in love.” Are that person’s actions based on what’s rational? Or are they acting instead on the basis of expectations shaped by Disney and Rom Com tropes?
Photo by Wix.
It’s not necessarily a problem for our actions to be shaped by “irrational” influences like tropes. That’s just a part of how God made us – to be imaginative – and not just rational – beings. What becomes a problem is when false and corrupting tropes are what shape our imagination, expectations, and, consequently, our actions. Notice, I’m not saying something as simplistic as, TV is violent and therefore kids act violent. The direct effect of tropes is on our imagination, not on our behavior. But imagination eventually influences behavior at some level, particularly at times when we’re in a less than rational state of mind.
Have you ever had a recurring pattern in your daydreams or personal fantasies that was unhealthy or sinful? Maybe it involved engaging in sexual immorality, violence, one-upmanship, emotional adultery, or revenge. How analogous was this imaginative pattern to the narrative tropes in the media that you regularly consume? Now maybe you haven’t ever acted out exactly the scenario that you imagined – perhaps the situation never arose or, when it did, you were in a good enough mind-frame to resist the temptation. But consider whether there were more subtle ways that this imaginative habit influenced your behavior: if it was sexual or adulterous, maybe it resulted in masturbation or flirtation; if it was violent, maybe it created a more aggressive affect; if it was vengeful, maybe it led to vindictive words.
Fortunately, God knows that our behavior is influenced by our imagination. That’s why he hasn’t just given us a bunch of commands to obey using our rational mind. He’s also given us stories. So much of Scripture is narrative, precisely because God wants us to meditate on an alternate set of tropes and narrative patterns and, in so doing, retrain and re-habituate our imagination in a more healthy and godly direction.
Just as Bible teaching helps us renew our rational mind by clarifying and expounding the ideas of Scripture, Bible Art helps us renew our imagination by illuminating and magnifying the tropes of Scripture.
So, when the Apostle Paul’s commands us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2 ESV), we shouldn’t just being thinking about learning theology and renewing our logical, rational mind. Certainly, that’s an aspect of what it means to be transformed, but, given how much of Scripture is story, surely renewing our imagination is an important aspect as well.
This, finally, is where Bible Art comes into play. Just as Bible teaching helps us renew our rational mind by clarifying and expounding the ideas of Scripture, Bible Art helps us renew our imagination by illuminating and magnifying the tropes of Scripture. Although, yes, we can and should be taught about the themes and ideas embedded in these stories, engaging with the ideas of a story is very different from engaging with the story as a story. Encountering stories as stories is what gradually habituates us to recognize common patterns between stories and so become more comfortable and fluent as readers. Moreover, though teaching a story’s ideas will help shape our rational mind, experiencing the story’s tropes is what can shape our imaginative habits and expectations – both as readers and as humans.
Photo by Wix.
Imagine not just knowing what we should and shouldn’t do as Christians but also having a habit of dreaming and imagining what it would be like to live out the biblical story. That’s part of how biblical stories were designed to affect us. And that’s also how Bible Art can help renew and transform us in a real and powerful way.
Looking for more resources to incorporate imagination and the arts into your youth ministry? Here are some recent posts that you might find useful!
Youth Ministry and the Arts
Exploring the Chosen with Youth [Guides for Youth Leaders]
Episode 2 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Shabbat
Episode 3 Guide: Depicting Jesus in Art, Film, and TV
Episode 4 Guide: When Jesus Met Simon (Peter)
Episode 5 Guide: Mary, Mother of Jesus
Episode 6 Guide: Jesus, Shmuel, & the Pharisees
Episode 7 Guide: Did Nicodemus Follow Jesus?
Episode 8 Guide: The Woman at the Well, Eden, & Zohara