When you’re in the trenches of middle school ministry, long-range curriculum planning can be difficult—I’ve been there! Perhaps you’ve just returned from your visioning retreat, or you’re planning for next week’s all-day training for volunteers, and you’re telling yourself that this year will be the year. This is the year that I’ll have a roadmap stretching a couple months out! This is the year I’ll won’t just be surviving week-to-week!
But then the question—what Bible stories will we focus on? Will we spend 75% of our time in the New Testament because we know it better than the Old Testament? How much should we talk about the life of Jesus? And God help us if the young people ask me to teach about Revelation again!
While there are times to teach the stories of Scripture, we also need to equip young people to read Scripture for themselves, and be able to understand the stories they read.
When I worked as the lead youth worker for middle schoolers, my predecessor, Lisa, had compiled a list of 200 Bible stories that middle schoolers ought to know. Lisa was a brilliant youth worker, and while I was grateful I found her list (thanks, Lisa!), it didn’t make planning any easier for me. And while a narrative approach to Scripture is awesome, it risks obscuring some of the broader themes present throughout Scripture (i.e., the importance of faithfulness, how the Bible understands sin, etc.).
If I made a list of 200 stories, it would probably differ from Lisa’s. Different stories of Scripture speak to me in different ways, and take on varying degrees of importance. This is true for all of us—we have our favorite Scriptures we would teach every week if we could get away with it. While there are times to teach the stories of Scripture, we also need to equip young people to read Scripture for themselves, and be able to understand the stories they read. This is where the idea of metanarrative comes in.
What’s a Metanarrative?
Metanarrative is another way of saying “big picture.” It’s the story that envelops or contains a bunch of little stories. Like a favorite Netflix series, a metanarrative is the overarching storyline that the individual episodes together create. We can think of the metanarrative as a “story about stories.” This is a concept we understand implicitly, even if we haven’t verbalized it. Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”/“Monomyth” (see image below) is one example of a metanarrative, and illustrates that metanarratives can be either general (separation – initiation – return) or very detailed (call to adventure, etc.). One of the reasons high school English teachers mention the Hero’s Journey is because through understanding the metanarrative, we can understand why individual stories unfold the way they do.
Furthermore, an understanding of metanarrative can help us frame a series of stories. Star Wars (prequels and originals) gives a great illustration of this. Not only does each individual movie follow the Hero’s Journey, but the overarching plot of both the original three movies AND all six of the prequels plus original movies walk through the Hero’s Journey. (One person has written many, many pages on this and the chiasms he sees in Star Wars.) Seeing this pattern can help us to appreciate Star Wars even more.
When it comes to the Bible, the Hero’s Journey is one of many ways to understand the story of scripture. A better possibility for a Biblical metanarrative is: creation – fall – redemption – restoration. But my favorite biblical metanarrative is one I picked up from my former boss and friend, Erik: God – guilt – grace – gratitude – glory. The entire story of Scripture is contained in these five words. Here’s a schematic for how to think through this metanarrative:
The Creator and Sustainer of all that was, is, and will be, God is the primary initiator on every page in the Bible. Whether explicitly present (as in the creation story in Genesis 1) or never mentioned (as in the book of Esther or Song of Songs), God is the ultimate protagonist in Scripture. By starting with God, we remind ourselves that this is fundamentally God’s story, not just our own.
Beginning with the rebellion in the Garden of Eden, sin and brokenness have plagued humanity. Guilt is the feeling we experience when we realize the pain we’ve caused through our sin. It’s a broader and more subjective term than “fall” or “sin”—it implies a self-awareness and an experience of realizing we’ve screwed up. Anger, defensiveness, or self-justification often precedes guilt, especially when we don’t want to believe we aren’t perfect.
Teaching young people to consider the metanarrative of Scripture can help them read the Bible for themselves. Best of all, you can find this metanarrative on nearly every page of Scripture, which means however you prefer to teach young people, you can incorporate teaching on metanarrative.
One of the distinctive features of the Christian story is that God does not abandon us to our guilt. While Scripture doesn’t ever mince words—humanity has rebelled against its Creator, and is guilty of sin—the Bible reliably and consistently portrays a God who refuses to “treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). Every story in the Bible contains, at minimum, the offer of grace.
Whenever we experience the kindness of grace, the eventual response is gratitude. Just as with guilt, sometimes other emotions manifest themselves before gratitude—anger (“I don’t need your charity!”) and suspicion (“Why are you doing this?”) being two common responses. But throughout Scripture, we see humans responding to grace over and over again with gratitude. Peter, after being reinstated by Jesus (John 21:15–19), responds in gratitude by leading the early church (beginning in Acts 2:14–42). King Manasseh, son of Hezekiah, was a very evil king (2 Chronicles 33:1–9), yet after receiving grace from God, he responds with gratitude, rededicating the land and people to God (2 Chronicles 33:10–16).
Just as the story always begins with God, the story always ends with God sharing glory with humans. When the Israelites left Egypt, although God led them as a pillar of fire and a cloud, they listened to Moses. When Joshua’s army defeated Jericho, although God gave them the victory, they honored Rahab’s courage and faithfulness to a God she never met. While God always initiates, God chooses to share the glory and honor with human beings.
Working with the Metanarrative
Using the metanarrative as a tool to read Scripture can help us identify issues that aren’t immediately obvious. One great example is in Jesus’ parable of the two sons (also known as the parable of the prodigal son) in Luke 15:11–32. The five G’s appear obvious in the story of the younger son—he begins life as a child of God (the father in the story), experiences the guilt of squandering his inheritance, receives the grace of his father, responds in gratitude, and accepts the glory of being restored to his status as son.
But this isn’t the end of the story.
Using the metanarrative reveals that Jesus has two stories in mind with this parable. While this isn’t a new revelation (Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God is one of the more popular books to discuss this interpretation of the parable), it falls out clearly and obviously when we use the metanarrative to examine the parable. The story of the older son should have these five G’s as well. Just like his brother, he begins life as a child of God. He shows anger and self-justification to his father, which can precede guilt, and although he speaks harshly to his father, his father offers him grace.
But then, suddenly, the curtain falls, and the story is over. Where’s the gratitude? The glory? Jesus leaves these parts of the story out, possibly because the older brother’s story hasn’t been written yet. Will the older brother—the religious leaders of Jesus’ day—fully acknowledge their guilt before God, respond with gratitude for God’s grace, and enjoy glory? Will they “celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of [theirs] was dead and has come to life” (Luke 15:32)? Through the metanarrative, we can see that Jesus, by ending the parable prematurely, was implicitly asking the religious leaders to write the right ending through their actions. He was implicitly asking them also to “welcome sinners and eat with them” (Luke 15:2).
Teaching young people to consider the metanarrative of Scripture can help them read the Bible for themselves. Best of all, you can find this metanarrative on nearly every page of Scripture, which means however you prefer to teach young people, you can incorporate teaching on metanarrative. Whether this is explicit (having five lessons about the five G’s) or implicit (asking questions about the five G’s in a small group about Galatians), focusing on metanarrative can help your young people understand Scripture’s big story of God and humanity.
As youth leaders, we are invited to preach and teach on the biblical metanarrative. But we are also charged with inviting young people to recognize that their own story is part of a much bigger story—the metanarrative that God as been working out and working on since the dawn of the cosmos. How does your curriculum connect the dots between the written word and the lived word in the lives of the young people in your context?
Joel Moody is an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary and is working toward ordination in the PC(USA). He believes not only that young people are the future of the church, but that they also have an integral role to play in the present. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, he loves any excuse to play sports or board games, particularly with his wife, Kate.