Leveraging the Science of Story

Yesterday I heard a sermon on Mark 8:27-35 that failed to leverage the science of story. And why does that matter?

Mark 8:27-35 belongs to a larger story context that begins with Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

The disciples answer, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”

Then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter spoke up first: “You are the Christ.”

It’s easy to miss the significance of Peter’s answer. We forget that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, but a title that’s closely associated with the glory of the promised kingdom. Consequently, Jesus “strictly charged them to tell no one about him.” I’ll explain why Jesus did this in a moment.

But first, I should point out that Jesus went on to “teach them [the disciples] that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.”

Peter didn’t like what he heard. And so he rebuked Jesus, who famously rebuked him back: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but in the things of man.”

And this is where the science of story shows its value. The central concern of any well-crafted story is its main character. A story forms around a main character’s primary goal and his or her motives for why that goal matters. Effective stories also include things that stand in the way, things that put the main character’s success at risk, and which lead to undesirable consequences should he or she fail.

Back to Mark 8, at this point in the text, we already have enough information to make good story sense of what’s happening. The main character is Jesus. His primary goal is to reveal that his coming someday in full-blown messianic glory will not happen without his first being rejected and murdered and then raised from the dead.

Meanwhile, Satan stands as Jesus’ antagonist, with Peter momentarily acting as his surrogate. The mention of Satan also points to the severity of the consequences should Jesus fail. Satan would win, so that means everything is on the line. And evidently, Jesus thought that the risk posed by Peter and the others failing to link the glory of his messiahship with his rejection and execution and resurrection was real risk. Thus the harsh rebuke to Peter, and the earlier charge not to tell anyone about him.

This also explains why Jesus doubled down on people identifying with his rejection and suffering, explaining that losing their lives for now for his sake and the gospel’s will result in their ultimate gain. After this, Jesus very graciously gave Peter and James and John a glimpse of the glory that would be his in the coming kingdom.

At the end of Mark 8, Jesus himself puts this story into perspective, explaining: “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes again in the glory of his Father with his holy angels.”

For some reason, the preacher yesterday left this verse out of his sermon. Why? Because somehow he decided to focus the sermon entirely on Peter without paying attention to the actual story the text was telling. And that stirred his imagination about how the text applies to us. It’s not that what he had to say was bad. It wasn’t. But it missed the mark with respect to what’s actually in the text.

And that’s one of the many reasons why leveraging the science of story matters. It’s a valuable tool that keeps us from substituting our own imaginations, whether good or bad, for the intent of Scripture.






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Randal Gilmore