Every two years, my family would drive through the blazing air of the Mojave Desert to visit cousins in Phoenix and gaze at the deep gap of the Grand Canyon. We took my father’s old Ford Ranger. Since that tiny beast of a truck could only fit my parents in the two bucket seats of the air-conditioned cab interior, my brother and I were condemned to the covered truck-bed oven. But we found that the heat wasn’t so bad when we cracked the windows and ran fans. My brother and I would share a blow-up mattress and drive each other wild for hours, and because a solid glass window separated us from our parents, we were unable to offer our complaints to them. I bet they loved that part.

The psycholinguist Frank Smith writes that “thought flows in terms of stories,” and, indeed, my story of those biennial trips easily flows to hundreds of other stories, like the way I now recall laughing hysterically as we knocked on that truck window, trying—and failing—to communicate with my parents through impromptu games of charades. These kinds of stories both bind us together as families and serve as foundational building blocks for the development of our behaviors and attitudes. For better or worse, family stories, with all their rough edges and familiar swells, are the “basic modes of human life” by which we construct our identity.1 These family stories feed us as we grow and mature out of our parent’s family unit, and then they flow into and inspire new stories as we create and cultivate our own family units.

As Christians, this process of familial continuity and discontinuity should not come as a surprise. We see it, for example, in the Genesis description of a child leaving the family and embarking on the journey of matrimony (2:24). Moreover, it provides a valuable lens for seeing our personal stories in relation to the story of Jesus. One might even say that continuity and discontinuity is the way of the gospel.

The gospel, of course, is the binding narrative—the story—that creates and defines the church as God’s family. In Galatians 4:7, we read that “you are no longer a slave but a son [or daughter], and if a son [or daughter], then God has made you an heir” (CSB). Therefore, our Christian identity is shaped within the context of the family story of the gospel as it feeds into and inspires our own particular stories.

The relationship between our lived narratives of continuity and discontinuity and the family story of the gospel of Christ is reflected in several interesting ways in Jesus’s prayer for his disciples at the Last Supper:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought in complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20–23 NIV)

In this prayer, we see a connection that is both familial—Jesus calls God his Father—and deep: “You are in me and I am in you,” says Jesus. And as I have suggested, it is a connection that is best comprehended through story.

Or perhaps I should say that it is a connection best understood through stories. Timo Eskola argues that the task of the New Testament author is interpreting historical events by selecting details from the ancient material and injecting meaning into them. “Narrativity must be seen as an epistemological element,” he explains. “Authors rely on the readers’ ability to fill in gaps, read between the lines, and put the story in a hermeneutical context.” In this way, an analysis of the gospel narratives will reveal the “reconstruction of certain metanarratives” that influenced the thinking, theology, and living of Jesus’s followers. Eskola proposes that “the most important thing that takes place in ‘reading the past’ is that the narrators and authors introduce new interpretants.” This semiotic process is an art of saturating former signs with new meaning and thereby creating a new interpretant.2 Another way to put this is that Jesus finds inspiration from the family story of the Father (continuity) but grows in his own particular narrative (discontinuity), thereby giving new meaning to the overall story of God’s family.

More particularly, in Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper, he speaks of passing on the glory that was given to him by the Father. For me, this phrase, which recalls the transmission of stories within a family and which emphasizes glory, opens a door to one of the clearer examples of semiosis, the first “sign and wonder” God revealed to Pharaoh in Exodus 7:14–25 and the first “sign” Jesus revealed to his disciples in John 2:1–12.3 These two stories demonstrate narrative elements of connection as they reveal God’s glory, yet there is a new interpretant of God’s glory through Jesus that fills in the overall meaning of God’s story.

There are numerous narrative elements that connect these stories. First, the purpose of the signs of the narratives are the same: “By this you will know that I am the Lord” reads Exodus 7:17, and “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory” reads John 2:11. For God to be known means God’s glory is revealed, in this case through the transformation of water. In the first story, God says, “I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood” (Exod. 7:17), and sure enough, “The river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water” (7:21). Likewise, in the second story, “the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine” (John 2:9), but not just cheap wine, as was the custom near the end of a party “after the guests have had too much to drink”—Jesus transforms the water into “choice wine” (John 2:9–10). 

The transformed waters in these narratives produce significant effects on everyone—and everything—involved. Most literally, in Exodus 7:21 we read that the “fish in the Nile died,” and the “Egyptians could not drink its water,” whereas in John 2:10 the guests of the banquet are able to enjoy the new choice wine Jesus provides. In this we see that, depending on God’s revealing purpose—judgment or grace—the transformed water serves as a penalty or a gift. But in both stories the water’s significance reaches much deeper, transforming the very hearts and minds of the men in story. In Exodus 7:22, we read that “Pharaoh’s heart became hard,” whereas in John 2:11, we read that Jesus’s “disciples believe in him” (John 2:11). 

The purpose of both of these stories is to show the revelation of God’s glory. It is simpler to start with Jesus’s story first, which more obviously reveals this purpose, and to then turn to the Father’s story. We see in Jesus’s story that after he had performed this sign at the wedding banquet at Cana, “He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11 CSB). In the Father’s story, the purpose of revealing God’s glory is not as explicit, but it is implied. In Exodus 7:16, the Lord tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” This desire of the Lord to be worshipped in the wilderness by the Hebrew people anticipates the tabernacle. At the end of the exodus story, Moses “finished the work” of having the tabernacle built, “the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:33–34), and the people worship the Lord in the presence of the Father’s glory.

Jesus’s story in his first sign gives a new interpretant to the overall meaning of God’s glory as presented in the Father’s story. When we encounter the glory of God in the Father’s story, we comprehend it as dangerous because it is manifested as so holy and pure that “Moses was unable to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud rested on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:35).4 Jesus’s story reveals God’s glory as merciful and benevolent in that it leads to his disciples believing in him (John 2:11). Whereas Moses was unable to enter God’s glory, as revealed in the Father’s story, the disciples were embraced by God’s glory as revealed in the Son’s story. There is continuity because both stories are about God’s glory, but there is discontinuity in the nature of God’s glory revealed in each narrative. In Jesus, God’s glory was reinterpreted and given new significance, thus filling in the overall story of God’s family with new meaning—in Jesus, we are embraced, rather than rejected, by the glory of God.

But beyond this specific example of Scripture using continuity and discontinuity to reveal God’s character, this paradigm also can connect our particularly lived narratives to the family story of the church as reflected in the gospel of Christ. There is continuity in that the story of Jesus feeds into and inspires our specific stories, just like family stories, yet there ought to be some discontinuity as well, as we grow in our own particular narratives. This transition from Jesus’s story to our story is important because it gives our actions significance, just as Jesus’s use of new symbols at the wedding at Cana brings new meaning. 

The theologian Douglas Campbell uses the phrase “traditioned innovation” to describe the process of taking tradition—say a body of knowledge, a narrative transferred from teacher to student, or the stories we pass from generation to generation—and innovating or remodeling it to a new specific situation.5 I believe that this same principle applies in the context of Jesus’s story, which is revealed to be God’s family story for the church and our particular narratives—“I in them and you in me” (John 17:23 NIV). We receive the building blocks for joy and inspiration from God’s family story, just as we receive the building blocks from our family stories, and then we innovate them in order to grow in our own narratives and establish our identities. This process of identity formation also means that we grow in our love of self and neighbor, and as we grow and mature in our particular narratives, we can help inspire and cultivate the growth of other people’s particular narratives through discipleship. It is quite similar to our relationships with our own family stories that have cultivated and inspired us to be who we are and allow us to grow in our stories with our own future families. Smith asserts that “we all need to know the story we are playing out in our lives,” and I believe that this discontinuity is exactly how we fulfill our purpose at the end of Jesus’s prayer: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”6

To conclude, I will show this discontinuity, semiosis, and traditioned innovation in action by jumping back into an automobile, back into a treasured family story. My family now makes annual treks to various camping destinations around the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. We are driven by our desire to breathe in the fresh crisp air of fall. Taking our spacious Subaru Outback, we all get to enjoy the heated interior of the wagon. We play road trip games of I-spy and twenty questions. We crank the music up. The trip is filled with outbursts of laughter, excitement at what we’ve seen, and plenty of bathroom breaks for the puppy. The surges of energy from our climbing and curious puppy drives us wild for hours. But we drive on and keep making new stories and cultivating our identity as a family. As we nurture and grow in our own life narratives that flow out of our family stories from childhood, we also foster and mature in our faith, which flows from God’s family story and constructs our identity as Christians. 

  1. Smith, To Think (New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 1990), 62-63; and Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992), 38. Also, when I speak of rough edges, I mean that many of us are burdened with horrifying, dysfunctional, or abusive family stories. If someone chooses to share one of these painful stories with us, we must be sure to listen with care and empathy.
  2. Eskola, A Narrative Theology of the New Testament: Exploring the Metanarrative of Exile and Restoration, WUNT 350 (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 2, 5, and 6.
  3. Connections between the “signs and wonders” performed by God through Moses in the Exodus narrative and the “signs” performed by Jesus in John’s Gospel have been explored by Robert Houston Smith, “Exodus Typology in the Fourth Gospel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81, no. 4 (1962), 329–42.
  4. The danger of the Lord’s glory in the exodus narrative is revealed in Exodus 19:21–22: “The Lord directed Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people not to break through to see the Lord; otherwise many of them will die. Even the priests who come near to the Lord must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out in anger against them’” (see Ps. 14:2–3).
  5. See Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), 554–55.
  6. Smith, To Think, 65.