Understanding Shalom and the Grand Metanarrative of Scripture
“The question is not whether the whole of our lives will be shaped by some grand story. The only question is which grand story will shape our lives.” This critical question is asked at the conclusion of a 2006 public lecture given by Michael W. Goheen. He also argued that the church must recover “the Bible as the one true story of the world” to keep from being misled by another current cultural narrative.
Goheen picks up on an idea expressed by biblical scholar Chris Wright, who suggests in a number of his books that reading the Bible as one story helps us understand the Bible’s authority, our missional identity as God’s people, and how to counter these other meta-stories. In his book The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, Wright explains the universal validity of the Bible’s story:
The Old Testament tells its story as the story or, rather, as part of that ultimate and universal story that will ultimately embrace the whole of creation, time, and humanity within its scope. In other words, in reading these texts, we are invited to adopt a metanarrative, a grand narrative.
We here at IFWE often talk about this grand metanarrative of the Bible in four chapters: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Creation shows the way things were; the fall explains the way things are; redemption shows the way things are going to be; and restoration demonstrates the way things will be. This “four-chapter gospel” framework is the most appropriate for assessing all other metanarratives and helps us better understand the Bible’s story as well.
Shalom’s Place in the Metanarrative
Yet there is one forgotten concept that permeates the grand metanarrative of Scripture. This is the idea of human flourishing captured in the Old Testament Hebrew concept of shalom. Most of our English Bibles translate the word “shalom” as “peace,” but this is far too weak an interpretation. Biblical scholars tell us that shalom signifies many things, including salvation, wholeness, integrity, soundness, community, connectedness (to others and God’s creation), righteousness, justice, and well-being (physical, psychological, and spiritual).
Shalom also denotes a right relationship with God, with others, and with God’s good creation. It is the way God intended things to be when he created the universe. As the Christian Community Development Association describes it:
When God created the heavens and the earth, he wove it all together like a million silk threads forming a dazzling garment never before seen, each thread passing over, under, and around millions of others to create a perfectly complementary, tightly-woven interdependent, amazing whole. This wondrous webbing together of God and man and all of creation is what the Hebrew prophets called shalom. Shalom is a word packed with hope for a broken, bruised, and wounded world. It speaks of wholeness, right relationships, justice, salvation, and righteousness, all of which can be missed when we read the English word ‘peace.’ God’s intention for every community is that his shalom would reign.
One of the best definitions for shalom can be found in Cornelius Plantinga’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. He defines shalom as:
[T]he webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight … shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight — a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed … Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.
This was God’s original design for his creation — not that we live in scarcity, poverty, or in minimalistic conditions. Instead, he desires that we enjoy the fruits of his creation and the fruits of our labor because we bring him glory by doing so.
Understanding Shalom’s Impact on Our Work
To truly understand this concept of shalom, we must see it in the context of this “four-chapter gospel.” It is seen at creation in the Garden of Eden; it was lost in the fall, but it will again characterize the eternal city, the New Jerusalem, in the final chapter of restoration.
This is why I’ve written a new booklet entitled Reweaving Shalom: Your Work and the Restoration of All Things. It will explore the comprehensive meaning of shalom and the power it has to transform your world and the world around you. Our goal in this booklet is to answer three critical questions that will keep us from being assimilated into our culture’s competing narratives:
- What is shalom?
- Why is shalom important to God, and why should it be important to us?
- How do we work for “the shalom of the city” where God has placed us?
Answering these questions around this ancient, biblical idea of shalom will enable us as followers of Christ to live a purposeful life that is more than just surviving or following another cultural narrative. We will live life as God intended: full of significance, joy, and flourishing.
Our Place in the Greatest Story
In considering which grand story will shape our lives, Michael W. Goheen concluded his lecture by stating:
For the one who has heard Jesus’ call to follow him, the call comes with a summons to enter the story of which he was the climactic moment — the story narrated in the Bible. It is an invitation to find our place in that story.
Our place in that story is to reweave shalom. We are to actively participate in the world because God calls us to “work for the peace and prosperity (shalom) of the city” (Jer 29:7). This is what we were created to do, and because we have been redeemed from sin and death by the Prince of Shalom, we can fulfill our destiny to fill and subdue the earth. In doing so, we will glorify God, serve the common good, and extend the Kingdom of God.
Editor’s Note: The new booklet, Reweaving Shalom: Your Work and the Restoration of All Things, is available to pre-order now from our bookstore! Secure your pre-order here.
Hugh Whelchel is Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and author of How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work. Hugh has a Master of Arts in Religion and brings over 30 years of diverse business experience to his leadership at IFWE. Originally published at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. Republished by permission.