1. Reading the Bible narratively: This means reading the Bible in context of the nested series of stories it is telling. For example, if you’re reading the Epistle to Philemon, you need to read this letter within the story of Paul’s fourth (probably) missionary journey, which unfolds within the story of Paul’s life and ministry, which unfolds within the story of the early church, which unfolds within the story of Jesus and his mission, which unfolds within the story of Israel under the Roman empire and the empire’s economic dependence on slavery, which unfolds within the story of the Jewish people, which unfolds within the story of economic systems that use slaves to advance their ends, which unfolds within the story of humanity, which unfolds within the story of creation. Every word we read in the Bible needs to be seen in the context of local and larger narratives like these. To do otherwise – which we do when we read and use the Bible as a timeless constitution or legal code - would be like trying to understand Dr. Martin Luther King without understanding the larger stories in which his story was nested – including the stories of the United States, the African slave trade, the African American church, the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and segregation, the Social Gospel movement, and the global post-colonial movement for human rights that emerged in the aftermath of World War II and the holocaust.
Wow. So, did you get all that?
Now, I'm all for taking context in consideration. Context is good, context is our friend. Knowing the context in which Paul wrote this letter to his dear friend Philemon and his family is no doubt very helpful.
But, really, we need an in-depth knowledge of the Roman economic system in order to understand the little book of Philemon? Really? We have to consider all the things McLaren mentions in order to understand Paul's message to his friend, asking him to forgive the slave who stole from him and ran away, and to welcome him back as a brother and fellow believer in Christ?
The need to forgive those who have wronged us is a fairly universal experience. We can understand very well Paul's call for his friend to forgive the thief, because we've had to forgive others who have wronged us.
More than that, we have all needed forgiveness. From each other, of course, but more importantly, we have needed to come to God, repent of the sins we have committed, and receive the forgiveness Christ provided for us through His sacrificial death.
We can know all of that, without having to research the Roman Empire in-depth. We need only read the Bible.