As someone who has been writing articles and books for half a century, I read the Bible differently than most people. I can’t help peeking behind the words to the human authors. I read Isaiah and marvel at his soaring prose and shining images of restored creation. I read Jeremiah and identify with the reluctant prophet’s neuroses. I read Amos and James and smile at their homespun, earthy analogies.
While we do not know exactly how divine inspiration worked, it’s clear that the Spirit used the education, background, and personalities of the individual authors. I turn to the Gospels and note how Matthew, Mark, and Luke, beginning with similar sources, choose material to fit their diverse audiences. Then I turn to John and envision him plotting out his Gospel much as I outline my books, by selecting key themes—in his case, Jesus’ “signs”—and weaving them into a thematic unity. (I’m sure he did the same for Revelation, though I can’t begin to decipher that cryptic book.)
Paul, the most prolific of New Testament authors, seems to adopt a new style with each of his letters. He fires a fusillade against the brewing heresies of the Galatian church, relaxes into warm praise as he addresses the Ephesians and Philippians, and fashions a masterpiece of logic in his letter to the sophisticated Romans. I know that writing pattern. I may rush out a heated blog against some political or environmental injustice, but when I write for, say, The New York Times, I take my time, carefully research the topic, and devote extra attention to editing and polishing.
For the past three years I’ve been working on a memoir, soon to be published with the title Where the Light Fell. As I tackled a new genre, I had to restrain from commentary and interpretation, and simply present the story of my life. “You need more emotion—tell me how you were feeling!” my editor kept urging me. Paul never wrote an autobiography, but in some passages he would bare his inner soul. For example, 2 Corinthians tells of the apostle’s mental state that seemed to approach a nervous breakdown. He confesses, “We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die.” (New Living Translation).
Early in my career, in the mid-1980s, I spent three years working on a sort of beginner’s study Bible, which involved studying every chapter, verse, and word of the Bible. And yet the real turning point for me came with my next project, when I read the entire Bible in two weeks, not three years.
I was contemplating questions that eventually became the subject for the book Disappointment with God. Why does God sometimes intervene directly in human affairs and sometimes not? The Ten Plagues of Egypt liberated the Israelites from slavery, but what about the several centuries of bondage that preceded their emancipation? Miracles abound in the Gospels and the Book of Acts, but why don’t we see such manifestations more commonly today?
I traveled from my then home in Chicago to Breckenridge, Colorado, where I holed up in a friend’s cabin. I had brought along a suitcase full of books—and also a bag full of ski equipment, hoping for spare time for recreation. As it happened, I opened only one book, the Bible, and never left the cabin. It snowed heavily every day, blocking my driveway, and in truth, the Bible kept me too captivated to think of skiing. In those two weeks I got an overview of the Bible’s plot, and grasped its underlying message.
Reading the entire plot at once, I saw the Bible as the long, protracted story of God seeking ways to restore a relationship with human beings estranged since Eden. In his parable of the prodigal son, Jesus likened the story to a love-stricken father getting his family back. It turns out that the best way to communicate God’s love is human-to-human. Jesus did that in person, loving his disciples “to the uttermost,” in John’s words. Next, Jesus turned the mission over to those disciples, commanding them to carry the message of God’s love and reconciliation to the ends of the earth.
I returned from my two-week stay in Breckenridge aware that I had been misreading the Bible. I had viewed it as a collection of concepts, something like a systematic theology. Indeed, it is not! Doctrine is embedded in places, especially in the New Testament letters. But I came away with the overwhelming impression of an unfolding (and unfinished) story: the account of God working against contrary powers to bring about a renewed intimacy with humans, and the ultimate restoration of the cosmos.
In my book Vanishing Grace I tell of attending a musical called “The Mysteries” in London’s West End. A South African troupe had taken the form of the old medieval mystery plays and culturally adapted it. The play began, like the Bible, with Adam and Eve, a male and a female actor, standing stark naked on a blank stage. Then came Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, and many others acting out the plot of the biblical story, all the way to Jesus. The actors sang in five different languages, accompanied by musicians who beat on tires, oil drums, and garbage can lids rather than musical instruments. In their version, Afrikaner policemen were the ones who crucified Jesus, the champion of the poor and marginalized.
After Jesus’ execution, for a few minutes the theater went dark and we all sat silent. Meanwhile the entire troupe assembled onstage, and as the lights came on they burst out with joyous songs of resurrection. That secular and sophisticated London audience—all of whom had paid a hundred British pounds for their tickets, and few of whom ever attended church—leaped to their feet. They suddenly grasped the gospel message of ultimate good news, a flash of what Tolkien described as “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
The cycle was complete, I thought, as I looked around at theatergoers waving handkerchiefs and shouting “Bravo!” British missionaries had carried the gospel to South Africa. Now Africans were bringing it back, wrapped in their own cultural terms, to people who had mostly forgotten it.
These days, the surrounding culture mainly sees Christians through the lens of politics, as a kind of voting bloc. The Bible helps us step back and see the much bigger, overarching story. We dare not lose that message of resolute good news.
(Adapted from an article in the U.K. publication, Christian Today)
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