Monday, December 11, 2017


This week’s readings are full of expectation, anticipation, and the sighting of buds and blooms of nearness. Appropriate texts for this Sunday in Advent, I think. We’re zeroing in on the figure of the Messiah. Last week we talked about the kind of waiting required of us, that paradoxical “waiting that hastens the Day of the Lord.” This week we look at waiting itself.

We live between God’s acts in the past and what he will do in our future. Psa.126 captures this perfectly. The first three verses celebrate the Lord’s past actions for his people; the last three anticipate his actions in restoring their fortunes.

Isa.61 looks forward to the coming of a Spirit-anointed one who will bring healing and justice. Lk.1, Mary’s famous “Magnificat” looks forward to the great reversal of all things God will enact in favor of the poor, hungry, and lowly. John 1 edges us closer to the realization of all this with its sighting of the “Lamb of God.”

Waiting is not easy. Nor do we do it well. Yet, these words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer remain true:
"Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting—that is, of hopefully doing without—will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment. For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait.”

Friday, December 8, 2017

Tales of War and Redemption

Even in the face of the ultimate human failing, we must be responsive to suffering and attuned to joy
By Phil Klay
DECEMBER 4, 2017

When I was a kid, I had a comic book called The Big Book of Martyrs, part of a series by Factoid Books that included such titles as The Big Book of Thugs, The Big Book of Losers, and The Big Book of Weirdos. Inside the martyr book were comic-book depictions of various saints and their horrible, horrible deaths—great stuff if you’re an 11-year-old boy. I know that Catholics like myself are trying for a more modern, nicer church these days, with less of the fire and brimstone and more of the let-the-children-come-unto-me, but I can’t help thinking that if Game of Thrones can be a smash hit, then the Catholic Church might make progress in the 10- to 14-year-old demographic by leaning more heavily on the decidedly R-rated tales from The Big Book of Martyrs.
I enjoyed these stories immensely, but they were also confusing—and not because of all the killing and dying for faith. That, I could understand. God, on the other hand, behaved very strangely. He was always protecting his martyrs before their deaths, but (to my eyes) in what seemed like the laziest, most halfhearted way imaginable.
There’s Saint Lucy, for example, who refuses to burn a pagan sacrifice. She is sentenced to be defiled in a brothel, but when the guards try to take her away, they find she’s completely immovable. Big, muscular guards strain to drag off this slender young woman, but she’s fixed to the spot, standing firm. Not the greatest miracle in the world but, okay, not bad. Then things escalate. They bring in a team of oxen, hitch her to the animals, and let them loose. Once again, nothing. Guards lash the massive beasts forward, the animals pull with all their might, but Saint Lucy does not budge. They lay bundles of wood at her feet and try to set her on fire, but the wood doesn’t burn. Things are looking up for Saint Lucy. But then it’s as if God gets distracted and looks away for a moment, while they rip out her eyes and stab her to death. . .
Read more

Thursday, December 7, 2017

46. Mark 11:12-24: Another Sandwich

 Cursing of the Fig Tree (11:12-14; Part 1)

Hope you’re hungry. Mark’s serving up another sandwich. One story split in two and another inserted between those two parts. Each story helps interpret the other.

Speaking of hunger, Jesus is hungry on the way from Bethany. He sees a fig tree and inspects it for fruit, and is disappointed to find none, even though it is not the season for it. So he curses it. What’s up with that? Is Jesus ignorant? Petulant and demanding? Neither, I suspect.

Having the cleansing of the temple episode inserted in this story gives us a decisive clue. The fig tree could be used as a symbol for Israel. Micah 7:1-2:

Woe is me! For I have become like one who,
    after the summer fruit has been gathered,
    after the vintage has been gleaned,
finds no cluster to eat;
    there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.
The faithful have disappeared from the land,
    and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
    and they hunt each other with nets.

The temple was the most important symbol of the nation. If we allow these two stories to talk to each other, it becomes apparent that the fig tree = temple and Jesus action here portends his rejection of the temple.

Cleansing of the Temple (11:15-19)

Jesus enters the temple he had surveyed the night before. Seeing the money-changers and animals in the outer court, Jesus stages another piece of street theater. He disrupts the money-changing and animal buying and thus prevents the sacrificial system, the temple’s major role, from functioning. It’s street theater, symbolic action, temporary. Jesus is not trying to effect some systemic change to make the temple function better. He’s announcing its condemnation (a lá the cursed fig tree). We saw earlier that Jesus has appropriated some critical temple functions to himself (forgiveness, 2:1-12) forming a one-man counter-temple movement. This action continues his assault on this venerable institution.

“It is the only account in the Gospels in which Jesus engages in any kind of violent action against others, though there is no hint that he attempted to harm anyone; he may have intended only to force a halt to the objectionable trading operations going on in the sacred precincts of the temple” (Hurtado, Mark, 271)

Jesus charges that the temple has become not “the house of prayer for all nations” it should have been but rather a “den of robbers” (v.17). The word translated “robbers” (or “brigands”) does refer to commercial activities. Rather it refers to revolutionaries who were manipulating the temple and its services for their narrow nationalistic purposes (Wright, Mark:190). No longer “for all nations,” the temple had lost it reason for being. Jesus’ action marks it “destined for destruction” which happened in the war with Rome in 70 a.d.

This was no trivial or entertaining sideshow. It was a serious politico-religious action. Deadly serious. Now the chief priest and scribes join the Pharisees and Herodians (3:6) in seeking to kill Jesus. He was winning over the masses and they could not have that.

Cursing of the Fig Tree (Mark 11:20-25; Part 2)

The next morning the disciples saw the withered-up fig tree, roots and all. This again highlights the finality of Jesus’ condemnation of the temple. Peter, seeing this, is non-plussed by what it signifies. Jesus tells him and the rest of the disciples to have faith in God. Even if the temple is to be destroyed, unthinkable to most Jews as this was, continue to believe in God (see 10:27).

He follows up with a reference to “this mountain” being thrown in the sea by prayer. What is “this mountain”? The temple mount. God is powerful to overthrow even the temple system, which is exactly what Jesus has just done. Disciples have only to trust God in prayer. He generalizes from this event to “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

“One more thing. In encouraging his followers to pray with confident boldness for the present order to be replaced by God’s new order (‘this mountain’, in context, almost certainly refers to the Temple mountain), Jesus is quite clear that there can be no personal malice or aggression involved in such work. Even at the very moment where Jesus is denouncing the system that had so deeply corrupted God’s intention for Israel, his final word is the stern command to forgive. Perhaps only those who have learnt what that means will be in a position to act with Jesus’ authority against the injustice and wickedness of our own day” (Wright, Mark, 193).

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

45. Mark 11:1-11: The Mystery, Majesty, and Mastery of the King

 Jesus comes to Jerusalem. The narrative draws to its climax. Forces swirl around Jesus thicker and faster. Theologically speaking, mystery, majesty, and majesty interlock and weave a tapestry within which readers must work to understand Jesus.

It’s too easy and rationalizing to suggest that Jesus has previously arranged for the use of the colt with its owners. Mark does not suggest this. Instead vv.1-6 reek of mystery. Jesus anticipates the question his disciples will get about why they are untying the colt: “The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately” (v.3). Who is this “Lord” and whence his authority to take this animal? There’s abundant mystery here. Mystery Mark does not try to penetrate.

Jesus enters the city unusually – seated on a garment-covered never-ridden colt and with cloaks and branches providing a “red carpet” welcome for him (vv.8-10). This is an entrance fit for a king.

But what kind of king is this whose majesty is proclaimed by a borrowed colt, a makeshift throne on the colt and “red carpet” along with “a rag-tag, miscellaneous group of the poor” (Placher, Mark:3183-3184) as his supporters? This crowd provide this majesty his royal welcome.

Zech. (9:9) sets the context.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

This, this king, comes under the symbolism of a triumphant conqueror. And he comes under the adulation of a Davidic messiah.

 “‘Hosanna’ is  a Hebrew word which mixes exuberant praise to God with the  prayer that God    will save his people, and do so right away. The beginning and end of their cheerful chant is taken from Psalm 118.25–26, which is itself all about going up to Jerusalem and the Temple. The sentence that follows means, literally, ‘Blessed is the one who comes’; but in Hebrew and Aramaic that’s the way you say ‘welcome’. In the middle of the chant they have inserted the dangerous prayer: Welcome to the kingdom of our father David! This is what the scene is all about – as Mark’s readers have known for some while, and as we saw in the shout of blind Bartimaeus in 10.47–48” (Wright, Mark, 185-186).

Mystery and majesty intersect here in a way that explains without quite explaining and reveals without quite revealing. Only some of those who followed Jesus closely for some time might have a clue about what this scene means. Only they would have some insight into the bizarre “street theater” (Myers, Say to this Mountain, 145) Jesus enacts here. Presenting and then subverting well-known and precious images is exactly in line with Mark’s way of telling Jesus’ story. This whole scene raises more questions than it answers and requires one to make a decision about this man. It is a “Triumphal Entry” only in a most ironic sense!

To add to the mystery and sense of majesty Mark has already inscribed in his narrative the last verse adds a sense of mastery to the picture. Jesus walks into the temple as if he owns it, glances around at everything, and then leaves with his disciples (v.11). Again, more questions than answer. Anticipation galore. What happens now?

Mystery, Majesty, and mastery – these are the keys to reading this scene rightly. They yield questions more than answers. And those questions keep us reading to find out more.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Advent 2017 - Week Two

Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Mark 1:1-8

Peter offers a compelling yet mystifying image for Advent in the reading from 2 Peter 3:8-15a for this second week of Advent 2017. That image of believers “waiting for and hastening the day of the Lord.” What can this paradoxical saying mean for us? Fritz Bauerschmidt prones this image for us.

“Waiting and hastening.
These two things might seem incompatible.
How is it that we can patiently wait for something
and yet still impatiently seek to hasten its arrival?
Even more, how can we,
by acting with holiness and devotion,
do both things at the same time:
both waiting and hastening?
In answer to his own question
of what people we ought to be
in the face of God’s coming transformation of the world,
Peter says our lives should be a hastening that waits
and a waiting that hastens.

“We need somehow to work for the world’s transformation
while at the same time waiting for that transformation,
which only God can bring about in God’s own time.
That day we work to hasten
is what Second Peter calls “the day of God” –
the day whose coming belongs entirely to God and not to us.

“A hastening that waits and a waiting that hastens:
what Peter says about the kind of people we ought to be
might at first sound quite strange and paradoxical
but perhaps it is not so unfamiliar as it first appears.
Think of the process of growing from a child into an adult.

Of course for me that was a long time ago,
so I think of this in terms of my more recent experience
as the parent of teenagers.
I know that, as a parent, I want my children
to work at developing into adults
and to act like the adults they are becoming,
How many times have I said,
“you’re too old to act this way”?
At the same time,
I want them to be patient with themselves,
not to rush too quickly into adulthood,
but to let it arrive in its own good time.
How often have I said,
“Sorry, you’re too young for this”?
I want them both to wait for adulthood
and to hasten toward it.
And this is not, I hope,
simply one more unreasonable parental demand
because, oddly enough,
these two things often occur simultaneously
in a hastening that waits and a waiting that hastens.
Sometimes it is a step toward maturity to recognize
that you are not yet mature enough for something
and that the most adult thing you can do
is to let yourself be a child for a little while longer.
At other times maturity involves stepping forward in faith
into a risky new experience,
despite all hesitation,
trusting that, whether your succeed or you fail,
it is all part of your becoming an adult
though it may require patient waiting before you can see that.

“Maybe if those of us who are adults
can recall how it was that we became adults
we can have some idea
of the sort of persons we ought to be
as “we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.”
If we listen to the voice of the apostle Peter
calling us to cultivate lives
of holy waiting and devoted hastening,
then the Advent season can be for us
a time both of anxious yearning for the world’s redemption
and of patient waiting to receive it as God’s gift.”

This is how to make Advent great again!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

45.Mark 8:26-10:52 DIagram

The “Way” to Galilee (8:22-10:52): Spiritual Sight

8:22-26         Healing Blind Man at Bethsaida (Two Touches)
8:27-30        Peter’s Confession (Insight/Misunderstanding)
8:31-33          First Passion Prediction          
8:34- 9:1      Call to Cross-bearing
9:2-8            Transfiguration
9:9-13          Coming of Elijah
9:14-29         Exorcism of a Boy with Unclean Spirit (Openness of the Kingdom)
9:30-32          Second Passion Prediction
9:33-37         Who is Greatest?                                          
9:38-41         Another Exorcist                                            
9:42-50         Stumbling Blocks               (Discipleship)
10:1-12         Controversy over Divorce            
10:13-16       Blessing of Little Children             
10:17-31       Rich Man and Wealth                   
10:32-34        Third Passion Prediction
10:35-45       Power and Position in the Kingdom “
10:46-52       Healing Blind Bartimaeus (Spiritual Sight Achieved)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

44. Mark 10:46-52

This story about the healing of blind Bartimaeus caps off the journey to Jerusalem. It forms a bookend with the healing in 8:22-26. Between these healing stories lie all the material between them largely concerned with Jesus’ identity and the character of the New Exodus people. Bartimaeus’ story serves as a recap of the story so far and a transition to Holy Week.

The rich man and James and John could become disciples. The one because the rich man could not divest himself of his wealth to help the poor; the others because they could not embrace Jesus’ path of downward nobility. Bartimaeus, however, can because he is blind, poor, and does not pretend to see.

-the disciples are in Jesus’ band of followers/Bartimaeus is sitting by the “way” (the path of discipleship)

-the disciples (Peter) know Jesus is Messiah (8:26) but don’t understand that/Bartimaeus doesn’t know his right name (see 12:35-37 on “Son of David”) but ends up following Jesus “on the way” (of discipleship, v.52).

-Jesus asks each the same question: “What do you want me to do for you? (10:36f., 51). The two brothers ask for high position and honor in Jesus’ kingdom) against his call for downward nobility). The blind beggar wants only the mercy of healing.  

Others try to keep Bartimaeus from reaching Jesus just as the disciples tried to keep the children from him (same verb is used in each case). Same point here as in the children’s story about who has access to Jesus.

When Jesus calls Bartimaeus “sprang up” leaving behind the vestiges of his old life (his cloak) and comes to him (prompt obedience). He requests his sight and Jesus sees in his passion, prompt response, and request in line with God’s New Exodus (Isa.35:5) and grants his request and becomes an obedient follower of Jesus. Bartimaeus is a genuine disciple.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Recovering the Integrity of Christmas

Recovering the integrity of Christmas is easy to diagnose but hard to convince anyone to plan for and practice. The season of Christmas is twelve day beginning on Dec.25 and running through Jan.6. The culture is in the post-holiday doldrums. The space is wide open. We've probably lost Advent to our culture. And we lose Christmas too when we try to do it around all the folderol, family traditions, etc. It gets drowned in sentimentality and consumerism. The twelve days of Christmas is the proper time and a culturally open space for us to find faithful ways to celebrate this season.

43. Mark 10:32-45: Three Passion Predictions

After this section on “Stuff” Jesus issues the third prediction of his suffering, death, and resurrection to the disciples. We’ll look at the three as a group here and trace out their commonalities and developments (keep your Bible open to refer to each of the passion predictions in chs.8,9,10).

A first commonality is that all occur on the way to Jerusalem. But they occur at different stages on the journey. The first happens at Caesarea Philippi, the second passing “through Galilee,” and the third drawing near to Jerusalem.

All along the way on this journey Jesus presses this truth upon them. It is clearly the heart of his message. In the first and third predictions Mark says Jesus “began” to teach his disciples. Apparently, they are always “beginning” to try and grasp what he is telling them. And they always fail. Though he taught “quite openly” the disciples think they understand, do not understand, and are afraid. Mark demonstrates this by posturing the disciples as being alongside or ahead of Jesus (8:33) and then (apparently) lagging far behind him in fear (10:32). Their effort to understand results in them trying to squeeze Jesus into their own mold (Peter’s “Satanic” rebuke of Jesus’ prediction). Their failure to understand leaves them fearful of learning more, and then amazed and afraid.

That Jesus uses his favorite self-designation “Son of Man” in all three predictions tells us that he is deconstructing and reconstructing their conception of messiahship. And it is a tough sell. The episodes following each prediction serve as illustrations of the consequences of Jesus’ kind of messiahship. A messiahship of “downward nobility.”

-In ch.8 Jesus expounds the downward nobility of cross-bearing. Identifying oneself and fully embracing Jesus’ way whatever the consequences is what he is after.

-In ch.9 Jesus teaches the servanthood is his way, the first and greatest shall be the last and servant of all.

-In ch.10 Jesus voices the place of the leader in his people not as “lord” or “tyrant” but as servant/slave of all.  

These, I think, these correlates of Jesus journeying to the cross with eyes wide open and summoning his followers to do the same, give substance to Bonhoeffer’s claim in Discipleship that “Jesus’ every command calls us to die with all our wishes and desires, and because we cannot want our own death, therefore Jesus Christ in his word has to be our death and our life. The call to follow Jesus, baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, is death and life.” (Discipleship:2085).

Downward nobility is a work of grace, a severe grace for most of us. Ponder your own journey into Jesus’ downward nobility and where it needs to go from wherever you find yourself in relation to it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

42. Mark 10:17-31: Stuff


We draw near to the threshold of Jerusalem (ch.11). This set of teachings rounds out Jesus’ essential teaching on discipleship.

A deferential man accosts him with a question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He’s not asking about salvation as we tend to. It’s not post-mortem life in another sphere (“heaven”) he’s interested in (he would not have known about that because it did not exist as a part of Jewish faith). Rather, it’s the new age here on earth after God intervenes to judge evil and set all things right that he asks about.

Why does the man call Jesus good and Jesus reject this appellation? Remember that Jesus was in conflict and competition with the four other views offering guidance for how Israel should be the Israel God wanted it to be: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. This seeker perhaps knows Jesus’ reputation as a teacher and come to find out what his vision for Israel is in light of the coming clash with Rome. Jesus, “Good teacher,” how do you think I can make it into God’s coming age?

Jesus rejects this appellation because he has no plan for Israel other than the one God had already made known through the covenant with Israel. “I have no new and innovative plan for you, my friend,” he replies. “But the one who is only and truly good, God, has told you what is necessary – don’t murder nor steal nor bear false witness nor defraud and honor your parents.” Jesus cites the second table of the Law, our relations to others, the community. The word “defraud” (aposterō) is interesting. Boring notes,

“The verb apostereō is found elsewhere in the New Testament only in 1 Cor 6: 7–8 (NRSV ‘defraud’); 7:5 (NRSV ‘deprive’); 1 Tim 6:5 (NRSV ‘bereft’); and Jas 5:4 (NRSV, the wages of laborers have been ‘kept back by fraud’; cf. the echo of Mal 3: 5; Sir 4: 1). This last instance is particularly telling, though the word need not imply deceit, but only injustice.”

This word has associations with one’s conduct with wealth. The man professes to have handled all these things faithful to God’s torah (v.20). But no, he hasn’t.

Jesus did not include the tenth commandment prohibiting coveting in his list of commandments he gave to the man. The commands he did give were susceptible to external observance. Coveting is not. Jesus opens the man up precisely at this point.

And he does so out of love for him. This is the only time in Mark where Jesus is said to love someone. And it is most appropriate here. Our passion for our stuff is, excepting only our love for ourselves, the deepest of human drives. And only love, another love, an other’s love, only an Other’s love, can free us from our covetous hearts. Jesus gives this man his love!

And in the face of Jesus’ love the real issue surfaces. He calls the man to divest himself of his stuff, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him. Here’s the answer to the man’s question: follow me! (v.21). But to follow Jesus requires a self-emptying of all that fills his heart so will be room for Jesus.

And for this man. So also for us. He remains unnamed in this story. I suspect this is deliberate on Mark’s part. This person is every person, you and I. Procuring and holding on to our stuff is a perennial to mark to publicize our self-wrought significance and security. His question is ultimately focused on himself: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ love exposes this self-love and in a moment of terrible honesty the man confesses himself unwilling or unable to let go of all that. He could not use his treasure to meet the need around him and receive treasure in heaven, and follow Jesus.

And that’s a crucial point to get. The gifts we have, especially our financial resources, impact – and as the wealthy and affluent part of the world we have special need to zero in on this as Jesus does here – others around us. “The good is distributed by God and is to be distributed by us in imitation of God, in an indiscriminate, profligate fashion,” writes Kathryn Tanner (Economy of Grace [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005], 25). If we hold our resources as something we have gotten rather than something we have been given, we like the man in this story will walk away sorrowfully because we too are wealthy. And it is a mighty lure to resist.


Jesus can see the looks of disbelief and incomprehension cloud the disciples’ face in the aftermath of this encounter. Jews of that time took wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus is turning their world upside down in yet another way.

Jesus stresses, even exacerbates, the disciples’ difficulty here. In one of his most well-known images, he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (v.25).

“A few clarifications may be in order. Some report that there was a small gate in Jerusalem, called “the eye of the needle,” which a camel could just barely pass through. There was no such gate, and the first reference to this way out of the problem does not appear until the ninth century. Another claim is that the word translated “camel” here actually means “rope,” but this is dubious and dodges the problem that a rope cannot get through the eye of a needle either. The reality is that for most of Jesus’ or Mark’s audience a camel was the largest animal they would ever see, a needle’s eye the smallest aperture they knew about, and one going through the other was impossible” (Placher, Mark:2883-2889).

This pushes the disciples to the end of their rope. They ask each other desperately “Then who can be saved?” (v.27). Not through their own efforts or the efforts of others, says Jesus. Only God, for whom nothing is impossible, can accomplish their salvation. Which is equivalent to Jesus call to the rich man to follow him without the accoutrements of wealth holding them back.


Peter, speaking for the disciples as always, declares that they have done what Jesus asked. And Jesus answers that they will not be disappointed or left to fend on their own. Those who have done this to follow Jesus/trust God/and for the sake of the gospel will have shelter, and family “a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” Yes, they will have persecutions too, but the family and provisions Jesus provides will see them through this age and into the age to come.

This new family Jesus promises is itself an expression of the new age. Placher tells us how.

“First, people will leave ‘brothers or sisters or mother or father or children’ and will receive ‘brothers and sisters, mothers and children’—but no fathers. They will have one father, God. Given the patriarchal society of the time, where fathers thought of themselves as owning their wives and children, there is no place for human fathers in the family of Jesus’ followers. Second, they will leave fields and receive a hundredfold ‘fields and persecutions.’ Mark slips that last word in so casually one can almost miss it, but it is central to Jesus’ promise here. Following Jesus will be tough. One will be supported by the community of a new family, but one will suffer persecution. No promise simply of a life of rewards. Third, ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’ The hierarchies of current society will be radically overturned. Anyone who enters the community of Jesus’ followers confident of retaining their status and social position is likely in for a rude shock” (Mark:2941-2949).

Here is the New Exodus people. They are a sign, sacrament, and servant of God’s kingdom.

-sign: this community points beyond itself to the reality of a world as God intends it.

-sacrament: this community is itself a taste of that world as God intends it.

-servant: this community in its life together and work in the world serves the advancement of God’s kingdom.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The “Magic Eye” of the Bible

The Strangeness of the Bible

Novelist Franz Kafka writes about the kind of the book we humans need, books that make a real difference to us and in us. In a letter by Franz Kafka to his schoolmate Oskar Pollak, on January 27, 1904, he says:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, discovered this truth in the early 20th century. Barth was schooled in the thought of 19th century liberalism. This liberalism eschewed this self-involving character of the Bible in favor of treating it as primarily a historical source for the development of Jewish and Christian religion. Its input then needed to be reinterpreted in the light of the best thought of the day. Christianity devolved into a struggle for moral and social improvement. Barth rudely discovered this when he learned that most of his revered teachers had signed on to support the Kaiser’s war policy that lead to World War I. He realized at that moment that his theological education in liberalism was bankrupt. He had to start anew. He returned to the Bible and asked: What do we really find in the Bible anyway?




Barth discovered it contained none of these things. Rather a “strange new world” opened up to him as he read. A new world that opened itself up to him calling him to participate in it himself. This new world tes­ti­fies to a his­tory with its own dis­tinct grounds and pos­si­bil­i­ties, a wholly dif­fer­ent king­dom with its own moral logic and pol­i­tics. Faith can­not be traced to any his­tor­i­cal foun­da­tions. The Bible is fundamentally concerned with God not with our moral­ity, our knowledge, or our religion. It’s God’s history and God’s reign that matters. Far from leading us away from this world, Barth claims deriving our identity and vocation from the Biblical stories and teachings leads us deeper into the truth of this world. The Bible wit­nesses to the divine per­spec­tive on human­ity, the world, and our life in it. God in Christ has inaugurated a new reality, a new world amidst the old world of sin and death and that the Holy Spirit “will not stop nor stay until all that is dead has been brought to life and a new world has come into being” (Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man [New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1956], 50.

This strangeness of the Bible, however, is not just due to the factors noted above. There is another reason, a more sinister reason, why we find the Bible strange. That’s because as sinners, those in active revolt against God, desperately clinging to control of our own lives, “we suppress the truth” (Rom.1:18) God has given us. It becomes a language we no longer speak, a dialect we no longer understand, a way of living we can no longer fathom. Until we first face the Bible as the witness to a strange, unknown reality, God, and seek reconciliation to him through the one it witnesses to, we can make no progress in reading the Bible in healing and fruitful ways.

The Magic Eye

In his study of the problem of violence In relation to Christ’s revelation of a pacific God Greg Boyd uses the image of “Magic Eye” pictures to illustrate his hermeneutic, or way of reading the Bible. Such pictures

“look like a boring page of wallpaper patterns until you look at them in a particular way. When you don’t look at the patterns, but through the patterns, a 3D image that you couldn’t see before suddenly appears. So long as you look for the image as though it was on the same plain as the patterns, existing alongside of, or in competition with, the patterns, you won’t see it. Only when you look through them and into a dimension behind the patterns does the entirely different reality of the 3D image appear” (”

I think this a great image though I use it a bit differently than Boyd does. The patterns are the surface data of the scriptures – the events, stories, laws, poems, characters, prophecies, etc. some of this data had already been shaped into certain patterns (e.g. the Pentateuch, The Psalter, the Book of the Twelve, the Passion Narrative, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew in terms of content, and form and redaction criticism, and literary readings in terms of method). These things are what we discern in careful, critical readings of the biblical text.

Such readings, though, often end up discerning no overarching unity to these 66 books. Denying an overall unity and settling for a diversity in terms of form and content these surface readings leave us with a holy book that is not suitable for pastoral, communal, or personal use.  This is looking for the image “as though it was on the same plain as the patterns, existing alongside of, or in competition with, the patterns.”

But if we “look through” these surface patterns in all their diversity and individual peculiarities in prayerful expectancy, we find an “entirely different reality” that ties the Bible together. That deeper reality in the text takes shape around the discernment of the ultimate design, its embryonic beginnings in the creation stories (Gen.1-2) and it fulfillment pictured in Rev.21-22. Around these two poles the rest of the story is woven in its intricate and meandering way. Each part of the story can be understood according to its surface features and also the ways in which being part of this larger, deeper story confirms, challenges, and transforms these parts (this, I take it, is the central points of a canonical reading). Phyllis Bird writes

“What holds the Scriptures together is the community that created, preserved, and transmitted the writings, Israel and its daughter, the church. United in canonical form, the Scriptures present an overarching story that moves from the beginning of creation to a vision of new creation and, with that framework, the conversation of the community about the implications of that story for its life. That conversation spans a millennium in its recorded memory, but it does not end with the last canonical writing; it continues today, as the story itself continues” (Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture [ed. David Balch, 2000], 144-145).

The unity here is not formal, like a jig-saw puzzle, where each piece fits together with perfect symmetry to its surrounding pieces, and whole fits together like a finished picture within its symmetrical boundaries. This unity is more like a symphony with different parts of the orchestra playing their parts in consonance or sometimes in dissonance with one another. Walter Brueggemann’s subtitled his theology of the Old Testament Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. This is the kind of back and forth-ness I envision in the biblical symphony.

Biblical Bookends

As noted above, the creation stories in Gen.1-2 and the fulfilment vision in Rev.21-22 “bookend” the whole biblical story.  We learn from them that the whole drama is about God’s presence with his people in the creation he made for hosting their fellowship. Both tales reveal that

-the temple is the heart of this story. The creation stories are divine temple building stories. Where else would a deity live but in a temple? A multitude of details point in that direction ( The vision of the Seer in Rev.21-22 shows us a new city, the New Jerusalem, the people of God, who are presented in cubic shape. The only other structure so shaped in scripture is the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple. From a Garden temple to a world-wide Holy of Holies. The whole creation is the site of divine-human fellowship.

-human beings are God’s royal priests who represent and reflect God’s will and way throughout creation and protect and nurture the creation (Gen.2:15). The Revelator notes at the end of his vision that the saints will “reign forever and ever” (Rev.22:5). Both highlight the crucial God-given roles in the governance and maintenance of the creation.

-the earth is the site of this divine-human fellowship. The Bible allows no dualism between heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material such that the former of each pair are played off against the latter of each pair as superior and eternal.

Created for fellowship with God and one another, called to play special roles in the extension and practice of that fellowship, and oriented to life on this good creation – the Bible tells the intimate, complex, and torturous story of how God worked out this purpose in and through Israel and that one faithful Israelite Jesus of Nazareth and his followers, the church.

So, the presence of God with us, for us, and as us is the point of the biblical story. It takes shape as human beings bearing God’s image and serving as his royal priests in the temple of his creation. And it’s tethered firmly to terra firma (not heaven, or some other kind spiritualized existence) but life here resurrection bodies on the earth as it was always meant to be. In short, we will finally live the lives God intended us too! This is what we see when we look “through” and into a dimension behind the patterns” on the surface of the biblical texts.

The Biblical Story Line

This deeper reality, the “it” the Bible is about, unfolds along a coherent and comprehensive story line. After the creation stories, the first act in the biblical drama, a catastrophe occurs that seems to derail God’s purpose. This second act of the drama, sin, unfolds with ever-widening ripples, over Gen.3-11. Act three begins by articulating the story line that will not only resolve the complications introduced by sin but also effect a restoration of creature and creation to God’s original purposes for them. This story is found in Gen.12:1-3. There God promises to raise up a great people through Abraham and Sarah, to bless and protect that people, and through them bless everyone else in the world.

This threefold story line, later called the Abrahamic Covenant reveals God’s basic strategy for reclaiming and restoring his creation to his purposes. God will raise up a people and in and through them work out the salvation and well-being of the world. By working with this people and vesting them to bear the blessing of the world, this people becomes the world’s destiny. What happens to and through it happens to the world.

And why does God work through one small and unreliable (if truth be told) people? Gerhard Lohfink points us in the right direction, I think.

“God, like all revolutionaries, desires the overturning, the radical alteration of the whole society—for in this the revolutionaries are right: what is at stake is the whole world, and the change must be radical, for the misery of the world cries to heaven and it begins deep within the human heart. But how can anyone change the world and society at its roots without taking away freedom?

“It can only be that God begins in a small way, at one single place in the world. There must be a place, visible, tangible, where the salvation of the world can begin: that is, where the world becomes what it is supposed to be according to God’s plan. Beginning at that place, the new thing can spread abroad, but not through persuasion, not through indoctrination, not through violence. Everyone must have an opportunity to come and see. All must have the chance to behold and test this new thing. Then, if they want to, they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation that God is creating. Only in that way can their freedom be preserved. What drives them to the new thing cannot be force, not even moral pressure, but only the fascination of a world that is changed.

“Clearly this change in the world must begin in human beings, but not at all by their seeking through heroic effort to make themselves the locus of the new, altered world; rather it begins when they listen to God, open themselves to God, and allow God to act” (Lohfink, Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People, [Collegeville: Liturgical, 1999], 27).

The Abrahamic Covenant is repeated and reaffirmed many times throughout scripture – to Isaac, and Jacob, in the Psalms, the prophets, by Jesus, and the Apostle Paul, and Revelation. The “covenant formula,” repeated in both Old and New Testament reinforces this story line.

From Garden Temple to the garden within the new Holy of Holies (the New Jerusalem) the story line is driven by three themes. Divine presence is primary and symbolized in the temple and its predecessors. Covenant (family) and kingdom (rule) carry the story line forward and both are the condition and find their fulfillment in God’s presence.

Covenant (family) structures the story. From Creation (implicitly) to Abraham to Moses to David to the prophecy of the New Covenant in Jeremiah and all the covenant’s fulfillment in Jesus and through him the church limns out the story.

Kingdom is also implicit in the creation. God is Israel’s King after the Exodus. Human kingship was never mandated but only allowed. And when we discover the people’s desire for a human monarch is ultimately a rejection of YHWH’S rule over them, we learn why. Nevertheless, God accepts the people’s (sinful) desire and integrates it into his purpose of reclaiming and restoring his people and creation through the covenant with David. As Jesus fulfills kingdom and kingship he turns it on its head and reshapes it through his practice of kingship and announcement of kingdom. Kingdom/kingship carries us into the heart of the story.

Reading the Story Today

To read the story today we need first to be clear about what kind of book the Bible is. Trevor Hart offers an illuminating typology. He suggests the dominant ways of conceiving of scripture are three:

-as a window

-as a mirror

-as stained-glass art.

As a window we look through the Bible to see what lies behind it. That is, search for history that is in it and how that squares with history as we know it from other sources (which is not all that much, truth be told).  The relative paucity of data limits this approach as the main one we take to reading the Bible and the tendency of historians (or theologians who act a historian) to reconstruct what they think was the case and to use that reconstruction. Historical research yields much insight in terms of the backgrounds to the biblical culture and it neighboring cultures, languages, thought, customs, taboos, and the like. Avoiding basing our theology on historical reconstructions, however, is a necessity. Even where historical research posits a different picture at points than the biblical story this is a reminder that the historical accuracy is not a prime motive or the point of biblical authors.

That said, the biblical story rests on the conviction that God has acted in history through his own history-creating acts, the people of Israel, Jesus, and the church. My conviction is that the basic story line is historically credible; and the core events of exodus, crucifixion and resurrection are crucial to that credibility. That the biblical authors and editors felt free to reshape and even rearrange parts of the story to make other points clear or follow literary conventions that do not depend on historical narration will be clearer as we make our way through Hart’s typology.

If a window invites us to look through it to what lies behind, our second image for the Bible, a mirror invites us to look at what lies in front of the text, the reflection of ourselves we see. It’s our issues and struggles, our lives, which are the chief concerns in this type of Bible reading. There are many and varied types of this approach, both sophisticated and simple.  Some versions of reader response theory in literature, in which the reader creates the meaning of the story, and much devotional reading of the Bible, which seeks to find a direct word of personal meaning for uplift, inspiration, or guidance for the day’s activities and challenges.  In each case, the reader’s interest lies in front of the text on themselves, their situations and questions, needs and desires, for which they seek insight and guidance.

Now finding meaning in the Bible for our lives is crucial. We just don’t find it by framing the Bible’s meaning in terms of our lives and issues or our search for meaning. Rather as we will see next, the key is to read ourselves into the Bible’s story and discover our lives and the Bible’s meaning there. George Lindbeck puts it like this:

“It does not suggest, as is often said in our day, that believers find their stories in the Bible, but rather that they make the story of the Bible their own story. The cross is not to be viewed as a figurative representation of suffering nor the messianic kingdom as a symbol for hope in the future; rather, suffering should be cruciform, and hopes for the future messianic . . . Intratextual theology redescribes reality within the scriptural framework rather than translating Scripture into extrascriptural categories. It is the text, so to speak, which absorbs the world, rather than the world the text” (The Nature of Doctrine, ---).

That brings us to Hart’s third image for the Bible, stained-glass art. Here one reads the Bible in accord with its own intent and purpose by looking at the story inscribed in the text. And that story is one long sprawling story.  It tells this story through many authors, most of them unknown. Further editors shaped the Bible into its final form. It contains many genres and styles of writing. Different views are found in its pages, due largely to the vast span of time the Bible covers. Ample diversity of form and thought must be factored into any viable view of the Bible. Like a piece of stained-glass, composed of different sizes and colors of glass that are used to tell a story, these diverse genres, styles, views, are put to similar use by biblical authors.

That the Bible is amenable to historical probing of its narrative in only somewhat limited ways turns out, surprisingly, not to be a liability but an indication of rather the very raison d’tre for it. The story told in scripture is the story we must attend to. In it we find we true story and the gifts of identity, significance, and security. The biblical story is drawn from stories many of which were told, retold, and told again around a fire at night in Israel’s settlements. They assumed a particular form through these retellings and recorded according to certain literary conventions of the time which were not interested recounting events as the father of modern historiography, Leopold von Ranke, believed “as they actually happened.”

Another factor was the use of these stories in worship. For this use they were subjected to a liturgical shaping, which again, did not depend on historical accuracy. The stories of the Exodus in Ex.14-15 seem reflect this use in worship. One Jewish writer spells this out:

“The secret of the impact of the Exodus is that it does not present itself as ancient history, a one-time event. Since the key way to remember the Exodus is reenactment, the event offers itself as an ongoing experience in human history. As free people relive the Exodus, it turns memory into moral dynamic. The experience of slavery that breaks and crushes slaves does not destroy free people. It evokes feelings of repulsion and determination to help others escape that state” (

The Eucharist in the New Testament functions in the same way: to represent for a re-experience of the rite’s capacity to ignite recognition of and service to Jesus. The story of the travelers on the way to Emmaus in Lk.24 shows clear signs of this kind of liturgical shaping.

The type of reading proposed by Lindbeck above is well illustrated by Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (Michael Ende, The Neverending Story (Penguin Books; New Ed edition, 1984). A young boy, Bastian, is suffering the loss of his mother, his father’s emotional distance, and his feeling of not fitting in anywhere, especially at school. He loved to read, though. One day he skipped out on school and went to bookstore and nicked The Neverending Story returning to the school’s attic to read it. As he read about the travails of the book’s magical country Fantastica Bastian learned of its losing battle against an encroaching Nothing. Reading further Bastian discovered that he himself is in the story and characters in it summon him to come to the troubled country’s aid. Finally he heeds this summons and joins Fantastica’s struggle. Through the adventures and misadventures he undergoes there Bastian discovers his true identity and the capacity to love. He returns to our world a changed, more mature boy and reconciles with his father. This is the kind of reading befitting a book of this kind. It registers its truth on and in us by this call to embrace this story as our life’s meaning and, indeed, the meaning of the world. This is what John Calvin referred to as the internal witness of the Holy Spirit to scripture’s truth and reality.

We need to search history to understand the backgrounds, beliefs, and kinds of lives ancient people led in Bible times. We must also search these pages for the meaning and purpose of our lives. But both of these exercises find their point in our ability to read the book as a work of stained-glass art.

The Magic Eye Again

The Magic Eye of the Bible reveals its strangeness, biblical bookends that orient us to the meta-story the Bible is telling, its historical – narrative story line and constituent elements, and the necessity of reading it as a piece of stained-glass art.

It is too easy to get lost in the trees of the Bible and lose or never gain sight of the forest. Just starting to read from Gen.1:1 and hoping to get through to the end of Rev.22 (most who do this fail to make it through, I suspect) will yield greater knowledge of what’s in the Bible (and that’s a good thing). But it will not get us above the trees to catch a glimpse of the forest.

The proposal suggested in this essay is a way I believe to glimpse that forest before lunging in to the trees. It focuses our attention in a way that enables us to grasp “the thing” scripture is truly about. A map through the forest that enables us to identify to trees and hew to the path through them that leads us to their destination (and our destiny).