A Catholic convert once breathed new life into the Bible for me. Her conversion came largely through a literary relationship with the Bible. That is, she read the Bible as if it were any other story, and she told me how struck she became by the character Jesus.
It reminded me of a seminar I attended run by non-Catholic Christians. Though the seminar centered around cultural issues dividing their churches, the most interesting conversations tended to be about Scriptural encounter. One Biblical scholar suggested that perhaps we should read the Bible “like any other book.” That is, don’t just take each character by his word. Get to know the complexity of characters, accept the literary devices that give the story a variety of conflicting hooks, and receive the text as an encounter with a world, rather than with arguments.
As I began to read the Bible in this way, one of my favorite passages came out of Luke 9:
Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?”
But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village.
Though there clearly is a lesson here, what struck me most about this passage was how funny I found it. You can imagine James and John, just casually asking, “Do you want us to call down fire to destroy them all? Cause, umm, that would be kinda cool…”
But the story leads the curious reader to wonder what gave them this idea. I mean, what in Jesus’ ministry would make you assume this would be a reasonable thing? You can easily imagine an eye roll from Jesus as, once again, the disciples just don’t get it.
Perhaps Luke wants the reader to laugh. “Hey, Jesus, they were kind of rude, so shall I just casually call down fire from heaven?” Regardless of whether that kind of response is appropriate, this particular response is so obviously disproportionate to the situation as to be comical. We can see this device throughout comedic writing. In Hulu’s The Mindy Project, one character tells Mindy that she should lose a few pounds for her health, and she responds dramatically, “I am going to kill you!” And we all laugh.
I now worry whether our desire to read the Bible piously or as a set of doctrinally-oriented arguments will obscure the way the Bible has actually been handed down to us: as a story. I worry that the desire to read the Bible “correctly” will cause us to lose sight of its comic and tragic elements, the complexity of its characters, and an author’s desire to have us identify with the characters that seem the most flawed.
Now when I read the words of Jesus, I frequently think, “Well, that’s insane. Clearly the confused apostles are the reasonable ones, and Jesus is being a crazy person!” I think that’s how the Bible frequently wants us to experience Jesus. And I think that’s what makes Him attractive.