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“He Died”

The amount of ink used to report the most significant death in history is strikingly small when compared to the detail a modern-day novelist might give it. The death of Jesus Christ is reported with these three words, “…they crucified Him”.

Perhaps it is because people to whom the Gospel accounts were originally written were already familiar with the gruesome details associated with the word “crucified.” Or perhaps it is because the significance of how he died pales when compared to what His death accomplished. After all, thousands of others died by the same means.

I found an insight into the brevity of the description of Jesus’ death in a peculiar place; the film, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.

Mr. Magorium informs his toy store assistant that he is going away. Mr. Magorium is going to die, but his assistant fails to grasp it. The most touching scene in the movie comes when Dustin Hoffman attempts to comfort his protégé. Standing with both hands in his coat pockets he says to her,

When King Lear dies in Act 5, do you know what he has written? He’s written, “He dies.” That’s all. Nothing more. No fan fair. No metaphor. No brilliant final words. The culmination of the most influential work of dramatic literature is, “He dies.” It took Shakespeare’s genius to come up with “He dies.” And yet every time I read these two words, I find myself overwhelmed with dysforia. And I know it’s only natural to be sad, but not because of the words “he dies,” but because of the life we saw prior to those words. I’ve lived all five of my Acts, Mahoney, and I’m not asking you to be happy that I must go. I’m only asking that you turn the next page. Continue reading and let the next story begin. And if anyone ever asks what became of me you relate my life and all its wonder and end it with a simple modest, “He died.”

It is in the life Jesus lived that makes the words “…they crucified Him” so profound. Jesus so stirred up the animosity of those around Him that they put Him to death. His death overwhelmed His disciples with dysforia, but, eventually, they went everywhere preaching all the wonders of his life and they ended the story, not only with the “simple modest” words, “…they crucified Him,” but also with the words, “He is risen.”


The Myth of Sisyphus

One of the oft quoted lines attributed to Socrates while on trial for his life is that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” To prove the point, he was willing to die rather than recant. This is why he drank the hemlock.

Centuries later, Albert Camus, a French existentialist philosopher examined his life and concluded that life is absurd. He argues his case in a few novels like, The Stranger, and The Fall, and in a collection of essays titled, The Myth of Sisyphus.

Sisyphus, you may recall, is the man of Greek myth, who after tricking Hades, the god of the underworld, was consigned to an Sisyphuseternity of rolling a huge bolder up a steep hill only to watch it roll down the hill again. He would then roll it up the hill again to watch it told back down the hill, ad infinitum.

Several interpreters throughout the years agree that this story depicts a meaningless repetition that was designed to drive him mad. Albert Camus, who concluded that life was absurd, elevated Sisyphus to the status of “absurd hero” (Wikipedia). I don’t know about the status of “hero.” I think such an eternity would soon drive me mad.

If we take Socrates’ advice and routinely examine our lives but without an appropriate standard against which we hold ourselves, then we may very well conclude with Mr. Camus that life is absurd.

A question philosophers like ask is whether a person can be good without God. I am persuaded that the answer is “no.” If there is no God, then there is no objective standard. If there is no objective standard then every standard is subjective. There is nothing about what I like or dislike that I could bind on another person, and vice versa. Thomas Warren used to argue that in such a case, you could not say, “Murder is wrong,” but only that, “I don’t like murder.”

Another man examined his life and came up with a very different conclusion. He explains, “I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life” (Eccl. 2:3). He searched out everything looking for what is worthwhile in life. His conclusion: “The end if the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. for God will bring every deed into judgment with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:113, 14)

I agree with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” What I would add is that our lives must be examined in light something, in particular, the word of God. Without God, life may very well be absurd. This is one of the main themes in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Have you examined your life lately? If so, according to what standard? And, what have you concluded?

Conceptual Redundancy

I presented a lesson at the Ashland Lectures on the assigned topic, “Jesus: The Christ.” The word Christ means anointed. It is equivalent to the Old Testament term, Messiah. The study led me to conclude that the emphasis in the Bible is on Jesus being anointed as King.

In the beginning, God ruled over Israel as a King. Israel rejected Him from being King (1 Sam. 8), but through Jesus God rules and reigns as King once again.

Shortly after the lesson, Don Ruhl, privately asked me if I knew that Cliff Sabroe, the other speaker, was assigned the topic: “Jesus: The King.” I knew it early on when the assignments were handed out. But the fact of the matter is, to cover the material adequately, there was no other way to address the topic.

In any given lectureship program, there is bound to be some overlapping of material. Speakers do the best they can to minimize repetition. I apologized to Cliff for having trampled all over his topic, but as things played out, Cliff did not cover the topic the same way at all. His emphasis, as assigned and spelled out, was on the kingdom. The final splash screen of his Keynote presentation identified Jesus as the King of the kingdom.

I have spelled all this out to quote brother Steve Thorpe. Steve was a professor at Southern Oregon University (SOU) for years. When he heard what happened, he said that in education this is referred to as “conceptual redundancy.” Both lessons addressed the same basic topic of Jesus as King; Cliff’s through the concept of the kingdom, and mine through the concept of Jesus being anointed as King.

It may very well be said that the entire lectureship in Ashland was an exercise in “conceptual redundancy” because every lesson centered on Jesus. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a great way to teach and learn.

Can you think of any conceptual redundancy in the Bible?


New or Adequate?

Eva BrannEva Brann is a tutor at St. John’s College. She introduced one of her latest books writing, “In thinking things out we should, I
think, not go for newness but adequacy.”

I think this is a good approach to Bible study as well. In our efforts to study any Bible book or topic, we should “not go fo
r newness but adequacy.” It cannot be “new” because what the Bible teaches, it has taught for thousands of years. It is old. This being the case, our work involves understanding more than novelty.

It may be the case that we come across a “new” or “fresh” understanding of what has already been written, but this new understanding does not change what was written. New findings, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, may help us understand the use of a word better, or have greater appreciation for an historic event. We may even come to a better understanding of something we read in the New  Testament by a greater understanding of what was written in the Old Testament. In that sense, it may be new…to us.

Is it the case that in our culture of “new and improved,” of “progress,” that we have come to disdain the “old?” Have you heard the old expression, “Old is mold!” Is that true? Eva Brann describes the kind of mentality tutors at St. John’s promote among their students. They try to cultivate a kind of mindset where students pursue truth as opposed to “novel inventions for display.”

I have operated under the notion that as a preacher, I am a slave to the text. The text is not to be used by me however I choose to use it. Everyone is a slave to the text. We cannot simply use texts of Scripture the way we choose. We should not seek “novel inventions for display.” Our motives would be suspect in this case.

Eva Brann has tapped into an important approach to study: “In thinking things out we should, I think, not go for newness but adequacy.” What constitutes adequacy in Bible study? That is the topic of volumes upon volumes, but to put it simply, it involves gathering all the evidence and reasoning correctly concerning it.

This should eliminate the pressure some preachers and teachers may feel to come up with something “new.” We do not need to invent anything. We do not need to be novel, original, or unique. We need to be faithful. We need to study Scripture adequately.

The Medium is the Message

Marshal McLuhen was a student of the ways in which information is disseminated. He is famous for saying, “The medium is the message.” I am not sure I understand all he had in mind, but supposing I have an inkling of an idea, let me suppose a few things.

First of all, there are more ways to communicate something than through words. Think of how the deaf communicate through hand gestures and facial expressions. Think back to the last time your wife quit talking and began giving you that “look.” Psalm 1 declares of the heavens—meaning the sun, the moon and the stars— that they “declare the glory of God.” They “proclaim his handiwork.” “Day to day pours out speech, and night to night knowledge.” “There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.” And, “their measuring line goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

Joseph Addison wrote a song that sums up these verses well, “The Spacious Firmament on High:”

“What tho’ no real voice nor sound
“Amid their radiant orbs be found?

“In reason’s ear they all rejoice,

“And utter forth a glorious voice,

“For ever singing as they shine,

“The hand that made us is divine.”

The point being, no words are explicitly uttered, but there is nevertheless a message to be apprehended, and the message is not apprehended apart from the medium, in this case, the heavens.

Let’s take this one step further. I want to argue here, that the message and meaning of God’s word cannot be separated from the literary means or the medium by which God uses to make His will known. The reason this is so important is that I have attempted to “extract” the meaning from stories and poetry in the Bible by trying to “boil down” texts to their propositional meaning. If that were possible, or even advisable, why didn’t the Lord just give us a book only filled with propositional revelation: rules, regulations, or statements of fact? Why, instead, did He gives a book filled with narrative, poetry, proverbs, parables, etc.—literature— as well?

In attempting to extract propositional statements or ethical principles from the texts (or the message from the medium), I am, in essence, divorcing it from the form. One writer argues, for example, that “parables are not a delivery system for an idea.” They are not a “shell casing” that can be discarded after the bullet has been shot. “Instead it is a house in which the reader is invited to take up residence,” and out of which to look at the world.

Because this is not a field I have any expertise in, I wrote to Dr. Leland Ryken, a professor of literature whose writings I have benefited from for decades. He writes,

If we were to ask evangelical Christians whether God inspired the forms of the Bible or only the content, most of them would say ‘only the content.’ But that is a frivolous answer because there IS no content apart from the form—no content for Psalm 23 apart from the poetry in which it is embodied, no content for the story of Ruth apart from the story in which it is embodied.

Later in the letter, he writes,

The problem arises when people make the embedded ideas a substitute for the text. If the ideas were all that matters, authors (and God in the Bible) could have given us a list of ideas rather than works of literature.

Perhaps we could look at it in the same way we look at learning a foreign language. When most of us begin learning another language, we have vocabulary lists to memorize. “Bonjour,” means “good day. “Bon soiree,” means good evening. When our children learn their native tongue, they learn to speak first. Then they go to school to learn what written words correspond to the words or ideas they already know. They, too, have their vocabulary lists and vocabulary tests every week. But in their language books, words do not have any other words to identify them. They are just lists of words.

When learning a foreign language, I am told that you really do not learn the language until you can think in that language, meaning you are not always saying to yourself, “Okay, ‘that’ means ‘this’ in English.”

May I suggest that, in a similar way, we should learn to read the Bible’s more literary portions—like narrative, poetry, parables, apocalyptic. I am not saying that the narrative portions of the Bible, or its poetry do not embody themes and ideas. They do. After living with its narration or poetry, it is important to state its themes, pondering them, and using them as a lens through which we look at the text again.

Quoting Professor Ryken again, “The problem arises when people make the embedded ideas a substitute for the text. If the ideas were all that matters, authors (and God in the Bible) could have given us a list of ideas rather than works of literature.” The Bible would have read more like Pascal’s Penses. Remember, the medium is the message.

Think about the implications. The debate over whether the words or the mere thoughts are inspired is settled. God inspired the words, all the words of Scripture. He did not merely inspire men with ideas to be expressed however they chose to express them. When Paul wrote, “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable…” do you suppose he meant the medium as well as the message? If Dr. Ryken is correct when he says “there IS no content apart from the form” then the “means” as well as the “message” are meant by Paul in 2 Tim 3:16.

Finally, consider the value of learning to memorize texts of Scripture, or at least  learning to grapple with entire texts. You cannot come to terms with the message without first coming to terms with the medium. And coming to terms with the medium we need to learn how narrative gets its message across; how poetry teaches; the dynamics of apocalyptic literature.

The best way to see the point I am attempting to make is to take a text like Psalm 1 or Psalm 23, and memorize it. Take notes as you do. Learn the definition of words with which you are not familiar. Look for inter-connections, for the images. Learn to appreciate its artistry, its beauty. See if you can verbalize what makes the poem so beautiful, Then, take a look at the whole text again…and again…and again. There is no substitute for reading the text. 

Vigen Guroian wrote a book titled, Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination. He makes a general statement about “good stories” that relates, in particular to “fairy tales.” I want you to consider what he writes as it relates to reading the Bible:

The deep truths of a good story, especially fairy tales, cannot be revealed through discursive analysis—otherwise, why tell the story? Rather, these truths must be experienced throughout the story itself and savored in the immediacy of the moment that unfolds with the impending danger of the quest or the joy of reunion with the beloved. (Gurioan, Vigen. 1998, p. 15, 16)

Then, he quotes a brief portion from George MacDonald’s haunting tale, The Golden Key. The young heroine of the story encounters the Old Man or the Earth:

“Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.

“That is the way,” he said,

“But there are no stairs.”

“You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”

To understand the Bible, you must throw yourself in. There is no other way.

Some things cannot be told in any other way. Flannery O’connor said, “a story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way…You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” If men spake being carried along by the Holy Spirit, it is God who moved them to write stories—as well as poetry, parables, proverbs, etc. I can only assume that God decided it could not be said any other way.