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Scripture is Beautiful

January 24, 2011

I’d like to start this off with a quick quote from Frank Schaeffer regarding the book of Revelation. Schaeffer informs us that whoever wrote the book “appears to have been far from well when he wrote it”, not to mention that “it reads like Jesus on acid”.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with Mr. Schaeffer here. Of course John’s Apocalypse is pretty weird. It contains bowls, seals, horsemen (that don’t really correspond to the famous four very well), and locusts with hair, crowns, and stingers. Once in high school I met a girl who told me she’d stopped using drugs when she dropped acid and thought the door was trying to eat her. I’m not sure if I think that’s Revelation-worthy material – it may be too normal. Despite this, I think Mr. Schaeffer’s claim runs the risk of substituting arrogance for appreciation.

I say this for two reasons. The first is simple: there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand parts of the Bible and dismiss these parts as nonsensical. The idea that a book could be nonsensical and yet a large community of people would look at it and say, “Oh yes, this has a message that coheres with these other texts and is definitely inspired by God,” strikes me as a little odd. One of these days I may delve into this a bit more* but for now I’d like to focus on the second reason: Scripture is beautiful.

If this seems like a non-answer don’t worry, it requires some explanation. Let’s start with the gospel of John. The gospel of John opens with some pretty famous words:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

These words, when taken literally, are nonsense. In the beginning was what word? How is the word with God and God? Is God a word (which one and in which language?)? How is life in a word? How is life light? How does darkness overcome light? Forget that, what darkness?

John 1 doesn’t actually start making sense in the normal fashion until verse 19. I know several people who think new Christians should start off reading John. Yes, if they hold graduate degrees in English. If John had spent all twenty-one chapters saying stuff like verses 1:1-18 we’d all stick to the synoptic gospels. In fact, when I first read John I was pretty bored with it. There were some parts you could follow broken up by monologues you could, at best, follow parts of. It was a mess. The gospel according to John is now one of my favorite books of the Bible (along with another odd contender, Isaiah). What’s more, I don’t love John because I learned to skim the, “Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true,” and the, “If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father,” stuff, it’s because I’ve learned to understand it.

Admittedly, much of the weirdness of John has been thoroughly preached upon. Most Christians know the term born again even if Nicodemus found it confusing. We all know that John 1:1 is about the Trinity. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an explanation of “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world,” but I think a lot of people I know could take a pretty solid crack at it. But the thing is, I think that I could take a better crack at it. John plays with words – truth, light, word, name, darkness, and glory. I don’t follow nearly as much as I wish I did but when these things become clear they are wonderful. They are beautiful. They are beautiful because they are things that can’t be said in ordinary words.

This is why I’m hesitant to agree with Schaeffer. Revelation is, indeed, weird. But Revelation also bears some of those poetic marks. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end,” “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades,” a lamb who is slain and rules, secret names, and more Old Testament references than I can shake a stick at. Is Revelation “Jesus on acid”? Maybe. But, maybe, John’s Apocalypse is simply smarter than we are. Maybe it is more convoluted, more beautiful in its complexity. Maybe it is written for those who are wise.

I didn’t write this article to disagree with Frank Schaeffer. There’s not a lot of point to that. I really doubt he’ll ever read this and I sort of doubt any of you read his article (which was mostly about politics), either. I wrote this because I write a lot about how to read the Bible. Most of this is focused on what I think of as smart reading – reading the Bible like you might a great piece of literature and not, say, as one reads the manual for your car. However, I realized I haven’t made part of the case. Yes, the manual for your car is easy to read. It’s probably written for idiots, honestly. But you would be unlikely to sit down and read a car manual on your day off. You’d read a great piece of literature instead.

The Bible is written beautifully. Someone, somewhere, is very annoyed with this. They read Habakkuk 1:8 and say, “How are horses fierce like wolves? Why evening wolves? Are morning wolves less fierce? And what’s this about leopards? Horses are faster than leopards! It’s all nonsense!” I sympathize. But, at the same time, that’s a terrible way to live. Not morally terrible but terrible like having your arm cut off. Habakkuk isn’t trying to make an argument about the land speed and morale of the Babylonian cavalry, instead the book is painting a picture of the terror they bring. This picture lives. Habakkuk’s complaint (the book is, for those unfamiliar with it, a series of complaints by the prophet about injustice and a series of responses from God) has force. Why is God allowing this terror to befall Israel?

A huge section of the Old Testament is poetry. The Psalms, obviously. The Song of Songs. Most of Job. Most of Isaiah. Parts of Jeremiah. Almost all of most the books of the minor prophets. Why? Because this sort of language works better.

Take two simple examples, both involving plays on the same concept. In John 13 Jesus sends Judas off knowing that Judas will betray him. The section ends with a simple statement: “And it was night.” If we pick up in Luke with the temple guards coming to arrest Jesus we find Jesus making a statement about their timing: “Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.” Both verses play off the same idea. Darkness is threatening and symbolizes evil. Judas leaves to betray Jesus and so John tells us that it is night, a detail that would otherwise be irrelevant. He tells us because it is two kinds of night – night that is opposite from day and night that symbolizes the reign of evil. Judas’ act is nightfall in the gospel of John, and this symbolic night will not break until Easter morning. Similarly, Jesus’ use of the word “darkness” in Luke’s account accuses the temple system of being in league with evil. Of course they operate in darkness. Darkness is comfortable to evil. Darkness, though, isn’t just spooky. Darkness is comfortable for evil because evil dislikes being exposed for what it is. John makes this point a lot and in Luke it’s clear that this is part of the motivation for the temple elite. However, this can all be bundled up into a few words by referencing darkness.

What’s more, we learn things better when we work them out for ourselves. I can answer student questions until my face turns blue but students always retain what I say better when I answer just enough so that they can put the last bits together. Complex language is confusing. It’s confusing because it engages us more and in consequence we remember better.

Scripture is beautiful. It’s beautiful precisely because it’s not written like a car manual. It’s rich and complex. It engages the mind and requires attention. It says things hidden inside more obvious things. By now, of course, you realize where I’m headed. Respecting Scripture isn’t just about respecting its authority but also its beauty. Reading Scripture like a car manual just doesn’t do that. If I read Isaiah like I read a field guide I’m not taking Isaiah seriously, I’m ignoring some of the best Isaiah has to offer.

As a scientist I’m always happy when I can test things. There’s a simple test here. Read Scripture like it’s literature. Test my claim. It will be a beautiful thing.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2011 11:45 pm

    Nice Frank Schaeffer opener! He rocks, and you gave me yet another idea for my next read. And thank you for writing this post, it is needed in the blogosphere. This even sort of complements what I was getting at within my rant from Saturday’s experience: when you miss the poetry, you miss the beauty. There are poetic devices throughout, deserving of recognition and analysis.

  2. BenRI permalink
    January 25, 2011 11:43 am

    I really liked this article!

  3. Eric permalink
    January 25, 2011 1:35 pm

    Thanks! I’m so pleased you guys liked this article. It’s a bit of a departure from my normal fare.


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