Monday, February 20, 2012

talk the talk, part 1

The Word for today:
Hebrew 3:7-4:13

mark this:  Hebrews 4:12
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Over the next couple days, we are going to look at the image of the sword as it slashes and flashes from cover to cover in your Bible, all the way from Genesis to Revelation.

But before we do, we must mention that the sword in scripture is hardly ever a sword at all.  It is instead a powerful and beautiful poetic device, used to convey deeper truths about the meaning and function of scripture itself, the Word of God.

So, why doesn’t the Bible just come out and say “the Bible” when it means “the Bible.”  Why does it say sword instead?

It says sword when it means scripture because poetic imagery has far more emotional, intellectual, and spiritual impact than prose expression can muster.

So today we will consider the power of poetics in general.  Tomorrow, the sublime sword of the LORD (an extended metaphor) will flash, cut, lance, conquer, divide, save, deliver, and defend its way all the way from Eden to Gethsemane, from Eve to Jesus, from preincarnation to second Advent--and beyond.


A couple days ago, promoting the benefits of daily deeply diligent Bible study, I wrote this:

And you will keep up, too, if you set before you the great rewards to be had for the struggle: the new vistas of thought; the lilting lyrical language; the deeply profound poetics; the sheer hope and the inexhaustible inspiration that your sweat and tenacity will discover.

“Deeply profound poetics?”  What, pray tell, is that all about?

I’ll tell you what that’s all about if you’ll allow me to put it this way:  the greatest training for a person who wants to understand the Bible, love the Bible, live the Bible, teach the Bible, or spread the soul-saving Good News is not seminary training but literary training.

The scripture is first of all a story.  It has a central character around whom its plot revolves and and resolves and it is never understood until it is understood as a story.  Until it is understood and taught in that way, it remains a hodgepodge of loosely connected (if connected at all) statements about God-knows-what.

When I came to faith, later in life than most, and began to study scripture, I was shocked at three things:
1. How powerful the narrative (story) flow of the Bible,
2. How profound the poetics of the Bible,
3. How self-defeating it was that the book was taught with no attempt to incorporate its literary elements.

Is this going to be a screed about the Bible as literature?  That phrase—“the bible as literature” – has gained a bad rep because it’s been the traditional title of the Bible courses taught by unbelievers in secular universities.

But if the Bible were taught by believers--by churches, Sunday schools, and seminaries—as literature instead of as theology (as it is taught) we’d have doubled the saved souls in the kingdom by now.  I mean it when I say that until we tell the Bible as it is written—as a story told in poetic, figurative language—then we will never reach this generation.


What do I mean by poetics?  'Poetics' basically means that we say abstract things in concrete ways.  For example, “I love you” is nice, puppy-love sentiment.  But it is pure abstraction, and after little Susie hears it 100 times from little Johnny, “I love you” loses whatever freshness and impact it might have once had.  So when little Bobby Burns moves into the neighborhood, Johnny loses Susie to a boy whose “I love you” sounds like this:

My love is like a red, red rose
   That’s newly sprung in June:
My love is like the melody
   That’s sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
   So deep in love am I:
And I will love thee still, my dear,
   Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
   And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
And I will love thee still, my dear,
   While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee well, my only love,
   And fare thee well a while!
And I will come again, my love,
   Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.  (1)

When the great Groom came to seek his Bride, he did not sound like a theologian, or a philosopher.  Instead his language was freighted with figurative speech:

I am the Bread of Life;
I am the Door;
I am the Vine.
You are the light of the world;
You are the salt of the earth.

And with story:

The Prodigal Son;
The Good Samaritan;
The Sower;
The Lost Sheep;
The Great banquet.

And with imagery:

A speck and a beam;
Blind men and a ditch;
Wheat and weeds;
Garments, wineskins, and patches.

In fact, he once proclaimed (2) that he would not teach certain audiences at all unless it was through parable (a form of figurative language.)  His figurative expression was so constant that in one instance his exasperated disciples expressed relief (3) to hear him speak “plainly” (without using a figure of speech!)

He is our great Teacher, but we don’t teach like he taught, with story and poem.  I wonder why?  Meanwhile, as we’re saying “I love you” (which is what theology sounds like)  little Bobby comes along with a red rose (which is what Jesus sounds like) and steals Susie (and her salvation) out from under our prosaic little noses, kicking sand in our faces to boot.

The church makes a big deal about walking like Jesus.  If we want to save souls, we ought to try to talk and teach like Him, too.

So let’s not just walk the walk.  Let’s talk the talk.

(1) "A Red, Red Rose" by Robert Burns, Scotland, 1794; (2) Mark 4:34; (3) John 16:29

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