I can’t help myself, I am a writer. There should be some sort of 12-step program for fiction writers, because sometimes we need help with our imaginations.
Mrs.Greenbean’s dog, the idiot dog named Dobby, immediately investigates the same spot at the corner of the house whenever I take him to the front yard. Every. Single. Time.
This is where the fiction writer in me takes over, and I wonder what the idiot dog is picking up on with his supercharged sniffer. My goodness, the options are limitless.
A. It could be where a body is buried. I don’t know what kind of body, but perhaps before the concrete was poured for our home, one of the workers with a nefarious past dug a shallow grave and hid the body in that spot, at the corner of the house under the concrete slab.
B. That spot is where the aliens landed. Their tiny spaceship filled with tiny, but potent invaders from another planet landed in that spot two years ago. The dog can sense the difference.
C. The government has hidden invisible equipment in that spot to spy on me. The dog can sense the odor from the G-Men who come every night to check the footage and biometrics.
D. A combination of B and C could be in play. There is invisible equipment there, but it is not tended by G-Men, it is the ‘duck blind’ of aliens studying human life so they can better understand and conquer us.
E. Once every full moon witches come to this spot, hallowed from before the time of the Comanches, in the ancient days, as a place for sacrifice. On this spot they slaughter stray house cats and rogue gerbils as they make incantations to the devil.
This is the fiction writer’s curse. Even the most mundane aspects of life erupt into plot that will never be developed. The good news is, as curses go, this is a very delightful and entertaining one to have.
Reading the Bible is fun! Anyone who doesn’t get that has never really read it, or read it correctly. Bible abuse and neglect is a sad state of affairs which afflicts far too many people.
Here are six concepts that will help increase your pleasure and joy in reading the Bible.
1. It’s a story, so treat it like one. Yes, it is a sacred story filled with truth, but it is still a story. Each Bible author is inviting you into the world of the story. The writer of Genesis wants you to marvel at God’s power and creativity, the writer of Judges wants you to weep at the heartache of Israel’s idiocracy while the writer of Mark wants to terrify you with the power of God in Jesus Christ.
2. Identify with one of the characters in the story. I am working through Philippians right now in a very rigorous way, and as I read it I always think about how I would understand these words if I were a leader in the church at Philippi hearing these things from Paul for the first time. If I am reading David and Goliath, I work at trying to identify with David–his fear, his courage, his relationship with his brothers and so forth. Then I try to think of myself as Goliath–his privileges, his burden, arrogance and then demise. This helps me identify both aspects in my life because in some situations I’m David, but in other situations I’m the Goliath.
3. The Bible is actually a library, and each book, and indeed sections within some books, are different genres. Some of the different genres are narrative, law, gospel, apocalypse, prophecy, and history. One does not read 1 Samuel the same way one reads Ezekiel. You may need a helper book or do some research to help identify these different genres.
4. Pick a translation that speaks to you! If you’ve never read the Bible before, I suggest using the New Living Translation (NLT). The NLT uses clear English without trying to be too slangy. For study I like the ESV and NRSV. In fact, the older I get the more I like the NRSV. The NIV is good, but I find it to be a tad bit dated. Click here for a complete Greenbean breakdown of Bible translations. The most important thing is making certain you find one you can understand.
5. Read the Bible in two ways. In one way you should read the Bible simply as an act of devotion. Then, at other times, we read the Bible for study and knowledge. The way we read the Bible in these two settings is entirely different. Psalm 23 devotionally read speaks to me about peace and comfort. Psalm 23 read critically in study teaches me about the shepherds rod and staff (2 different tools) and then leads me to think of God as my pastor and how the pastoral role starts with protection and guidance which then leads to security and safety. Both ways of reading the Bible are important, and I need to practice both.
6. Sometimes you should read the Bible alone, and sometimes you should read it with others. By others I mean study groups and in worship services, but I also mean your family. Families should read the Bible together because it draws us into the bonds of togetherness.
Bonus: A note on memorizing Bible verses
I would argue that one does not need to memorize a lot. Familiarity with the Bible–themes and general content of books and sections–is more important than trying to memorize a great deal. However, everyone could memorize, say, 5-10 verses or sections that speak to your life or that are meaningful. If you’ve never memorized any of these and think it is impossible, relax. You know the words to your favorite song, so you can learn a few verses. The ones I suggest are Proverbs 3:5-6, Romans 12:1-2, Micah 6:8, Matthew 28:18-20, 2 Corinthians 13:14, John 14:6, and probably Hebrews 4:12 for good measure. If you take one verse and review every day for a couple of minutes, you will learn it within a month.
Double Bonus: Don’t ruin the Bible’s intent
Okay, one more bit of pastoral counsel on this one. The Bible was written by adults, to adults, about things that for the most part are very adult such as sin, sex, murder and war. (side note–most Christian publishes would not publish the content of the Bible today because it would offend their target demographic) Many many many well meaning Christ-followers have the ‘sweet little Jesus’ instinct, though, that wants to turn everything into something suitable for children and clean it all up. Resist that urge. David was an adulterous womanizer, Paul was a murderer who never got over his guilt, and Jesus seemed to always be spoiling for a fight with the religious establishment. Resist the urge to sanitize the Bible.
When I was a younger, more inexperienced preacher I made a grave and great mistake in my preaching. That is not to say I no longer make mistakes, for every homily has its fair share of problems, but when I was new at this I made a mistake in my methodology. That mistake is to assume that the people hearing my sermon were as familiar with the text as I was and therefore their minds were already prepared to move beyond basic comprehension.
The problem with that assumption is that it is not true. It is not true for two reasons. The first reason is that by the time I preach a text, I’ve spent 15-20 hours with it. It is illogical to expect the people hearing it to have the same recent work with it. Even if they know the basic story from previous studies and readings, it is most likely not fresh in their mind. The second reason it is not true is that the Bible is a great mystery to most people. Many are about as familiar with it as they are the Iliad. Some maybe more familiar with the Iliad than the Minor Prophets and the majority are more familiar with Twilight than with Torah.
The issue is uniquely vital in regards to the Old Testament. The stories of Jesus are familiar to most people–the Prodigal Child, Render to Caesar, and the Crucifixion are things even pagans know of. The Old Testament, however, is a different story. Its odd theological constructions, arcane language and practices, sociological distance, and unflattering heroes pose deep problems in comprehension.
For me the solution comes in making sure, if nothing else, that the audience has a basic comprehension of the storyline and plot of what takes place in the story. The best way to do that is to retell the story. It is not enough to read the text and then assume everyone is up speed. That is what I used to be guilty of. The story must be retold.
But it must be more than simply retold in a blow by blow style. It needs to be jazzed up. This is where real preaching happens–when the story comes alive and moves into the now and doesn’t just stay in the past. I advocate that the best way to do this is by visual image or much embellishment. By embellish I mean that Gideon didn’t tear down the Asherah poll, no, instead he desecrated and then burned the Seahawk 12th man flag. Embellishment.
Visuals work too. This past week I used digital slides, which is rare for me, to show what I call “fake archaeology.” It uses stick figures in what I imagined would have been Ehud’s plan diagram in paleo-Palestine. By moving through those few slides, I was able to retell the same story of Ehud, but without the formal language of the text and at the same time reset it in the present. Ehud is Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible and he is a double agent with secret gadgets strapped to him and then in his escape he swipes a motorcycle and dodges bullets. Embellishment and retelling are vital in helping people process what the Bible is actually talking about.
Thursday afternoon I had the great privilege of participating in a writer’s workshop presented by Athanatos Christian Ministries. The whole endeavor was very encouraging for me and I learned many things. In the afternoon I made my presentation about the hooks which make the story interesting. Part of what it addressed was the three basic stories. One of the participants asked I could make those three available in written form: so, here it is!
Story One: The Warrior
The warrior story is so common that it needs little explanation. Indeed, it might be the oldest form as it is exemplified in The Iliad. In most of western culture the King Arthur story is classic backdrop—knights running off to do battle. The warrior story has a subset of rescue drama—rescuing the damsel in distress. In many stories today the rescue story has blended completely into the warrior story as a patriotic tale where the warrior, whether male or female, is fighting to save or protect the nation (female persona).
Story Two: The Sacrifice
The sacrificial story is one which believers in Christ immediately identify with. It is the story of the person who gives his or her life so that other people might live. Because of this connection to Christ the sacrifice story often has religious or metaphysical aspects which propel reader interest. The best example of this is Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He gives himself up willingly so that others might benefit. The sacrifice story, though, does not have to involve death explicitly for the sacrifice could be time, relational, or monetary. Jane Austen books tend to emphasize this concept.
Story Three: The Journey
In American culture this has turned into the “Road Trip” motif, but it is a highly effective story. The classic example is, to go back to Homer, The Odyssey. Movement from one place to another always captivates an audience. There are subsets to the journey story as well. These include the love story, the coming of age story, and personal growth story. A good example of this is the Harry Potter character. The story is a journey, but it is the journey of the boy Harry becoming the man Harry and realizing his destiny. That is what makes it compelling. Wizards, witches, good and bad have all been done before, but Rowling hit upon a compelling image of this boys coming of age story mixed up in all of that.
The best stories will find a way to maximize all three of these stories by weaving them through the narrative. Consider Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In so many ways Frodo embodies all of these stories within his one character. He is waging a war although he is not the primary combatant, he is making sacrifice, and the journey motif from one place to another is the basic plotline of the story. The trick is combing these instinctive and well-known stories into tales with characters and situations that do not seem forced or artificial.