Imagine your favourite film. Imagine you want to show it to a friend, and for them to love it too. You want them to understand. To get it. To see that this is more than two hours of cheap entertainment. This has meaning. It’s got something to say.
Now imagine you come up with a plan to get your friend to share your love. You can’t take any chances with this. It’s important. They’ve not just got to enjoy the film. You need to be sure they’ve grasped the message as well. It’s going to have an impact on their life, and once they’ve seen it nothing will ever be the same for them again. You’ve got to be methodical. You’ve got to get it right. You might only have one chance.
So you go online. You find a study guide. One that breaks down the film into it’s component scenes and analyses them one by one. It doesn’t always put the breaks in the places you imagine the screenwriter would have intended. Sometimes you’d be viewing parts out of order. But at least the two minute chunks are manageable. And by starting with the big finish, you’ll make sure they get the point if you don’t make it all the way through.
If you and your friend meet up once a week to watch a clip, there’ll still be time left over for you to recite a short lecture to make sure they’ve grasped it. It’s an interesting and famous film, so there are plenty of lectures people have written on different parts if you get stuck. You’re not convinced they all got the point (in fact you’re pretty sure most missed it entirely), but they seem like they’re cleverer than you, so it’ll probably help. Besides, some of them have made really cool little videos that look all modern and stuff, and will certainly convince your friend that this film is, you know, relevant.
Of course you don’t.
So why do we teach the Bible this way?
At SoulSpace we’ve been without a priest for nearly a year, so us laity have been running things ourselves. Preparing for today’s service, the lectionary directed me to Luke 9:51-62. It’s a bit weird. Jesus says some harsh and quite cryptic things. I was a bit stumped for what to do with it. I could use verse 58 to launch into a talk on homelessness, but that rather felt it’d be putting my own agenda on the text, instead of trying to read what it was saying. So I read on.
Instead of calling down fire, Jesus goes on to brief his disciples on how they should behave when they stay in a town. In a direct response to their behaviour in the lectionary reading, he sends them out on their own to learn the lessons he’s been teaching. They return astounded that it works. His peaceful methods actually change things. In verses 21 and 22 Jesus himself is overcome with excitement at the difference he’s making:
At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’
Or, ‘I’ve taken a group of peasants and traders and Imperial collaborators and made them revolutionary leaders. In our world, we do things differently. Nothing will ever be the same again.’
The gospels are narratives. Without that we might as well be reading pages sellotaped to the outside of our churches’ stained glass windows.