Christianity 201

April 30, 2021

The Bible’s Divine Symmetries Exceed Literary Beauty

There’s a quotation that is now widely attributed to Philip Yancey, but I’m sure he said he got it from someone else:

If Jesus had never lived, we never would have been able to invent him.

Although I Corinthians 2:9’s context is different, our New Testament begins with the life of One that no human mind has conceived (NIV) or that never entered into the heart of man (KJV). Each of the gospel writers could have ended with the phrase, ‘Seriously! This all happened! We’re not making this up!’

The story of Jesus is simply incredibly complex. It seems simple enough and for just a little money you can purchase any one of hundreds of Bible books which will provide the primary narrative to children. But as you dig deeper, it reveals layers of significance you never considered.

When I was a university student there was a course offered called “The Bible as Literature.” Knowing where my life ended up, part of me wishes I’d taken this course, but another part of me wonders if it may have caused me to reduce the Bible to only literature; to deny its “living, active… sharper than any two-edged sword” power.

Eight years ago at this time, I was reading Jesus, A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. The use of theography is to suggest that while most stories of Jesus are simple biographies that is, they narrate “from womb to tomb,” this one is attempting to begin with “Christ before the manger,” and then move into eternity. I don’t know that the book lived up to its goals entirely, but I value it as a resource — I’d place it in my top ten — and it’s still in print. 

I’ve mentioned before that the ancients viewed scripture as a multi faceted jewel that revealed more and more with each slight turn; capturing and reflecting and refracting light in infinite combinations. To Sweet and Viola, the preferred image is that of a constellation with phrases from various sections combining to form images.

In the case of John’s gospel, the birth narrative is paralleled to the “I am” statements which are unique to that book.

Jesus A TheographyThe seven I AM metaphorical statements of Jesus in the gospel  of John are followed by their corresponding circumstances in the story of Jesus’ birth:

“I am the bread of life.”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which means  “house of bread.”

“I am the light of the world.”
Jesus was born under the light of the star of Bethlehem.

I am the door of the sheep.”
The doors of the guest house were closed to Mary and Joseph, but the gate to the stable was open.

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”
The infant Jesus was sought by shepherds looking for a baby wrapped in swaddling bands (used for birth or burial) and lying in a manger.

“I am the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus survived King Herod’s attempt to kill him.

“I am the way, the truth and the life.”
Wise men found their way to him, recognized the truth about him and defied King Herod’s evil plot.

“I am the true vine.”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem Ephrathah, which means ‘fruitful.’

The example above, while not the strongest of the parallels introduced, is fairly typical, and the reader must decide if the this information is significant spiritually or merely reflective of the Bible’s literary value. To the believer and Christ-follower, the Bible has to be more than great literature.

The book is well crafted and well researched and on average, each of the sixteen chapters has about a hundred footnotes. Still, I find a good filter is needed when reading this; each reader has to determine what they want their ‘take away’ to be from each chapter.

For me, more than anything else, the book highlights the issue of reading of Christian books versus only reading the Bible. I am where I am today spiritually because of the influence that Christian writers have had on me. If anything their words have drawn me into a deeper examination of scripture.

But the Bible’s complexities can be distracting to some people. It’s easy to get “lost in the weeds” of its intricate details and miss out on what God is saying to you and me through any given passage.

For example … Go back to the quoted section above. Beyond things like the significance of the name of His birthplace, or the ways in which His life mirrors the “I Am” statements, what does it speak to you and me?

[Instead of just throwing the question out there; let me offer a personal response: I think that often the amazing life of Jesus compels me to worship. Not in the ‘bursting into song’ sense, but just an awe for the narrative that leaves no loose ends. For an earthly, incarnate life that is so whole, so full, so rich.]

Can we know too much? On the one hand, in terms of Bible study is there such a thing as too much information? I believe Jesus: A Theography is on one hand a valuable addition to my library, but on the other hand, it’s important that I not stray too far from the simplicity found in those children’s Bible study books.

Matthew 11:25-26 (NIV)

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

Matthew 18:2-4 (NIV)

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

But on the other hand, making discoveries in books like these is like suddenly reading those narratives we heard has children with a pair of 3-D glasses, and seeing dimensions unfold we never knew previously; filled with ‘ah-ha’ and ‘Wow!’ moments.

Luke 24:31-32 (NIV)

Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Again, sheer awe.

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