The “Magic Eye” of the Bible
The Strangeness of the Bible
Novelist Franz Kafka writes about the kind of the book we humans need, books that make a real difference to us and in us. In a letter by Franz Kafka to his schoolmate Oskar Pollak, on January 27, 1904, he says:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”
Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, discovered this truth in the early 20th century. Barth was schooled in the thought of 19th century liberalism. This liberalism eschewed this self-involving character of the Bible in favor of treating it as primarily a historical source for the development of Jewish and Christian religion. Its input then needed to be reinterpreted in the light of the best thought of the day. Christianity devolved into a struggle for moral and social improvement. Barth rudely discovered this when he learned that most of his revered teachers had signed on to support the Kaiser’s war policy that lead to World War I. He realized at that moment that his theological education in liberalism was bankrupt. He had to start anew. He returned to the Bible and asked: What do we really find in the Bible anyway?
Barth discovered it contained none of these things. Rather a “strange new world” opened up to him as he read. A new world that opened itself up to him calling him to participate in it himself. This new world testifies to a history with its own distinct grounds and possibilities, a wholly different kingdom with its own moral logic and politics. Faith cannot be traced to any historical foundations. The Bible is fundamentally concerned with God not with our morality, our knowledge, or our religion. It’s God’s history and God’s reign that matters. Far from leading us away from this world, Barth claims deriving our identity and vocation from the Biblical stories and teachings leads us deeper into the truth of this world. The Bible witnesses to the divine perspective on humanity, the world, and our life in it. God in Christ has inaugurated a new reality, a new world amidst the old world of sin and death and that the Holy Spirit “will not stop nor stay until all that is dead has been brought to life and a new world has come into being” (Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man [New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1956], 50.
This strangeness of the Bible, however, is not just due to the factors noted above. There is another reason, a more sinister reason, why we find the Bible strange. That’s because as sinners, those in active revolt against God, desperately clinging to control of our own lives, “we suppress the truth” (Rom.1:18) God has given us. It becomes a language we no longer speak, a dialect we no longer understand, a way of living we can no longer fathom. Until we first face the Bible as the witness to a strange, unknown reality, God, and seek reconciliation to him through the one it witnesses to, we can make no progress in reading the Bible in healing and fruitful ways.
The Magic Eye
In his study of the problem of violence In relation to Christ’s revelation of a pacific God Greg Boyd uses the image of “Magic Eye” pictures to illustrate his hermeneutic, or way of reading the Bible. Such pictures
“look like a boring page of wallpaper patterns until you look at them in a particular way. When you don’t look at the patterns, but through the patterns, a 3D image that you couldn’t see before suddenly appears. So long as you look for the image as though it was on the same plain as the patterns, existing alongside of, or in competition with, the patterns, you won’t see it. Only when you look through them and into a dimension behind the patterns does the entirely different reality of the 3D image appear” (http://reknew.org/2012/10/a-cruciform-magic-eye/).”
I think this a great image though I use it a bit differently than Boyd does. The patterns are the surface data of the scriptures – the events, stories, laws, poems, characters, prophecies, etc. some of this data had already been shaped into certain patterns (e.g. the Pentateuch, The Psalter, the Book of the Twelve, the Passion Narrative, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew in terms of content, and form and redaction criticism, and literary readings in terms of method). These things are what we discern in careful, critical readings of the biblical text.
Such readings, though, often end up discerning no overarching unity to these 66 books. Denying an overall unity and settling for a diversity in terms of form and content these surface readings leave us with a holy book that is not suitable for pastoral, communal, or personal use. This is looking for the image “as though it was on the same plain as the patterns, existing alongside of, or in competition with, the patterns.”
But if we “look through” these surface patterns in all their diversity and individual peculiarities in prayerful expectancy, we find an “entirely different reality” that ties the Bible together. That deeper reality in the text takes shape around the discernment of the ultimate design, its embryonic beginnings in the creation stories (Gen.1-2) and it fulfillment pictured in Rev.21-22. Around these two poles the rest of the story is woven in its intricate and meandering way. Each part of the story can be understood according to its surface features and also the ways in which being part of this larger, deeper story confirms, challenges, and transforms these parts (this, I take it, is the central points of a canonical reading). Phyllis Bird writes
“What holds the Scriptures together is the community that created, preserved, and transmitted the writings, Israel and its daughter, the church. United in canonical form, the Scriptures present an overarching story that moves from the beginning of creation to a vision of new creation and, with that framework, the conversation of the community about the implications of that story for its life. That conversation spans a millennium in its recorded memory, but it does not end with the last canonical writing; it continues today, as the story itself continues” (Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture [ed. David Balch, 2000], 144-145).
The unity here is not formal, like a jig-saw puzzle, where each piece fits together with perfect symmetry to its surrounding pieces, and whole fits together like a finished picture within its symmetrical boundaries. This unity is more like a symphony with different parts of the orchestra playing their parts in consonance or sometimes in dissonance with one another. Walter Brueggemann’s subtitled his theology of the Old Testament Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. This is the kind of back and forth-ness I envision in the biblical symphony.
As noted above, the creation stories in Gen.1-2 and the fulfilment vision in Rev.21-22 “bookend” the whole biblical story. We learn from them that the whole drama is about God’s presence with his people in the creation he made for hosting their fellowship. Both tales reveal that
-the temple is the heart of this story. The creation stories are divine temple building stories. Where else would a deity live but in a temple? A multitude of details point in that direction (https://derekzrishmawy.com/2012/12/07/9-reasons-the-garden-of-eden-was-a-temple/). The vision of the Seer in Rev.21-22 shows us a new city, the New Jerusalem, the people of God, who are presented in cubic shape. The only other structure so shaped in scripture is the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple. From a Garden temple to a world-wide Holy of Holies. The whole creation is the site of divine-human fellowship.
-human beings are God’s royal priests who represent and reflect God’s will and way throughout creation and protect and nurture the creation (Gen.2:15). The Revelator notes at the end of his vision that the saints will “reign forever and ever” (Rev.22:5). Both highlight the crucial God-given roles in the governance and maintenance of the creation.
-the earth is the site of this divine-human fellowship. The Bible allows no dualism between heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material such that the former of each pair are played off against the latter of each pair as superior and eternal.
Created for fellowship with God and one another, called to play special roles in the extension and practice of that fellowship, and oriented to life on this good creation – the Bible tells the intimate, complex, and torturous story of how God worked out this purpose in and through Israel and that one faithful Israelite Jesus of Nazareth and his followers, the church.
So, the presence of God with us, for us, and as us is the point of the biblical story. It takes shape as human beings bearing God’s image and serving as his royal priests in the temple of his creation. And it’s tethered firmly to terra firma (not heaven, or some other kind spiritualized existence) but life here resurrection bodies on the earth as it was always meant to be. In short, we will finally live the lives God intended us too! This is what we see when we look “through” and into a dimension behind the patterns” on the surface of the biblical texts.
The Biblical Story Line
This deeper reality, the “it” the Bible is about, unfolds along a coherent and comprehensive story line. After the creation stories, the first act in the biblical drama, a catastrophe occurs that seems to derail God’s purpose. This second act of the drama, sin, unfolds with ever-widening ripples, over Gen.3-11. Act three begins by articulating the story line that will not only resolve the complications introduced by sin but also effect a restoration of creature and creation to God’s original purposes for them. This story is found in Gen.12:1-3. There God promises to raise up a great people through Abraham and Sarah, to bless and protect that people, and through them bless everyone else in the world.
This threefold story line, later called the Abrahamic Covenant reveals God’s basic strategy for reclaiming and restoring his creation to his purposes. God will raise up a people and in and through them work out the salvation and well-being of the world. By working with this people and vesting them to bear the blessing of the world, this people becomes the world’s destiny. What happens to and through it happens to the world.
And why does God work through one small and unreliable (if truth be told) people? Gerhard Lohfink points us in the right direction, I think.
“God, like all revolutionaries, desires the overturning, the radical alteration of the whole society—for in this the revolutionaries are right: what is at stake is the whole world, and the change must be radical, for the misery of the world cries to heaven and it begins deep within the human heart. But how can anyone change the world and society at its roots without taking away freedom?
“It can only be that God begins in a small way, at one single place in the world. There must be a place, visible, tangible, where the salvation of the world can begin: that is, where the world becomes what it is supposed to be according to God’s plan. Beginning at that place, the new thing can spread abroad, but not through persuasion, not through indoctrination, not through violence. Everyone must have an opportunity to come and see. All must have the chance to behold and test this new thing. Then, if they want to, they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation that God is creating. Only in that way can their freedom be preserved. What drives them to the new thing cannot be force, not even moral pressure, but only the fascination of a world that is changed.
“Clearly this change in the world must begin in human beings, but not at all by their seeking through heroic effort to make themselves the locus of the new, altered world; rather it begins when they listen to God, open themselves to God, and allow God to act” (Lohfink, Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People, [Collegeville: Liturgical, 1999], 27).
The Abrahamic Covenant is repeated and reaffirmed many times throughout scripture – to Isaac, and Jacob, in the Psalms, the prophets, by Jesus, and the Apostle Paul, and Revelation. The “covenant formula,” repeated in both Old and New Testament reinforces this story line.
From Garden Temple to the garden within the new Holy of Holies (the New Jerusalem) the story line is driven by three themes. Divine presence is primary and symbolized in the temple and its predecessors. Covenant (family) and kingdom (rule) carry the story line forward and both are the condition and find their fulfillment in God’s presence.
Covenant (family) structures the story. From Creation (implicitly) to Abraham to Moses to David to the prophecy of the New Covenant in Jeremiah and all the covenant’s fulfillment in Jesus and through him the church limns out the story.
Kingdom is also implicit in the creation. God is Israel’s King after the Exodus. Human kingship was never mandated but only allowed. And when we discover the people’s desire for a human monarch is ultimately a rejection of YHWH’S rule over them, we learn why. Nevertheless, God accepts the people’s (sinful) desire and integrates it into his purpose of reclaiming and restoring his people and creation through the covenant with David. As Jesus fulfills kingdom and kingship he turns it on its head and reshapes it through his practice of kingship and announcement of kingdom. Kingdom/kingship carries us into the heart of the story.
Reading the Story Today
To read the story today we need first to be clear about what kind of book the Bible is. Trevor Hart offers an illuminating typology. He suggests the dominant ways of conceiving of scripture are three:
-as a window
-as a mirror
-as stained-glass art.
As a window we look through the Bible to see what lies behind it. That is, search for history that is in it and how that squares with history as we know it from other sources (which is not all that much, truth be told). The relative paucity of data limits this approach as the main one we take to reading the Bible and the tendency of historians (or theologians who act a historian) to reconstruct what they think was the case and to use that reconstruction. Historical research yields much insight in terms of the backgrounds to the biblical culture and it neighboring cultures, languages, thought, customs, taboos, and the like. Avoiding basing our theology on historical reconstructions, however, is a necessity. Even where historical research posits a different picture at points than the biblical story this is a reminder that the historical accuracy is not a prime motive or the point of biblical authors.
That said, the biblical story rests on the conviction that God has acted in history through his own history-creating acts, the people of Israel, Jesus, and the church. My conviction is that the basic story line is historically credible; and the core events of exodus, crucifixion and resurrection are crucial to that credibility. That the biblical authors and editors felt free to reshape and even rearrange parts of the story to make other points clear or follow literary conventions that do not depend on historical narration will be clearer as we make our way through Hart’s typology.
If a window invites us to look through it to what lies behind, our second image for the Bible, a mirror invites us to look at what lies in front of the text, the reflection of ourselves we see. It’s our issues and struggles, our lives, which are the chief concerns in this type of Bible reading. There are many and varied types of this approach, both sophisticated and simple. Some versions of reader response theory in literature, in which the reader creates the meaning of the story, and much devotional reading of the Bible, which seeks to find a direct word of personal meaning for uplift, inspiration, or guidance for the day’s activities and challenges. In each case, the reader’s interest lies in front of the text on themselves, their situations and questions, needs and desires, for which they seek insight and guidance.
Now finding meaning in the Bible for our lives is crucial. We just don’t find it by framing the Bible’s meaning in terms of our lives and issues or our search for meaning. Rather as we will see next, the key is to read ourselves into the Bible’s story and discover our lives and the Bible’s meaning there. George Lindbeck puts it like this:
“It does not suggest, as is often said in our day, that believers find their stories in the Bible, but rather that they make the story of the Bible their own story. The cross is not to be viewed as a figurative representation of suffering nor the messianic kingdom as a symbol for hope in the future; rather, suffering should be cruciform, and hopes for the future messianic . . . Intratextual theology redescribes reality within the scriptural framework rather than translating Scripture into extrascriptural categories. It is the text, so to speak, which absorbs the world, rather than the world the text” (The Nature of Doctrine, ---).
That brings us to Hart’s third image for the Bible, stained-glass art. Here one reads the Bible in accord with its own intent and purpose by looking at the story inscribed in the text. And that story is one long sprawling story. It tells this story through many authors, most of them unknown. Further editors shaped the Bible into its final form. It contains many genres and styles of writing. Different views are found in its pages, due largely to the vast span of time the Bible covers. Ample diversity of form and thought must be factored into any viable view of the Bible. Like a piece of stained-glass, composed of different sizes and colors of glass that are used to tell a story, these diverse genres, styles, views, are put to similar use by biblical authors.
That the Bible is amenable to historical probing of its narrative in only somewhat limited ways turns out, surprisingly, not to be a liability but an indication of rather the very raison d’ệtre for it. The story told in scripture is the story we must attend to. In it we find we true story and the gifts of identity, significance, and security. The biblical story is drawn from stories many of which were told, retold, and told again around a fire at night in Israel’s settlements. They assumed a particular form through these retellings and recorded according to certain literary conventions of the time which were not interested recounting events as the father of modern historiography, Leopold von Ranke, believed “as they actually happened.”
Another factor was the use of these stories in worship. For this use they were subjected to a liturgical shaping, which again, did not depend on historical accuracy. The stories of the Exodus in Ex.14-15 seem reflect this use in worship. One Jewish writer spells this out:
“The secret of the impact of the Exodus is that it does not present itself as ancient history, a one-time event. Since the key way to remember the Exodus is reenactment, the event offers itself as an ongoing experience in human history. As free people relive the Exodus, it turns memory into moral dynamic. The experience of slavery that breaks and crushes slaves does not destroy free people. It evokes feelings of repulsion and determination to help others escape that state” (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-exodus-effect/).
The Eucharist in the New Testament functions in the same way: to represent for a re-experience of the rite’s capacity to ignite recognition of and service to Jesus. The story of the travelers on the way to Emmaus in Lk.24 shows clear signs of this kind of liturgical shaping.
The type of reading proposed by Lindbeck above is well illustrated by Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (Michael Ende, The Neverending Story (Penguin Books; New Ed edition, 1984). A young boy, Bastian, is suffering the loss of his mother, his father’s emotional distance, and his feeling of not fitting in anywhere, especially at school. He loved to read, though. One day he skipped out on school and went to bookstore and nicked The Neverending Story returning to the school’s attic to read it. As he read about the travails of the book’s magical country Fantastica Bastian learned of its losing battle against an encroaching Nothing. Reading further Bastian discovered that he himself is in the story and characters in it summon him to come to the troubled country’s aid. Finally he heeds this summons and joins Fantastica’s struggle. Through the adventures and misadventures he undergoes there Bastian discovers his true identity and the capacity to love. He returns to our world a changed, more mature boy and reconciles with his father. This is the kind of reading befitting a book of this kind. It registers its truth on and in us by this call to embrace this story as our life’s meaning and, indeed, the meaning of the world. This is what John Calvin referred to as the internal witness of the Holy Spirit to scripture’s truth and reality.
We need to search history to understand the backgrounds, beliefs, and kinds of lives ancient people led in Bible times. We must also search these pages for the meaning and purpose of our lives. But both of these exercises find their point in our ability to read the book as a work of stained-glass art.
The Magic Eye Again
The Magic Eye of the Bible reveals its strangeness, biblical bookends that orient us to the meta-story the Bible is telling, its historical – narrative story line and constituent elements, and the necessity of reading it as a piece of stained-glass art.
It is too easy to get lost in the trees of the Bible and lose or never gain sight of the forest. Just starting to read from Gen.1:1 and hoping to get through to the end of Rev.22 (most who do this fail to make it through, I suspect) will yield greater knowledge of what’s in the Bible (and that’s a good thing). But it will not get us above the trees to catch a glimpse of the forest.
The proposal suggested in this essay is a way I believe to glimpse that forest before lunging in to the trees. It focuses our attention in a way that enables us to grasp “the thing” scripture is truly about. A map through the forest that enables us to identify to trees and hew to the path through them that leads us to their destination (and our destiny).