This post concerns my new page I recently created for my blog: “the fantastic farce.” Because I do a lot of reading of what I consider to be the greatest work of literary art, the Bible, I began to feel that I needed to give my musings on that book a space of its own. Not wanting my blog to be “just another Christian blog” (i.e. preachy), I decided to create that page to include a few thoughts I have on various chapters that I am reading here and there. My point in the page is not so much application but hopefully decent insight on how to read the Bible well.
I strongly feel that (at least in my experience growing up) many who grow up in Christian homes and attend church and Sunday school and possibly Christian schools get a lot of the factual evidence and moral applications that are vitally important to the Christian life yet are never taught how to read the Bible well. Thus when some snobbish professor approaches them with apparent contradictions they either renounce it altogether or proclaim the professor an idiot, themselves persecuted, and push the instance far away so as to never deal with it. Thus, I am examining in this blog the Bible strictly as literature and nothing else. I have not a clue why we decide to teach children Bible stories and moral values without teaching them how to study it on their own — without study notes. Instead of presenting children with the Bible as an incredible piece of literature that many people see as arbitrary and ambiguous, we pound it into their heads that “the Bible is true and should be read so as to ensure you’ll stay out of hell and on the straight and narrow and anyone who doesn’t agree is a pagan and also an idiot” when really the Bible is far more deeper. I am ranting on my own childhood experiences with how I perceived how it was presented to me and am now done with the rant. Below is an example (hopefully decent) of what I have been observing as I take a step back and look at the book of Matthew as literature disregarding prejudices and historical accuracy for the time being.
Since I have recently been reading in the book of Matthew, I wanted to take a step back and consider the book up to the point where I am at, the tenth chapter. As far as narrative flow goes, it does not appear to have any sort of consistency with it, though we can probably break it down into four or five sections: (1) the birth narrative, (2) the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, (3) his introductory speech, (4) a look at various miracles he performed and teachings along with those miracles, and (5) his sending off of the 12 disciples. It is hard to read the narrative without paying attention to the section headers which are common in most Bibles and very valuable, but I think when you look just at the text, that general outline is what you will discover. The book though has to focus on the man Jesus and who he was — what is the book saying about him? What is its thesis up to this point? What inferences and conclusions can we draw from what we know so far? We have also to put aside “historical accuracy” for the time being. Whether Matthew made this all up, whether it was even Matthew who wrote the book, where it was written etc. all have to be placed to the side for the time being. When you analyze any other book, you respect it enough to look at it for what it is. Once you grasp what it’s saying or arguing, then can you ask the question of accuracy. Not before. Because if you did so before, your entire reading will be influenced by whether or not the historicity of the book holds up. If it does, your reading is much different than if you find it does not. One reads seriously while the other as he reads any other ancient myth.
We then come to the matter at hand: who is this Jesus according to Matthew? The reader will observe that he certainly had an interesting birth and childhood — the events of which we can research to find that they do indeed fulfill a lot of ancient Israelite prophecy. This technique of prophecy being used, which reoccurs often in Matthew’s account, should alert our attention. Matthew is making a bold statement. If this child fulfills a few of the prophecies that he’s mentioned , by implication he is arguing that he fulfills all of them, and what we may lack in knowledge of what the specific prophecies allude to may be reinforced by what can deduce concerning the role of prophecy in literature: it nearly always comes true and is highly important concerning the plot of the story. It is this attribute of Matthew’s story that tells us something: we are entering a tale in the middle not at the beginning. We are more than likely entering somewhere in the third or fourth act of the play. But though this is a heavy implication in which we become aware that we still have some extra studying to do, we can still move on with Matthew’s argument.
The second technique that is interesting is the constant reference to the “kingdom of heaven.” What can be meant by its being “at hand”? And what are we to do with this information giving we do figure it out? Matthew’s protagonist has not declared himself to be from heaven yet (up to chapter 10) though he has strongly implied he shows a unique relationship with the God of heaven, namely that he is his son. And this is perhaps the best line we can draw from this “kingdom” being “at hand” and our main character. Jesus, in claiming to be God’s Son, has appeared on earth hence bringing this “kingdom” which makes it “at hand.” If this Jesus is from the kingdom in question, it would only make sense given the amount of miracles Matthew includes. But perhaps a better set of evidence would be found in his teachings. Many men have done miracles — or at least claimed to have done miracles. The miracles he performs are really not as significant as what he says. And it is as if Matthew is making that argument because more people seem astonished, upset, encouraged, and altogether affected by what he says more so than what miracles he does — not to say, of course, that his miracles were unimportant. But his teachings are highly effective primarily because even when he doesn’t speak in riddles, he speaks in riddles. He says a lot about peace and love and forgiveness, about not judging others but treating them how you would be treated, about being noticeable to everyone (but not noticeable to oneself), and even about not worrying about the temporal things on earth but setting your eyes on heaven. In short, he at once sounds like a California hippy in some sense with long hair and his index and middle figure in the form of peace sign as he speaks of peace and love. That is up until you get to chapter 10 which appears to throw the whole notion of “Tolstoy” Jesus out the window and replaces it with someone who looks more like Machiavelli. All this insistence on peace and love seems contradicted in one fell swoop, and yet his poor disciples are not to worry about anything (hippy Jesus), yet they are to ponder the idea that they may be slaughtered for following him — and all but one were according to tradition.
Unfortunately, analyzing up to chapter 10 gives an incomplete picture of Christ. We can say in any case from these few observations that he is no ordinary teacher. There is something about him that rubs everyone the wrong way just as there is something about him which is so comforting that nearly everyone is compelled by him. To be both repelled and compelled by the same person is compelling itself. Whether this Christ was historical or made up — whether Matthew, or another author, is just an incredibly interesting author (at once good, yet at once awful) — is not really the issue at hand. This account can be either one of two — fact or fiction — but the fact of the matter is that either way you read it, there is something about this Christ, the paradox of the universe who is both everything and nothing, both inclusive and divisive, loving and severe. Our conclusion up to this point based solely on the book as literature is that our author is either very good or very bad. His character makes no logical sense and is yet magnanimously dynamic. Perhaps it is those fantastic features that make good characters. Jesus, in any case, was the best and the worst, the first and the last, at once nothing but in the end everything.
Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.