Saturday, July 7, 2012

Beginning with the Gospel

The point of this blog is to begin with the gospel, and see where that leads. This of course begs the question, what exactly do you mean by that overused and under-defined word, gospel? And that too, I hope, will be something that I myself will come to understand better as we go along.

I thought I'd make the Gospel of Mark my ground of operation. No particular reason, except that of the four books called “gospels” in the New Testament, it's the one I love the best. But of course I've been reading the Bible for a long time, and, well, I do know how it ends. The Bible is in fact one of those books that people almost never read from start to finish, following the story and eager to see how it all comes out, the way we would read any good novel. Most of us start somewhere in the middle – with John 3:16, or Psalm 23, or the Ten Commandments – and these things seem strange indeed when ripped from their places in the story. If we're persistent (and many are) we carry on. Right at first we probably don't even realize there's a story in the midst of it all.

The story, yes. Summarized incredibly inadequately: Fall, Redemption, Restoration. The latter two, Redemption and Restoration, make up the gospel, which of course means “good news.” But that doesn't equate to two-thirds of the story being all sweetness and light. The part that comes in under that first heading, “Fall,” is big and complex and the Bible gives it a lot of “fleshing out.” In fact, the extremity of the Fall is something that the Bible wants us to understand. And I should say, to understand not just about the story, but about ourselves.

That's a key point. The Bible is about us. It's a kind of portrait of the world and of the human race, and what has happened to it and to us. We've made a mess of things, because we're mess-makers to our very core. That's something the portrait tells us about ourselves. The Fall, you see, runs deep. We're infected it seems with a genetic predisposition to make a mess of things. When we have some sort of inkling of the depth of this truth as it applies not simply to the story but to ourselves, to our own lives, we will begin to understand, or at least have an inkling of, the goodness of the good news. Thus, the second two parts of the story: Redemption, Restoration.

As I said, most of us enter this story somewhere in the middle. And I'm all for that unusual reading strategy (although it's not going to hurt, sooner or later, to read the book from start to finish at least once). It seems to work, I think, because that's where we find ourselves: in the middle of a story. As soon as we begin to thing of ourselves as having a life that is enmeshed with other lives that together form a kind of story or family history – comic or tragic or, usually, both – we quickly understand that we are somewhere in one of the middle chapters of the story. Our sense of the story starts from somewhere in the middle, in other words, and our understanding, if it is to progress at all, progresses backward and forward from that point in a quite non-linear fashion.

Anyway, our understanding of the Bible story progresses that way also. As our career as Bible readers progresses, we get to understand the delineations of the big story and to see our place in it, but there's always a feeling that we need to read it again, and to understand it again. We get sidetracked a lot, for one thing. We forget much that we learn and need to relearn it, or we are misled or mislead ourselves . . . the reasons abound. Point being, from time to time we need to start over, and that's what I'm hoping to do here. Start over, but this time beginning with the gospel.

That's all for now. This is going to be a slow process, with maybe one post per week. We're going to ask obvious questions often, just in case the answers aren't as obvious as they may at first seem. And starting in the midst of the story, we're also starting somewhere very close to the turning point. In the life of Jesus much of the story comes clear. But even in this book, the Gospel of Mark, we won't be starting at the beginning. We'll be starting on a spring day in Galilee, when Jesus from Nazareth walked on water. It's as good a place as any to start.

See you next week.

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