The headline on my news feed from Google Chrome the other day declared, “Tyra Banks Urges End to Super Models War.” I didn’t know a Super Models War had even been declared. What international body has the jurisdiction to declare such a war – the Elite Modeling Agency, perhaps, or the editorial board of Marie Claire – or maybe Michael Kors just issues an executive order.
I didn’t bother to click on the article and read it. In the first place I was sure it would be silly. In addition, I knew the actual story could never compete with my imagination (stop chuckling – that’s not what I mean!). In my mind I could see vividly an army of super models in baggy battle fatigues (they would have to be baggy, no one makes battle fatigues in size 0), and 5” stilettos. Cheryl Tiegs and Christy Brinkley, since they are both in their sixties, would serve as commanding officers. Famke Jensen and Heidi Klum fly overhead in vintage WWI Fokker DR1’s. Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington both drive APC’s filled with commandos from the catwalks of Paris, New York, and Milan. Iman is there commanding her elite, Ecru Beret Forces, which include Kate Upton, Kate Moss, and Gisele Bundchen – all of whom carry bedazzled Kalashnikovs. Those are the ingredients of a proper Super Models War.
Oh the curse of a literal mind.
Several years ago, James Thurber wrote a piece in the New Yorker about taking adults literally when he was a child. His dreams were terrorized by the woman who was “all cut up,” the man who was “all ears,” the man who “could not put his foot down,” and the woman who “lost her head.” The simple use of language requires the simple use of common sense. We need the ability to decode – to discern between a colorful phrase and a literal statement. We bring this common sense to books and newspapers, texts and tweets, movies and television programs, conversations and negotiations or we will fail to understand them at all. We must bring the same common sense to the Bible, or we will not understand it.
Seminary exposed me to a wide variety of serious scholars. They had many different approaches to understanding the word of God. Some were puzzlers and tinkerers – always looking to solve a mystery, or find a new meaning. Some were crusaders, looking for a theological underpinning for their cause. Some were engineers – taking apart and categorizing the grammar, the vocabulary – and in the process coming up with eccentric and improbable conclusions. Some were members of the cheer-squad – looking only for the happy thought, the encouraging phrase. There were the Literal Leonards, the Metaphorical Marvins, the Doom and Gloom Divas, and so many others in the interpreter’s bestiary.
I am sure I bring my share of preconceptions to the Word. But I have always believed that our task as readers is to listen with prayer and common sense. “What does the Bible say?” should be a simple enough question to answer, if we will be still for a moment and listen prayerfully. Jesus, especially, speaks simply. The great challenge is not to puzzle out the things that lead to life and godliness, but to live a life faithful to the Word.
Unfortunately, there are many who are too bored, distracted, misinformed, or irascible to be satisfied just to listen. And so we end up hearing all sorts of fantastical absurdities – Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ girlfriend, Jesus will one day rule from a throne in Jerusalem, it doesn’t matter how we worship, baptism is optional - all about as probable as a Super Model war with all the ordinance and trimmings.
Let us all be aggressively skeptical of any argument which is the product of exotic or byzantine reasoning. If Albert Einstein could state his theory of General Relativity in two pages, I should be able to answer a Bible question of cosmic proportions succinctly as well. If it takes a person 40 pages to argue that baptism isn’t necessary, that person is wrong. The Bible says plainly “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins,” (Acts 2.38). That is what it means.
At used bookshops I keep an eye out for books by those great humorists of the 1920s and 1930s – James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, the incomparable E. B. White, and my favorite – Robert Benchley. I have picked up quite a collection. I particularly like to find a book with the original dust jacket, and not just for the cover art. I love the advertisements printed on the back cover, and sometimes the inside cover of the dust jacket. One often finds lists of exotic books, celebrated in their day, and now completely forgotten, available for the low, low price of $1.98.
On the back of the 1936 edition of Benchley’s My Ten Years in a Quandary, And How They Grew, there is an advertisement for Blue Ribbon Books’ “12 Books that belong in every office or home library.” It includes Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Universal Dictionary for $2.49, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Illustrated for $2.95, The Modern Home Medical Adviser for $2.49, and the Outline of History by H.G. Wells for $1.98. The list also includes Hammond’s New Combination World Atlas, which comes “with a 32” by 44” folding wall map.” It is unclear from the advertisement whether the wall folds or the map folds. A simple hyphen would have clarified the matter.
Of course you and I both know which book tops the list – The Holy Bible, available for $1.79. This Authorized King James Version includes “a concordance and 394 page International Bible Encyclopedia.” It comes in “large, readable, self-pronouncing type,” and can be thumb-indexed for quick reference for 50 cents more. I have no doubt that of the 12 books listed, the Bible was the best seller – because the Bible is always the best seller, and has been as long as anyone has kept records. It has never sold less than double the number of volumes of its nearest competitor. Not even J. K. Rowling can compete.
The amazing thing about this is that almost everyone who buys a Bible already has one – or three, or ten. And yet we keep buying them. We keep them too. I still have the first leather Bible I received. It has my name stamped on it in gold leaf. I have the Bible my grandfather kept in the glove compartment of his car. I have a well-worn leather Dickson Study Bible that belonged to my wife’s grandfather. I have the little red New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs the Gideons gave to all us sixth graders back in 1974. I have maybe 30 more. I cannot throw a Bible away, no matter how damaged it becomes. If I have one that is almost unusable I put it in the free book bin at the public library.
So I have a lot of Bibles. We all do. What does that mean? Often, it doesn’t mean much.
In the great John Ford western, The Searchers, Ward Bond, who plays a combination-preacher/Texas Ranger, hands his Bible to a gut-shot rancher and tells him to hold it tight. “It will make you feel good,” he promises. In the movie it has just that effect. I am afraid we often use the Bible similarly – as a totem or talisman to make us feel better.
Of all the books that belong in home or office the Bible is certainly the most important. But it is not like Hammond’s New Combination Atlas – anchoring down the coffee table until someone needs to find the capital of Mongolia (Ulan Bator). We have Bibles so we may read them. We have them to wear them out. We have them to use, and use, and use again – every day.
Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all day…how sweet are your words to me, they are sweeter than honey to my mouth, the Psalmist writes in Psalm 119.97 & 103. He did not have a Bible in his home or office. The book would not be invented for seven centuries. Scrolls were rare, and expensive. And yet – the word he did have – through public readings, and temple service - was his dearest possession. He treasured it in his mind, and in his heart. The folks at Blue Ribbon Books are right. The Bible belongs in every home and office. It belongs in every vest pocket, glove compartment, back pack, night-stand, care package, and dorm-room. But most of all, the Bible belongs in every mind and heart. This is the Bible’s true home.
I have been privy to several conversations about book reading habits recently. Two of these are similar in theme and caused me to ponder the theme in light of how we live our lives. One of these conversations happened at work where there was a debate on the merits of reading the last chapter first. One person argued that by knowing the ending they were able to enjoy the reading and see how things unfolded. Many others in the conversation were vehemently against this idea. I enjoy books that have some form of mystery in their writing so I sided with the “you should never read the last chapter - first.”
The second conversation happened around the lunch table at Vacation Bible Camp. A discussion of reading different types of books began and someone made a comment similar to I love those books; I have read them several times. That made me reflect on the earlier conversations. If you read a book for a second time, by definition, you already know the final chapter, and the rest of the book for that matter. I have to reconsider my earlier position. I have read Sir Arthur Conon Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books several times. That is the ultimate in “some form of mystery”. I must conclude, or at least concede, that even if the ending is revealed ahead of time we can enjoy how the story is revealed in the reading.
Barry is teaching Revelation this quarter to the Senior High class. I am reading it again to be prepared for conversations this may evoke. Revelation is the revealing of the last chapter of every life. It is truly an awe inspiring read. However, let us consider the hope and confidence that is inspired by knowing the outcome.
Jesus tells us not to worry – “(For after all these things the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things” Matt 6:32. Jesus tells us we have a place in eternity - “In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2. Jesus says he will take care of us here on earth and after we leave this earth. We are to live boldly in our Christian walk – “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” Hebrews 4:16. “So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me” Hebrews 13:6. In boldness we live a life that praises him and brings others to him – “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” Matt 5:16.
Jesus wants us to know how the last chapter of life will look. It was so important that John was provided a vison of the last moment in time and was provided the remembrance to write it down for us. 1 Thessalonians 4 and other scripture gives us a glimpse and knowledge of how the story ends. The hope and confidence that comes from knowing the last chapter becomes the genesis of how we can boldly live a life that is well written and will inspire others as they “read” our story.
Read God’s word. Have faith in the ONE who is ever faithful. Have hope in the ONE that is hope. Rest in the love of the ONE that is love. Know that if you follow HIM you have read about yourself in the words of scripture about the last chapter (being selected with the sheep - Matthew 25). Read the last chapter, live life like you will obtain it and enjoy how your book develops.
ESPN Classic Boxing On Demand is currently running a match my dad told me about for years. It is the 13 round “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” the sixth bout between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. My dad was a big Sugar Ray fan. He had seen him box an exhibition bout in Trinidad the year I was born. He (a middleweight) boxed the heavyweight champion of Trinidad and Tobago. The 52-year-old Robinson boxed most of the match with his right hand held behind his back and never got his hair mussed. Many still consider Sugar Ray Robinson, pound for pound, the greatest boxer who ever lived.
He fought Jake LaMotta 6 times from 1940 to 1951. Their first five fights were ended by decision. Their last fight ended when Robinson TKO’d LaMotta in the 13th round. Robinson won their initial fight by decision, despite being knocked down by LaMotta in the 1st. LaMotta won the second, by decision, knocking Robinson out of the ring. It was Sugar Ray’s first defeat in the ring – ever. Robinson won the rematch three weeks later, despite being knocked down for a 9 count. They fought twice more before LaMotta, who was always 16 pounds heavier, moved up to middleweight, with Robinson winning both by unanimous decision.
When they met in Chicago, on Valentine’s Day, 1951 Sugar Ray Robinson was the welterweight champion of the world, and LaMotta the middleweight champion. As I watched the fight yesterday, 62 years later, I could see clearly why it loomed so large in my dad’s memory. It was as good as (or better than) Ali-Frazier III. It was the classic battle between the boxer and the puncher. Robinson was slightly ahead on points at the beginning of the 11th round when he let loose a vicious barrage of lightning fast left jabs, right hooks, and uppercuts. For nearly three rounds he pummeled LaMotta’s face until the middleweight champion was lying helpless against the ropes unable to lift his arms in defense. But he didn’t go down. Near the end of the 13th round the referee called the fight.
In Martin Scorcese’s biopic of Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull, LaMotta, dazed and barely conscious calls after Robinson – “You didn’t knock me down Ray! You didn’t knock me down.” LaMotta lost 5 of 6 fights to Robinson, the last by TKO, but Robinson never knocked him down. He held on to that.
There is something noble, even inspiring about standing even in defeat – in refusing to be knocked down. Robert Falcon Scott cuts a much more dashing, romantic, and admirable figure than Roald Amundsen. But Scott and his party died. Jake LaMotta was never the same after the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
We live in a world hostile to our faith. It has always been so, and will continue to be. In such a world it is easy to develop a bunker mentality, to hunker down, to feel defensive, to lie against the ropes and brace ourselves for a beating. When you feel this way you cede victory to your opponent.
But we are not called to this sort of resignation. We overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us (Romans 8.37). The gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matthew 16.19). Our faith is the victory that overcomes the world (I John 5.4). All this is because we are born of God (same verse). God in Christ has already crushed all enemies (Hebrews 10.11-13).
Jesus did not die on the cross, raise the third day, and then ascend into heaven so we could lose with dignity. We are, through Him, victors. Let us never cede defeat to the Devil. Let us never forget that Grace trumps him every time. He has no answer for it. He is a loser. Grace is always greater than sin (Romans 5.17-21). Ours is not to cling to the ropes and hope not to buckle at the knees. Ours is to fight and win. If our battle against Satan is compared to a fight for the middleweight championship of the world, we are Sugar Ray Robinson. We win. No matter how many times we get knocked down, grace makes it so.
The most popular book in Europe for a thousand years was The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius. Boethius was born around 480, a member of one of the oldest Roman families, the Anicia. His father was a consul of the Western Empire. His uncle was a pope. He was a scholar. Naturally bookish and inquisitive he amassed a large personal library. He was expert in several languages. He read Greek and Hebrew, perhaps the only man of his generation who had mastered both Biblical languages. He wrote textbooks on Astronomy, Mathematics, Music Theory, and Natural Science. He was a Christian.
When the Ostrogoths conquered the Western Empire in 510, Theodoric made Boethius a consul. It was a political choice. Boethius, a Christian from an ancient family, was no politico – he was a scholar, and thus no threat to Theodoric. Because he was no politico, he ended up blundering into some palace intrigue, and was arrested in 522. For two years he was held in the palace of Pavia. He was denied access to his library, but allowed writing material. During those two years he produced The Consolation of Philosophy. In 524 he was bludgeoned to death.
The Consolation of Philosophy is a book which celebrates wisdom. Like the biblical book of Proverbs, it begins and ends with wisdom personified as a woman. It communicates Christian values – particularly sacrifice, reverence, self-control, humility, and gratitude. It is a compendium of quotes of classical authors, all made from memory. He quotes Cicero, Catullus, Claudian, Euripides, Ovid, Seneca, Sophocles, Virgil, and Horace among others. He does not quote the Bible – not even once.
Thus, many question whether it should be considered a Christian book at all. It has a biblical structure. It communicates Christian values. It is by a Christian. However, many secular and Christian scholars regard The Consolation of Philosophy a piece of Classical scholarship. These scholars are right. The Consolation of Philosophy is an amazing piece of scholarship, and an inspiring read – but it is not a Christian book.
I wonder how many “Christian” books published each year would compare to Boethius’ masterpiece. I think a browse through the most popular Christian titles will make that ancient Roman seem quite modern. Replace the quotations from Marcus Aurelius, and Euripides with humorous anecdotes and inspiring stories, leave out the Bible, and you have a best-seller (especially if you get a jacket-blurb from an athlete or recording artist).
Some writers (and preachers) use the Word as a garnish – decorating their message with a catch-phrase, or slogan from the Bible. Some use the Word as a condiment – sprinkling a verse or two here or there to give their message a real “biblical” flavor. I believe this to be an insidious form of pandering and disrespect – to the Word, and those to whom we communicate it.
I believe the Word is the entrée. I believe everyone who writes or preaches as a Christian should conform to the standard established by Ezra:
For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. Ezra 7.10
Anything we have to offer is inferior to what the Bible offers and always will be. If we share the Word, purely and simply, we will have given the best there is. I remember the fuss raised when the Department of Education declared, back during the Reagan administration, that ketchup could count as a vegetable in school lunches. The fuss was justified. Ketchup is a condiment, not a nourishment.
I wish more of us would raise a similar fuss about our spiritual diet.