By Dave Hopwood
I’m fed up with people taking the Bible so seriously. Don’t get me wrong it’s the most important book in the world to me but that’s why I’m frustrated. The more you get to know someone and something the more you love them/it and the more relaxed you are in their company. That’s how I feel about the Bible.
The more I’ve got to know it the more I have discovered it’s jokes, shocks, puns, wisecracks, pathos, horror, riddles, idiosyncrasies and subtleties.
It seems massively ironic to me that a book about full life is often read out as if it’s a shopping list or a takeaway menu, and that the account of God doing every last thing possible so he can to reach people is delivered in such a form that it alienates most of the population. I’m serious.
The Bible was originally delivered mouth to mouth back in ye olden days people preferred the oral tradition, they wanted these stories to be living and breathing, they were in no rush to write them down. Probably because people would start reading them out in overly serious and dull voices, looking as if they were three-days constipated. We may say, “This is the word of the Lord,” but we don’t sound as if we much mean it.
When the prophets buried their underpants, handled human crap, built models, ranted about sex, demolished bits of buildings and went round butt-naked it was all to provoke a reaction in people who’s lives were dull and self-satisfied. When Jesus told tales of justice, compassion, humour, suspense and violence people joined in. They argued, bantered and colluded with the jokes. They gasped when he told tales of anti-heroes, and went off in a huff when he delivered killer punch lines that made them sorely offended.
When did you last get up and storm out of church because the Bible upset you? When did you last burst out laughing at one of the prophet’s parables?
Of course one of the main problems of our day is that we just don’t understand the stories, we put our 21st century understanding onto these tales (and I’m sure this is one of the ways we are supposed to read them, too) but if would only dig a little deeper we could re-discover the ancient jokes, stories, traditions and scandals surrounding the surface text and would then find the Bible to be a very different book.
Jesus’s story of Lazarus and the rich man is a retelling, so is the wise and foolish man, these were stories already told and retold. Jesus shocked people and made them laugh with his retellings. The prodigal son is a retelling of the history of Israel, the old story of Jacob and Esau remixed. There were at least three shockers in it the prodigal came back poor not rich, the father wasn’t dead, the brother wasn’t forgiving. These were aberrations on the original story that would have set his audience reeling. I’m sorry but a dignified and mumbled, “This is the word of the Lord,” just won’t cut it. We need some new genuine responses such as “You’re kidding!” or “What?!?!” or “Respect!” or “You’re having a laugh.”
When Ehud slashes open evil king Eglon’s gut in Judges 3, we are supposed to squirm and gag at the lurid details. You can smell the excrement and the undigested food in the passage (no pun intended here). It’s the original Godfather coup. It’s gripping and disturbing as Ehud sets up the assassination, slaughters the cruel despot, then escapes like Andy Dufrane in the Shawshank Redemption through a stinking sewer.
The writers of the Bible retold, re-quoted and reapplied the Biblical texts themselves, as they struggled to find reference points for what was happening to them. They were not afraid to retell the text so it passed on the truths in a new way.
And that’s the point.
A tale like the Good Samaritan is too important to keep telling as the Good Samaritan. The truths in it remain the same: Love your enemy; no one is a neighbour to you until you are a neighbour to them. But if we are to help people understand and remember this then we need to re-invent it and tell new versions of the story so that it is funny and disturbing and shocking in the way the first version was.
I recently came across a surprising retelling of the parable of the unforgiving servant in Sex and The City: The Movie (Yes, I admit it, I’ve watched some of it. It wasn’t bad, actually.). Now, I’m not naive, the writers may not have deliberately been retelling Jesus’ parable. But the story and the truth were there, no doubt.
I wonder how many people went to see it and were different because Jesus’ parable had sneaked into the story through a back door. Many more people have probably discovered Jesus’ parable in that movie than have heard it in church.
That’s what I’m talking about; we need to get the Bible out there and stop hiding it in reverential voices, old language and Sunday services.
Dave likes loud music, good comedy, great films and Tony Parson’s novels. He finds the Bible hard to read so is dedicating much of his time to retelling it using all kinds of inappropriate things. That’s not his natural hair colour.