Do you ever find yourself thinking, “I really want to dig into scripture, but I just don’t know where to start”? Did that one poem from Isaiah give you goosebumps, but then when you tried to read more of the whole book, you got lost and unmotivated? If you answered “no,” well then good for you! But if you answered “yes,” you are in good company, and Russ Ramsey might be able to help you.
Russ has done a very good thing in the world: he has condensed the narrative arc of scripture into three elegant and helpful books called The Advent of the Lamb of God, The Passion of the King of Glory, and The Mission of the Body of Christ. These books provide accessible, inviting entry points for those among us who would like to become more scripturally literate. In fact, scriptural literacy has become very important to Russ, both as a pastor and as a writer.
Every once in a while, I have an interview with someone that is so good that I can’t bear the thought of editing it down too much, so I break it into two parts instead. This interview was one of those; it was a conversation I have taken with me, and it is my hope that you can find some gold in it for yourself. Stay tuned for Part 2 soon.
Drew: I don’t consider myself scripturally literate. How would you define scriptural literacy? What does that mean culturally right now?
Russ: Biblical literacy is the reason I wrote these books. There was a time not too long ago when people generally had a higher level of familiarity with what’s in the Bible. When you look at art—people like Michelangelo and Rembrandt—a lot of the subject matter is depicting stories from scripture. And that’s because scripture was pretty ubiquitous; it was source material most people were able to access. So they knew the stories. It was part of the cultural fabric growing up, even if you weren’t religious.
These days, as a pastor, I find that fewer and fewer people have read the Bible. That becomes troubling when it is the source material of the faith a person claims to embrace, yet they have not read it. It leaves a person in a position where they might invent a faith and call it “Biblical Christianity.” We see that happen all the time and it’s a problem.
But we also live in a time when people read constantly—I’d say this generation is reading more words a day than any other generation that’s ever lived, thanks to the screens in our pockets. Information comes to us in a way that is immediate, global, and free. One of the struggles, then, is that when you’re overwhelmed with content, you don’t read very deeply. You know a little bit about a lot. It’s like music—once downloading mp3s became popular, everybody’s iTunes library became full of records they got for free that they never listened to. The idea of having a free album is great, but the amount of time it takes to really get to know an album hasn’t changed.
Generally speaking, I think people talk about scripture a lot more than they actually read it. So I wanted to create a resource that would help Christians know the story of the Bible. I don’t deal a lot with poetry, the epistles, or the teaching portions; they’re there, but I fold them into the narrative. A great percentage of the Bible is narrative, Jesus taught with narrative, and stories are foundational to the human experience. We’ve been using stories to understand each other and ourselves since the beginning of time. It’s a Trojan horse for the truth. You can sneak truth by the gate if you share it in the form of stories. And Jesus says, “I tell parables that some will hear and some won’t.”
Scripture assumes that if you draw breath as a human being, the story is about you, whether you believe it or not. Russ Ramsey
Drew: Yeah, what do you make of that?
Russ: Well, there’s a place in one of the gospels where Jesus is praying, thanking the Father that the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven have been hidden from the educated and revealed to spiritual children, referring to his own disciples. He’s thanking God that this is the case: that the ability to comprehend what God is doing in the Kingdom is not something that only belongs to the upper echelon of society. So when Jesus tells stories and uses parables, one of the reasons he does that is to confound the teachers of the law who think they already understand everything.
There’s more of a human element to stories. You’re not just learning a lesson; you have to enter into something. That’s humanity’s relationship to God—it’s a story. We were made for relationship with him, that relationship was broken, and ever since, humanity has been crying out for redemption. We’ve known grief, the desire to hide, that gut-level feeling when someone dies, that death is an intruder—all of that plays out because we live our lives in need of being relationally connected to our Maker. That’s a story.
Drew: One thing that strikes me about the contrast between doctrine and story is that while there are plenty of psalms about cherishing God’s law, turning it over in your heart and meditating on it, I don’t think you can cherish God’s law the same way you can cherish his stories. There’s a certain overabundance to stories—my wife and I are currently reading through the Harry Potter series out loud to each other, and we both know the story very well, but there’s almost a greater pleasure in returning to it again and again than even in reading it for the first time.
Russ: The beauty of stories is that the reader changes over time. There are stories I loved in my twenties that I read with different eyes now, after having lived a whole bunch of life, experienced greater joys and greater sorrows. I see things I didn’t see before. The beauty of scripture is that you’ll never exhaust it. You’ll never understand all that is there to know. The hope is that we would be life-long students of God’s Word.
Drew: It strikes me that, funnily enough, the word “story” is kind of a buzzword right now. That’s definitely cause for celebration in some ways, but I’m also curious how you would navigate the advantages and disadvantages of story becoming such a cultural obsession. Big companies have started saying, “We need to tell a story with our product!” And of course, we’re being told stories all the time through advertising in ways that no one could have ever predicted.
Russ: The word itself is a big umbrella. It can mean a lot of different things. You don’t need to look much further than modern-day cinema. You could say that a movie like A River Runs Through It or Shawshank Redemption tells a story. You can say the same thing about a Transformer movie. It tells a story, too. But in each case we mean something totally different. Some stories exist to entertain; other stories are designed to lead to transactions. When a company says, “We need to tell a story,” everyone understands that the story is contrived, not inspired.
But scripture belongs to the category of story that is about the reader as much as it’s about anything else. Scripture assumes that if you draw breath as a human being, the story is about you, whether you believe it or not. The stories have so much heart, too—one of the things I love about the stories of scripture is how emotionally dense they can be in a time when writing was done in thrift. If something was written down and preserved, there weren’t a lot of stray words. It was a rare thing. So scripture is written in this kind of thrift, where emotional resonance is played out less in long description and more in little turns of phrases.
I think of a moment like when Sarah and Abraham are finding it difficult to have a kid, and Sarah says, “Go sleep with my maidservant, Hagar, and maybe we can have a son that way.” Sure enough, Hagar has Ishmael, and then Sarah hates Hagar and Ishmael for their very existence. Her words become flesh and live among her, and she hates it. So she sends Hagar and Ishmael away.
The passage says that once they were in the desert on their own, Hagar sat Ishmael down “a bowshot away” from her. That phrase, “a bowshot away,” carries astounding resonance. It could have said anything; it could have said “a stone’s throw” away. But what “a bowshot” means is that Hagar is setting Ishmael down to die and wrestling with the sense that she’s the one killing him. It’s a tragic moment, contained in one phrase. We’re supposed to hear that, stop, and imagine this distance between mother and child, the isolation and pain—it’s so rich. And those little details are all over the place.
Drew: One thing you mentioned earlier is this idea that so many stories are told to us for the purpose of leading us to a transaction. That’s a turn of phrase right there! I could sit with that all day and think of all the things it could mean.
At least personally, and I think I speak for many people, part of my own distance from scripture is a result of feeling like it has itself been treated as a story meant only to lead me to a transaction: the transaction of salvation in whatever way that gets distorted. And I’m not saying salvation can’t be a transaction; I think there is very powerful transactional language to be had there, but maybe it’s difficult to hear it in our culture since we’re constantly surrounded on all sides by insincere transaction.
Russ: The apostle John, at the end of his gospel, acknowledges that what he has written is transactional. He says, “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and by believing have life in his name.” That’s the transaction of the Bible. I think we go wrong when we say, “I want people to listen to my sermons, read my books, and attend my events.” Scripture is given for the purpose of us understanding who God is and having a relationship with him. That’s the transaction that matters. What John is saying through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is that this transaction is for you to know your Creator eternally.
Here in the West, in the Christianity of products and selling things, we can mistake what the transaction is about. If it’s about building an individual person’s brand, we’ve moved away from the ultimate reason why scripture matters in the first place. And it’s hard, because we live in a culture where it’s an important thing for Christians to make art and for that art to make its way into the hands of people. We’re contributing to the cultural conversation of our day and it’s vital that Christians are in that mix. But when that’s all it’s about—the number of units you move—we’ve gotten confused about why we’re doing it. You see it when you start to care about numbers: how many copies you sold, how many people came to your concert, how many likes you got on social media—
Drew: One word that keeps coming to my mind is the word “compel.” That word can carry two different meanings: you can be compelled to do something externally, and that’s more like coercion or manipulation, or you can be compelled inwardly as a partaker in art. There’s a compelling happening in every advertisement, maybe of the former kind, that’s loaded and trying to lead you somewhere for its own gain. In that case, there’s something at stake for the storyteller. There’s fear involved in having profit and influence at stake.
While the stories of scripture also compel us towards a transaction, it’s a compelling that has nothing to prove—there’s of course quite a lot at stake in the gospel, but not in a way that stems from insecurity or lack. The story itself is compelling because I am a human who draws breath.
Russ: You know, Mary Chapin Carpenter has a song on one of her older records called “John Doe No. 24.” It’s a true story about an old man who was found wandering around the banks of the Mississippi, I think in St. Louis. He had no memory of who he was, no identifying paperwork, and he couldn’t talk. So in the song, people find him and try to figure out who he is.
The story is told from his perspective and what he would say about his story if only he could.
The song is compelling because of what’s at stake: he knows his name, but he can’t spell it, he can’t say it, and he can’t write it down. He doesn’t know much of his own story, but he knows his name, and yet he can’t even share that. So they’ve named him “John Doe No. 24” and he lives in a house with a bunch of other people who need tending to. And the ache of the song is that his very identity is at stake.
That’s what’s at stake in scripture, too. We are wanderers in the cosmos asking, “Who am I? What’s the point of me being alive in this world?” And God’s saying, “Here’s the answer. The answer to who you are, what you were made for, your dignity, your worth, your desire to be in relationship with other people, that feeling in your gut when you see something beautiful that takes you by surprise.” It’s not a system to sign up for and join—it’s more like you’re wandering on the banks of this river and you don’t know who you are, but Jesus can tell you who you are.
Drew: The transaction of scripture grants freedom rather than takes it away.
Russ: That’s right. And it’s not for you to buy into another person’s gain. It’s for you to come home.