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An Interview with Russ Ramsey, Part 2: The Confounding Gospel

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 Gloryand 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. Here’s Part 2.

Drew: What’s the story on how you found yourself writing this book series?

Russ: Well, the Advent book was formerly called Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative. When we moved it over to InterVarsity Press, I had Behold the Lamb as well as Behold the King of Glory with CrossWay—which is the second book in this trilogy, now called The Passion of the King of Glory. And the third book is called The Mission of the Body of Christ.

The Advent of the Lamb of God consists of twenty-five chapters—so that you can read one for every day of December—that take you from Eden through the nativity story and the baptism of Jesus. And all these books were written in a storytelling voice; I never make “eye contact” with the reader, so to speak. It sticks to a “once upon a time” sort of voicing.

Drew: Yeah, I had been wondering about your choices with narrative voice.

Russ: Right—well, I wanted to tell a story. For the most part, I wanted to stay away from making application. There may be some application through the narrative, but what I don’t ever do is say, “Now, dear reader, the moral of the story is…” and so on. The Passion of the King of Glory is forty chapters so you can read one each day during Lent. It consists of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus: the four gospels synthesized into one narrative.

I had written Behold the Lamb of God and released it through Rabbit Room Press as a companion to Andrew Peterson’s record. If you’ve ever been to a Behold the Lamb show, the first half of the show is this collection of people on stage all telling the same story through their own art, then they come together later and join their voices. So what I wanted to do was add another voice to that mix in the long form of a book.

And of course, once I finished writing through the nativity, I realized that some of the best parts still lay ahead in the story of Jesus’s life, and that’s why I went on to write The Passion of the King of Glory. And then when I finished writing through the resurrection, I knew that I still wasn’t done with the narrative of scripture; there’s the post-resurrection appearances, the ascension, and the book of Acts.

I don’t know if you’re like me, but I’ve struggled to understand the narrative arc of the book of Acts. Like, I get that there are missionary journeys, but in terms of a cohesive sequence of what happened, I wanted to learn more and gain focus. So I researched it, brought in narrative components from the epistles—I think in Galatians, Paul talks about confronting Peter to his face—it’s not in the book of Acts, but you can piece together when it happened. Stuff like that, I put it all together to tell it again in a storyteller’s voice.

That book, The Mission of the Body of Christ, is thirty-one chapters to be read during any month you choose during Pentecost or Ordinary Time. And then when you put all three books together, you get a cohesive guide to the story of scripture from Eden to Rome. All the chapters are about the same length, between 1,500 and 2,000 words—relatively short, about eight pages. I’d love for them all to be in a single volume one day.

Drew: I didn’t realize The Passion of the King of Glory was a Lenten reading.

Russ: All these books have section headings, where I group chapters together into “eras.” In The Passion of the King of Glory, there are four or five different eras I grouped the chapters into, from the earliest part of Jesus’s ministry when he was virtually unknown until he becomes famous. I mean, it’s weird to think about Jesus being famous during his life. Look no further than passages about the crowds pressing in and thousands of people gathering to hear him, and you’ll see that he was the hottest ticket in town. And then he was rejected, and he went into hiding and left Galilee and went to Jerusalem and Judea and stayed there.

The last eleven or twelve chapters are then focused on Passion week.

There’s this phenomenon in scripture where with The Advent of the Lamb of God, so much of that story in the Bible is told from 30,000 feet. It’s about humanity’s longing for a Messiah and our continual rebellion. And then periodically, it zeroes down into “an angel visits Mary” or “there’s no room in the inn at Bethlehem.” Those little details come into focus to give you the story, but so much of it is rather lofty.

But with the Easter story, most of it is told in very granular detail. That’s one of the differences, then, between those two books—The Passion of the King of Glory is so detail-laden, by nature. So I really gave it the time to mine the details inherent in the gospels.

Drew: How would you describe the narrative tone of The Mission of the Body of Christ?

Russ: One of the things I loved about writing that book is that there’s this profound reminder that the story of scripture did not end with the resurrection of Jesus—it ends with the great commission, the sending out of people who would tell the story as Jesus’s ambassadors. In the gospels, there’s this moment in time where Jesus is on the scene: he’s leading, equipping his disciples, healing people, and teaching in the temple. And then, when he’s crucified, his disciples scatter and hide in fear.

And yet, when Jesus resurrects, he appears to them and tells them, “I want you to be my witnesses in the world.” So they haven’t failed him to the point of being disqualified, which is a beautiful thought to me. Peter, who swore to Jesus that he would die alongside him, ended up denying knowing him when he faced the questions of a girl next to a fire. He folded, he collapsed. Jesus uses his post-resurrection time to appear to people and invite them to tell the world about him. Part of the story they had to tell is that they are duplicitous, sinful people who failed him; but it is not by our strength that we go out and proclaim his name—it is by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So you see this Spirit at work in the book of Acts; people bear witness to Christ, they suffer so much and are rejected, but there are little victories along the way where hope comes into the picture like it never has before. One thing I love about that story is just how complicated it is. In a world that seems on its surface to be quite committed to rejecting Jesus perpetually, you somehow see so many places where these ordinary people who have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit just have to trust that what they have received is true and that God will prevail over the schemes of men.

We read through Western eyes, and we don't understand how radical the gospel was in bringing together people who were separated by culture: men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. The gospel bringing those people together is as radical a message of equality as the world has ever seen, and it was confounding—offensive—to people. But for those who believed, it became the very fabric of who they were. Russ Ramsey

I love learning how the Apostle Paul worked. We can read Paul as the guy who just wrote all these epistles, this teacher. But man, he was tenacious. He did things that were very confrontational and bold in the face of power.

One of my favorite stories from the book of Acts is when Paul and Silas are thrown in jail in Philippi. They were preaching the gospel and people instigated this riot against them, so they were publicly beaten and thrown into prison. That’s the night when the Lord opens the prison cell but they don’t leave, and the Philippian jailer becomes a Christian because sees them—he had thought everyone had fled, so he thought, “I’m going to die. My bosses will kill me for this, so I might as well kill myself.” But then Paul says, “No, we’re still here.”

What I love about that story is that Paul invokes his rights as a Roman citizen and says, “You did not give me what is required for a Roman citizen. You beat me publicly and arrested me without a trial.” And all of the sudden the magistrates and authorities have a tiger by the tail: they’ve got this guy in prison and they know they messed it up and that legally, they did the wrong thing. So the jailer comes to him and says, “The bosses say you can go.” But Paul says, “Nope. Not without an apology.” He sits down in his jail cell and says, “You tell your bosses to come to me and apologize, and then I’ll go.”

Paul is fighting for the Christians who will come after him. He is demanding that he be treated justly and he’s invoking the law of the land to do it. I love that story because he is risking so much by being what I’m sure his jailers would call unreasonable and belligerent. But he’s not—he’s being a Roman citizen. They’re the ones who messed it up. When he demands that they apologize to him, they actually do! And he was doing all that to fight for those who would come after him.

Drew: Which reminds me of the Philemon story, too.

Russ: Yeah! I wanted to start the book with a story that I felt encapsulated the implications of Jesus’s resurrection. If the heart of the story is that Christ is risen and we are his witnesses in the world, what’s the story in scripture that best represents the outworkings of all that?

I went to Philemon, because here’s a place where both a wealthy slaveholder and his runaway slave become believers because of the ministry of Paul. And it fundamentally changed who they are to each other. That was radical. They couldn’t have been more different in their social standing from one another. When you look at the details in Colossians and Acts, you learn that the church in Colossae met in Philemon, the slaveholder’s home. When Paul had the letter to the Colossian church delivered, he had it delivered with another letter, and that’s the one to Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus, who delivered the letter!

I mean, talk about drama: there was a moment in time when Onesimus the runaway slave was standing at Philemon’s door and he had on his person the letter to the Colossains and the letter to Philemon, about Onesimus, from Paul. It’s just so shrewd.

Drew: That’s mind-blowing.

Russ: It is! I mean, it changes everything. And Paul has a heavy hand in that letter—I’d love to do a piece on humor in scripture, because it’s never joke-y but it is ironic and dry.

Drew: Could you call it polemic, even?

Russ: Well, Paul says to Philemon about Onesimus, “He’s your runaway slave. He ran to me. I understand that he took some things from you when he left. Just put that on my tab. You know me—I’m the one who preached the gospel to you. So put on my tab whatever you think he owes you.”

It’s funny to me because there’s no way Philemon is going to actually take Paul up on that.

Drew: Of course—because Philemon owes Paul everything.

Russ: Yeah, that’s the beauty and humor of it. I love the confrontation of the gospel. I love that it caused Philemon and Onesimus to encounter each other again, not as slave and master, but as brothers.

We read through Western eyes, and we don’t understand how radical the gospel was in bringing together people who were separated by culture: men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. The gospel bringing those people together is as radical a message of equality as the world has ever seen, and it was confounding—offensive—to people. But for those who believed, it became the very fabric of who they were.


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