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The Bible and Me

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When I was three years old, my church awarded me with a bible for perfect attendance. It was a grown-up, King James Version, honest-to-God bible with only a couple pictures and with a place in the front to record births and marriages and deaths and with maps in the back. I was proud of it and carried it to church with me every Sunday. It said “Holy Bible” on the cover in gilt lettering, and the words of Jesus in the gospels were in red.

I couldn’t read.

I was no prodigy when it came to reading. My parents encouraged me, however, and I had a strong inner drive. I wanted to know things. I wanted to read folktales and encyclopedias and poems and newspapers and cereal boxes and recipes and catalogs and road signs and deodorant cans and essays and novels and magazines. I also wanted to read the bible. My parents bought me a collection of “I Can Read” books that went from The Cat in the Hat and Go, Dog, Go! to Cowboy Sam and The Whales Go By. They purchased a set of Collier encyclopedias, not just for me, of course, but for all of us children. I became an avid reader of books I could barely understand. When I was in third grade, I read Tarzan of the Apes. One of the characters, Professor Porter, kept exclaiming “Remarkable!” all the time. I remember trying to puzzle out what it meant. I knew what a mark was, and I decided that if something could be marked on, it must be markable. I also knew that “re-” signified repetition, so I concluded that “remarkable” referred to something that could be marked again and again. This bit of decoding work, as insightful and reasonable as it was, did not help. I asked my mom.

All these books came and went, but the bible was an absolute constant. We went to church every Sunday, and every Sunday there were stories from the bible, sermons based on the bible, people quoting the bible, and bible verses written on everything from the church bulletin to posters in the hallways. The bible must be a very important book. I tried my best to read it. I became as fluent in King James English as I was in American English. (I also consistently misspelled words that occurred frequently in King James English with the British spelling, words like “favor” and “Savior.” I spelled them with a superfluous “u.”) Over time, I found I could read and understand a good deal, although I had some peculiar misapprehensions. For example, I thought that when Jesus talked about “earthquakes in divers places” (Mark 13:8), it referred to underwater earthquakes.

Having been steeped in the King James Version bible for so long, I had much less difficulty than my peers in understanding Shakespeare. I was untroubled by the thees and thous and knew that “wherefore” meant “why” and not “where.” In high school I became a favorite with teachers because I evinced an interest in the philosophical ideas found in literature and history. Unlike most of my peers, I had a moral vocabulary, and I was articulate. When we read books like Lord of the Flies, besides being one of the few who actually read the book, I was also moved and engaged by it, so I contributed to class discussions not from any sense of duty or to get a good grade but because I was genuinely interested. Nothing warms a teacher’s heart more. My interest in moral philosophy stemmed directly from my nascent Christian faith and the time I spent reading and trying to understand the bible.

During my upper years in high school, more modern translations came into my purview. Some had been around for years, but the churches my family attended had regarded only the King James Version as authoritative. Two especially, however, the Amplified Bible and the New International Version, bore the imprimatur of evangelical scholars and began to be used in evangelical churches. The Amplified Bible helped me understand hard passages with in-text alternate renderings. What it lost in lyricism, it gained in a richness of meaning. The New International Version sought to render the text in present day vernacular English, incorporating years of scholarly research about ancient middle eastern cultures and people groups. Both translations deepened and broadened my understanding and appreciation of the bible. The Jesus Movement of the 1970s found even the NIV too staid and formal. Though many started with the Good News Translation, they quickly adopted the Living Bible Paraphrase when it came out. These sought to make the text as easy to understand and accessible as possible, a task at which they largely succeeded. The Living Bible has since been rewritten as a straight translation, bringing to bear the same kind of scholarly research that went into the NIV.

All of these translations and many more have gone into my reading, contemplation, and study of the bible over many years. Yet I am no bible scholar. I am just an ordinary man fascinated by a God whose limitless goodness and love I can barely grasp. I find traces of this God in the bible, but the genuine trust I have in him comes also from my experience of a relationship with him. The bedrock of this relationship is the knowledge that he loves me. Inconceivable as it seems, the God who dreamed up the universe with its myriad galaxies and unimaginably vast interstellar emptinesses takes a loving interest in me and how I live my life and behave toward others.

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Psalm 8:4 KJV

This God, whose very nature is love, is central to my understanding of the world and life itself. Therefore, the claims of those who deny his existence are as ludicrous to me as would be the claims of hypothetical persons who would seek to deny the existence of my wife. It is true that I can point to my wife and say, “Look! She’s right there.” I cannot do that with God. In fact, that is something he has specifically prohibited. What I can do is something far more terrifying. I can point to myself and say, “Look! He’s right here.” For he lives in me. This terrifies me because it entails a responsibility to act in the world as his ambassador, bearing his message of peace and reconciliation to anyone who will listen. He requires me to love as he loves. His love drove him to incarnation and the cross. Where might it drive me? So I live before him in fear and trembling, not at his wrath, for the sacrifice of Jesus has already turned that away, but at the terrible weight of the glory of bearing his image in my own broken being. Yet this is a weight he himself helps me to bear. So I press on as well as I can, declaring God’s goodness to an angry and rebellious world. To anyone who listens he promises life, but though he grieves for those who refuse him, he lets them exercise their freedom to go their own way.

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sex Shakespeare

Much Ado About Something

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Ten years ago when my daughter, Claire, was in the second grade, her teacher asked all the students to tell what was there favorite movie. There were all the usual suspects from Disney such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. There were a few who preferred Pixar’s Toy Story. There were one or two who improbably liked Titanic. And there was Claire, who declared that her favorite film was Much Ado About Nothing. Her teacher was surprised. A second-grader whose favorite film was based on a play by William Shakespeare?

In truth we had very few films on VHS in those days, and Much Ado About Nothing was a family favorite. It was so exuberant, so spirited, and the music was entrancing. For Claire, it was also a puzzle, and she loved working on it, trying to understand it more and more.

For those who have not seen it, here is a brief synopsis.

Claudio, newly returned from war, falls in love with Hero, only daughter and heir of Leonato, a gentleman with a respectable fortune. Because he is shy, he agrees to let the Duke woo Hero on his behalf. Meanwhile, the Duke’s brother, Don John, plots to ruin the wedding because he hates his brother, to whom Claudio is like a right hand. Don John conspires with one of his retainers to deceive Claudio and the Duke into believing that Hero is unfaithful. Claudio makes a scene at the altar, publicly exposing and rejecting Hero, who faints from shame and injured innocence. The friar, who was to officiate at the wedding, persuades Leonato to let it be known that Hero died from the unjust accusation. The deception eventually comes to light, and Claudio is properly filled with remorse and agrees to marry Leonato’s niece as recompense. Hero appears veiled as the supposed niece and marries Claudio, and everyone is happy.  There is also a side romance between Benedick and Beatrice which overtakes the main story and makes it much funnier.

There was much ado about nothing because the whole story of Hero’s unfaithfulness was completely fabricated. But Shakespeare seems to be winking slyly at us and suggesting that all the hoopla about whether Hero is really a virgin is also about nothing. Claudio’s failing is his jealousy. It leads him to act without mercy toward Hero, whom he had declared he loved.

Let’s contrast Claudio’s behavior to Joseph’s in the well-known Christmas story. In Shakespeare’s day the stories of the New Testament were as familiar as the latest escapades of Brad and Angelina in ours. Everyone knew the story of Christ’s birth in minute detail. In particular they knew how Joseph, hearing that Mary was pregnant, decided to break off their engagement quietly so as not to expose Mary to public disgrace. Joseph had every reason to suppose that Mary was unfaithful and certainly no virgin, indeed, more reason than Claudio had. But he was merciful and considerate. Though he would not marry her, he also would not shame her. Joseph, therefore, became a model to Christian men for handling infidelity.

Claudio’s ruthless exposure of Hero reveals his own pride. Even supposing Hero really was unfaithful, how had she injured Claudio? His injury should have been private. In choosing to make it public, he exposed his own vanity. The enormity of the injury done to him was not in the betrayal of his trust or an intrusion upon his intimacy with Hero. It was that he might acquire the reputation of a cuckold. He cared more about how he appeared to others than he cared about Hero. She shows herself more gracious and forgiving in the end by accepting him after he had so wronged her.

This pride in possessing a virgin occurs throughout the world. It is universally human. Every man wants to marry a virgin, wants the woman he loves to be his and his alone. Nowadays, when it seems impossible that any woman of marriageable age is still a virgin, men try to content themselves with wanting fidelity for the time being. As long as they are both still in love, the man expects complete faithfulness even though he himself may have occasional lapses.

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