Thomas Merton offers a helpful perspective on the relationship between informational and formational approaches to scripture. An adequate grasp of the biblical text, he says, “requires two levels of understanding: first, a preliminary unraveling of the meaning of the texts themselves… which is mainly a matter of knowledge acquired by study; then a deeper level, a living insight which grows out of personal involvement and relatedness.… Only on this second level is the Bible really grasped.” For Merton, the task of acquiring information is simply the “front porch” of spiritual reading.
–Thompson, Marjorie, J.
Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life
Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2014), p. 21
The further I progress on my spiritual journey, the more I see the truth of Merton’s notion of two levels of understanding—grounded first in a head encounter of the Scriptures… and, then, a deeper, heart appropriation of those Scriptures. (I recall a line from Tennessee William’s Glass Menagerie—something along the lines that “the longest journey is that from the head to the heart.”)
However, while contemplation (or “heart engagement”) may be crucial to our coming home to Jesus in the Gospels and the Scriptures, there can be no belittling the essential place of [mindful] study as the “entry way.”
A failure, I believe, to encounter the real Jesus on the “front porch” can lead to all sorts of dislocation further in. Here, it’s crucial to understand that Jesus was a Jew—operating in a collective society in which issues of honor and shame prevailed. This is to say that Jesus was not a 21st Century westerner. I’ve shared elsewhere about how Jesus observed the Last Supper—in defiance of our western notions epitomized by DaVinci’s rendering. (In that same post, I commended an article on what the real Jesus looked like—a startling contrast for many to the standard “Hollywood Jesus” we imagine.) To not have some command of these realities (and so many others) is to arrive at a wrong address… and encounter an imposter Jesus, an imitation Gospel.
All the more reason for my excitement about a 10-week, self-paced online course which I will be facilitating via BeADisciple.com (the web presence of the Richard and Julia Wilke Institute of Discipleship). Gleaning especially from my studies and work with Biblical Archaeologist and scholar and mentor, Jim Fleming, my hope is to give you a glimpse of the Holy Land… and a fuller portrait of Jesus in his 1st Century, Jewish context. Fleming calls it the “fifth gospel”—explorations in the ways that considerations of geography and cultural manners/ customs of Jesus day inform our engagement of the Gospels proper.
“A Survey of the Life of Jesus” launches on Monday, September 16 (and continues through Friday, November 22). For more information or to register, go to: https://www.beadisciple.com/online-christian-courses/ifd234-a-survey-of-the-life-of-jesus/ (No books to buy, by the way—though I will be conveying suggested, further readings… and providing a host of downloadable resources each week.)
Reviewing what I’ve written, I want to address a certain cockiness which I detect. Do I think I am in possession of the “real” Jesus as a I lead this study? Of course not!
Here, I am mindful of what I tell folks after we’ve compared a picture of “Hollywood Jesus” with the rendering created by Forensics anthropologist, Richard Neaves. (see photos, right… see also, article about Neaves reconstruction and the scholarly basis for it by clicking here)
“Is this what Jesus looked like?” I ask folks, pointing to the rendering by Neaves.
“Of course not!” I continue. “But, I will tell you that I am convinced that Jesus looked a whole lot more like this than he did our typical Hollywood renderings!”
Ever and always, you see, there’s the need to rescue Jesus and the Gospels from what Ken Bailey has called “the obscurity of the familiar”—the ways Jesus can be missed amidst our preferred ways of engaging him. Such is my hope in this course: engaging a more real Jesus on the front porch—as an entry into deeper, fuller contemplations in our hearts.