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A New Approach to Reading and Interpreting the New Testament

A famous poet, William Wordsworth defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I wonder if it might be productive to apply that notion to our interpretation of the New Testament. This approach, this perhaps at-first-alarming approach, came to me one recent morning in church, as I was listening to our preacher interpreting an early episode from Acts (1.6 – 14). The story “Luke” tells begins with the Ascension witnessed by the apostles and concludes with them in prayer, awaiting the moment that would become, in the next week’s reading, the Pentecost. In that feast, we celebrate the confirmation of the evangelical mission promised after Christ’s ascent. It was my first idea that we can either be literalists and take the story as a factual report of witnessed miracles, or we can be more “scholarly” and rational and treat it as literature.

The first way, as I approached the matter, would allow us to stand in awe of the miraculous (the Ascension) followed by the (apparently) angelic instruction on the group’s preaching destiny, confirming Christ’s promise. The second method, more disinterested and analytical, would encourage a more tranquil re-examination of that miraculous surface. We can come at those wonderful but impossible events as the product of many years of reflection (and perhaps sentimental but unfocused rituals) by the early church about its purpose and mission. But what came to me, crystal clear, as I thought it through, was the revelatory humble query: Why not both?

One of the blessings modern interpretive scholarship provides is a recognition that, while we can read Acts as “early church news,” literally, the “fact” is that the collection of reports are a product of several generations’ reflective thought and observation, well after the fact. Their evolving understanding of the church’s mission grew during a prolonged mood of deeply spiritual tranquility. That felt experience of a calling to tell the good news delivered by those angelic creatures, was in fact a literary and artistic expression of the group’s gradual discovery of its mission. That sense of purpose was acquired, slowly and accretively, from experiences encountered and insights passed down over a generation or more after their founder’s execution. The creation of what became the early church was a work in progress. (Indeed, this modern secularist would argue, it still is.)

Once that goal became clearer, Luke sat down to commit those “recollected” moments to paper and express them in powerfully poetic or at least metaphorical form. To convey powerfully the discovery of that mission demanded a vibrant metaphorical reinterpretation. Luke’s invented story of the Ascension and the ten days that followed it captures, in collapsed and nearly instantaneous form, the psychological and historical experience that transpired across those forty or more years. We read the dynamic event on the page, and experience it “poetically” as if it is a live report. It seeks to return to emotional form a gradually accumulating insight produced by many years’ thoughtful (but enthusiastic) reflection.

This opens the way for a double act of encounter and analysis—first of the story as it seems to play out on the pages called “Acts” but secondly, and more profoundly, the more deeply understood analysis of the movement’s gradual evolution “on earth.” We can analyze both either separately or–more profitably both spiritually and intellectually–as a fused dual experience that appeals to both mind and imagination.

* * * *

A more traditional sermon might choose to treat the story as a reported fact and glory in the remarkable fact of an Ascension. Faithful readers and listeners in the pews might find the story literally incredible, but we have grown so used to the story as part and parcel of Christian doctrine that we rarely raise an eyebrow. But reason works in the same grooves as scholarship. Common sense tells us that such an event was literally impossible, especially when we notice its non-appearance in any of the four approved gospels that deal with the post-Resurrection Christ. If all four gospels repeated it, it could be fairly called a miracle. That it is a single event suggests an imaginative and fictional act of invention—no less “true,” but in no way factual.

Approaching the story, with these handy 2-D glasses of ours, offers, we now appreciate, wondrous opportunities. We can, as always, revel in the prophecy and in the miraculous nature of its commission. The intervention of, and the elucidation by, the two men in white reinforces that divine element. While we see the apostles losing Christ’s physical presence, we receive, as compensation from these designated messengers, the confirmation of a global mission. The event Luke creates parallels the comparably mystical appearance of the herald angels to the shepherds in his gospel’s birth narrative (a story no doubt in circulation in the new “church.”) That parallel suggests that the apostles—the remaining eleven—will be the new shepherds for a growing flock of the faithful. While these constitute a more prosaic and sober pair, as befitting the worldly work they are commissioning, the messengers (Aramaic for “angels”) assign, as endless homework for the new set of shepherds, not just a quick night’s walk into a stable in nearby Bethlehem but a lifelong journey “to Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria and to the world.” (Acts)

What we have there of course is historical fact entering the story. Written in the faith’s 50th or 60th year, the account of the two men’s divine command reflects historical fact and institutional development. By preceding it with Christ’s forty days on earth and their angelic prophecy, Luke does yeoman propaganda service for the early, formative, Church which was trying to lend its mission divine sanction. The created story achieves several things. First and most crucially, it grants the newly formed church greater legitimacy, proclaiming and affirming that Jesus devoted forty days of his post- Resurrection life to guiding his followers onto a particular evangelical path. (Those forty days stand for two or more generations of wrestling with and coming to perceive a proper mission.)

John employs a similarly powerful validating event: the story of the doubting Thomas. The church as it reached out in its first proselytizing years, and all the more after the sack of Jerusalem in 70, had to start dealing with a new spectrum of communities who had never known or met Jesus. That Church needed a story that would speak to them, a story that would be palatable and indeed eye-opening to those instinctively skeptical newcomers the new church was encountering. (Possibly welcome to part of the Jewish community who might for safety’s sake have been seeking another worship community.) It had to make the case to those who could, metaphorically speaking, no longer see the print of the nails in Christ’s hands. The new church demands faith, now that the physical reality is no longer confirmable by the naked eye.

John invents Thomas as a type for this new audience. Luke confirms that even Jesus silently admits that the “restoration of the kingdom of Israel” is not coming soon. By putting the words in Christ’s mouth, it is as much as a heavenly admission that his church must, like Huck on our young frontier, light out for new Territory. He announces the appearance of the Holy Spirit to guide the new evangelical mission, one that perhaps differed radically from the one Peter and the first apostles had in mind for the New Way their executed leader had both enunciated.

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