Excerpt from Approaching the Gospels Together by Mary Morrison, 1986
How to approach the Gospels? Sometimes it seems as if there were no approach left open, “what they are said to have said” stands so impenetrably in the way. So many voices have said so much about them that our ears are deafened. So many eyes have looked at them that our eyes slide over the pages as if they were slippery.
“Sometimes it seems as if there were no approach left open,
‘what they are said to have said’ stands so impenetrably in the way.”
They have become a lip-service part of our culture, deadened for us before they had any chance to be alive. The worst part of it is that we don’t even know what happened. We only know that our feeling about them, if we are honest enough to admit it, is a blank, undifferentiated boredom. We can be persuaded to approach them as a duty; but we cannot even hear someone who tries to tell us that they are interesting. And if some brave soul tries to tell us that they are life-giving, then we hear the same old gospel-revival language that we are already immunized against, and we tune it out automatically.
“We got the answers before we asked the questions; and now that we are asking the questions, the Gospels are almost the last place where we would think of turning for any answers.”
The Gospels are merely Holy Writ; how can they possibly bring us any good news? What can they possibly say to us that they haven’t already said when we were reluctant attenders at First Day school, or taking religion courses in college?
We got the answers before we asked the questions; and now that we are asking the questions, the Gospels are almost the last place where we would think of turning for any answers.
What to do?
Jesus generally dealt with the crowds who gathered around him by telling them stories. Not by laying down laws or answering questions or explaining things; just telling them stories.
So we might try approaching the Gospel first of all as if it were a story. We might try reading it as we read a novel, a really good novel, the kind we give our full attention to and expect to get a great deal of.
What goes into reading a novel? We bring to it what Coleridge called “a willing suspension of disbelief.” That is, we are not checking it out analytically against standards other than its own… we give a novel the latitude it needs to say in its own chosen way what it wants to say to us. We enter its world, and let that world be slowly, gradually created around us, beginning with the first sentence of the first chapter. We interact with it.
“We might try reading it as we read a novel… we give a novel the latitude it needs to say in its own chosen way what it wants to say to us. We enter its world…”
Suppose, for instance, we open a novel and it begins, “Harry walked down the snowy street, looking in the shop windows.” Immediately the questions begin. Who’s Harry? Where is he? In a city? Maybe. Clearly not open country, anyway. When is all this? Winter? What century?
“Immediately the questions begin…”
So we read on, carrying our questions with us… we begin to learn a little more about who he is; and we read on, asking more questions and finding more answers.
Now for the opening of Mark’s account: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Here it is, Holy Writ, and immediately our minds go blank and all questions cease.
We’ve heard it before, and we know the answers.
But do we really?
Suppose we read it as if for the first time, and as if it were a novel about Harry. Questions break out. Who’s Jesus? Is “Christ” a title, or his last name? What on earth does it mean to call him Son of God, and in capitals at that? What’s this word “gospel” that we never meet anywhere but here, and therefore (if we are reading as if for the first time) have never met before? Suddenly we realize that in that whole introductory sentence there is only one word that we understand: “beginning.”