Chapter 8: Reading the Gospels Again

Sitting on the concrete curb outside of a storefront in a seedier area of the city I pondered what the words Corinth Cure Centre, scrawled on the window, might mean to passers-by. Even if I presumed that some might have known about the ancient city of Corinth, what kind of cure would this drop-in offer? What procedures, techniques, philosophy or medicine would be prescribed? What diseases would be healed?

My friend Jack had used up his severance pay and rented this little establishment in the belief that he could meet the needs of inner city people by founding this mission. It was done in faith and was a rather well intentioned, keen-but-clueless effort that lasted about one month.

Little did I know that several years later, with only slightly more planning and research, I would be sitting within a similar storefront, two streets over from Jack’s place. My outfit was called Christian Resource Centre, the window facing the street said as much. A logo based on a cartoon character with his arm around another grieving person suggested an empathetic ear and a supportive presence. This was my initial understanding of the gospel cure.

Burdenbearers2

I wanted to share the good news that people could care for one another even in the direst of circumstances and in the saddest of predicaments. My template, like Jack’s, was based on an ancient prescription derived from four gospel stories. Marcus Borg would call these four gospels our foundational narratives. For seventeen years I pondered these four stories and sought to form a community that was story-shaped enough to have an effect on those who dropped in.

First, I thought I had to learn to get the story straight before I could get it out into the street to affect its cure. I didn’t anticipate that it would take as long as it did to get a handle on the curative tale. My first mistake was to read the gospels as one story. What I did was collapse not only the four biblical accounts into one harmonious story but also I didn’t take enough time to learn about the original setting and how a new reading required translating the Bible in light of our modern life.

These stories indeed did affect lives, strengthened people’s character, increased their empathy for one another, liberated them from destructive patterns and substances and created a community. I spent these years witnessing all sorts of cures but only slowly did I realize the depth and scope of those four foundational accounts. I now know that I was wrong. I couldn’t get the story straight and then proceed to let them loose in the streets. The stories need to be let loose first. It was these narratives that changed us even before we fully understood them.

As we lived the story our understandings increased. The various teachings, prayers, songs, and events became templates through which we read ourselves. When we deviated from the foundation narratives we all slipped back into darker spaces, more lonely, more constrained and more addictive and destructive.

In order to translate these stories we learned from others who studied them. Marcus Borg’s chapter on reading the Gospels consolidates many of the lessons we learned about the gospels over the years. To translate the gospel we needed to acknowledge that the primal narrative was flexible, dynamic, and elastic enough to meet the needs of a plurality of communities. Reading these four stories as one flattened story screened out the nuances of each author and each community it was addressed to. Becoming aware of the uniqueness of each narrative we came to appreciate that at different times one gospel meets our needs more than others.
Borg’s chapter mentions that the gospel stories can be used to understand both the historical Jesus and the canonical Jesus. We came to appreciate the early Jesus-Movement and Jesus of Nazareth’s role as prophet and teacher within it. The life of this unique individual studied historically drew out his healing touch, radical justice and religious piety.

But it is the canonical Jesus, the Jesus the Post-Easter community came to call “Lord” who is rightfully called Messiah and Son of God. God’s revelation in the human face of a resurrected Jesus became the very power that was let loose in Galilee and in our own inner city community and recently in our house church.

As in Mark’s version this living presence informs us of our need to repent and the way we should follow. Matthew’s story reminds us that to be liberated is to be led by Jesus as a new Moses under a new set of commands that are love perfected. Luke tells us it takes more than human effort to follow the Jesus way; the Spirit is needed and will empower even the weakest and marginal of us. When full of the Spirit we have one mind and can speak a universal language spoken by all who have allowed God to fill them. John turns history and spirituality upside down and reveals how much the gospel can mean, how expansive its vision, how polyvalent its images and symbols. There is enough in John’s version to feed us spiritually forever, to satiate our deepest cravings and deepen our love for one another. These four tales are as Borg says the most important stories we know and the basis upon which the grace of transformation is actualized.