Reading a gospel like a newspaper

I’ve been trying for many years now to give up a bad habit. It’s hard. I read the gospels as if they were newspaper accounts. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to. Do you suppose there is a 12-step program for me?

Part of the difficulty I am having is that I am just trying to not do something. It is hard to not do something. As everybody knows, and as I remember from time to time, it is much more effective to do something else. I am so committed to action B that I just don’t have time for action A. [1] It follows, then, that I would be better off committing myself to reading the gospels in some other way, replacing the journalistic presuppositions with some other kind, some better kind.

The problem of journalistic assumptions

Of the many problems I have with the presuppositions of journalism, probably the worstjournalism 1 is that it directs my attention to the wrong place. Let’s take Matthew’s interest in Jesus as a player in the cosmic drama, for example.

The wise men saw the star at its rising and realized that a new king of the Jews had been born. What sort of statement is that? Is it like NASA announcing that it has discovered a new planet? Nope, it’s not like that at all. There is no value in dispatching astrophysicists to identify what that “star” might have been or what kind of cosmic event could have been mistaken for a star. You would be better off going to a local astrologer, who would begin with the presupposition that it is the meaning, not the fact, of a heavenly body that makes it interesting to us.

And at the end of that same gospel, Matthew ties a whole host of cosmic events into the death of Jesus. Here is a list from Matthew 27.

51And suddenly, the veil of the Sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, the rocks were split, 52the tombs opened and the bodies of many holy people rose from the dead, 53 and these, after his resurrection, came out of the tombs, entered the holy city and appeared to a number of people. [2]

In the journalistic mode, we could turn first, as in the star the Wise Men saw, to what, when, where, who, and why. Was there an earthquake? Why? How does Matthew know about it? Did the tombs open? How? Could the witnesses these “holy people” appeared to testify to what they saw? How is it that Matthew know about this event when Mark, Luke, and John don’t? The presuppositions of journalism push us in that direction, certainly.

journalism 5Or we could say about Matthew, “There he goes again.” There is no way, we might say, that Matthew is going to preach about the death of Jesus without a host of cosmic phenomena. [4] There is no value at all in asking why Matthew is interested in the cosmic dimension of the Christ. We might ask where he gets the accounts he passes along. He wasn’t there. This isn’t an eyewitness account. Where does he get it?

From several places, it turns out. The earthquake comes from Joel 2:10. The rocks being split from Nahum 1:5-6. The tombs opened from Ezekiel 37: 12, 13. The holy people coming out of their tombs comes, probably, from Daniel 12:2.

How shall we understand these descriptions? Are they “events?” No, they are not events; they are kinds of events. Matthew is highlighting for us the category of events into which these particular events fall. They are eschatological events, events that signal the end of the world. Brown (see footnote 4) summarizes this way:  “this popular, poetic description is deliberately vague—its forte is atmosphere, not details.”

So if I am trying to catch the story Matthew is trying to tell me, I need to start at the right place, which is that the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth are cosmic events. There are physical corroborations of the events in this man’s life and death, as the birth (star) and death (terrestrial phenomena) show. That is the right place for my attention to be directed and imagining that this is a journalistic account are going to put my attention elsewhere.

So what can I use as a metaphor to keep me away from (back)sliding into reading the gospels as if they were newspaper accounts. If they aren’t newspaper accounts, what are they? I have two candidates: they are sermons and/or they are narratives.

It’s a sermon

I’ve tried to think of each gospel as a sermon. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are guest preachers, filling the pulpit on their appointed Sundays. Each preaches a certain kind of sermon, a sermon emphasizing something about the life and ministry of Jesus.

Their accounts come from the traditions they have access to, but there are a lot more stories than they can use. That’s a problem. And there are real needs in the congregation for which there are no stories. That’s another problem

The evangelists solve the first problem by choosing the stories that say, about Jesus, what journalism 4each thinks most needs to be said. The second problem is more difficult. If I am preaching and the tools I have in my tool kit are my collection of Jesus stories and the needs of the congregation are not clearly addressed by any Jesus stories I have…then what I really need is a new Jesus story.  The picture is President M. Craig Barnes of Princeton Theological Seminary, who is probably the best preacher it has ever been my pleasure to hear.

It is that problem that has forced me to get familiar with the adjective forms of the names of the evangelists. So something that has to do with Mark, is Marcan; if it relates to Matthew, it is Matthean; to Luke, it is Lukan; and to John, it is Johannine. Using those adjectives, I can say “the Johannine Jesus” instead of “the Jesus who is represented in the account John gives us,” which could be said every now and then, but which is too bulky for regular use.

So how is it that the Johannine Jesus—see how neat that is?—says this in Chapter 16?

2They will expel you from the synagogues, and indeed the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy service to God.

Following the “my stock in trade is Jesus stories” metaphor, we can say that John is preaching to a church where the separation from the synagogue is actually going on. There aren’t any Jesus stories that tell the church what to do in a situation several generations removed from the public ministry of Jesus, so you make a Jesus pronouncement that applies to the situation your congregation is facing, post-date it to the time of the ministry, and put it in the future tense as if it were a prediction.

For John, considered as a guest preacher, that is a solution. He is quite sure he knows what the Jesus of his tradition would have said, so he said that Jesus said that. For me, as someone who is trying to imagine how to read the gospels outside the presuppositions of the journalistic mode, it is also a solution. Seeing the gospel as an anthology of sermons puts me on a new road entirely. [5]

This is a solution to the problem of sliding helplessly back into reading the gospels as if they were newspaper accounts. The solution is to find another metaphor, one that precludes those old journalistic bad habits, and then to work very deliberately on the new metaphor. The new metaphor is that the gospels are collections of sermons, some on the “remembered” end of the scale, and some on the “adapted” end.

It’s a narrative

I liked what Arlie Russell Hochschild, in Strangers in Their Own Land, called “a deep story.” [2] The deep story is a way to organize your perceptions of your own life or of the life of your group. The story provides the categories so that the experiences you have are not just “events,” they are instances.  This story isn’t “true” at the level of replicable events; it is “true” in that it correctly names the categories you are using to understand your life.

journalism 2Reading the gospels as narratives, I focus on the art of the narrator. I pay a lot of attention to the dialogical style of Jesus in John. When I read about Jesus’s interaction with Nicodemus in Chapter 3 as if it were taken down by a court reporter, it sounds like an inquisition. Nicodemus is a hapless tool and Jesus embarrasses him whichever way he turns. [6]  When I read that same text as an example of a format John uses—and into which he puts Jesus—in order to raise and highlight questions that would not be available for consideration otherwise, I can read it differently. John is writing both parts (the Jesus in John’s writing and the Nicodemus in John’s writing are two halves of a set dialogue) and he is writing them so that his goal as a narrator will be successfully reached.

When I see that Matthew has apparently grouped his collection of Jesus stories into five big books, each composed partly of a discourse of Jesus and partly of a narrative of the actions of Jesus, I can see a parallel to the Pentateuch, the five big books of Moses. Within each of these “books” there is a thematic grouping that makes no sense at all as a newspaper account, but that makes perfect sense as an artistic narrative.

When I read Matthew’s account of the events, described above, that accompanied Jesus’ death on the cross, I can read them in a journalistic mode—how big an earthquake, why a three hour eclipse, who saw the dead people coming into Jerusalem?—or I an focus on what Matthew is trying to tell me. He is saying that the cosmos took account of the death of Jesus, just as it did of his birth. It is a matter, as Brown says, of “atmosphere, not of details.”


I think either of these solutions would work for me. They give me a focus, something to work on, that is not journalism. If I am working hard enough on seeing the text as a narrative, I shouldn’t be backsliding into reading it like a newspaper. [7] So I think this is my 12 Step program and if I work on it hard enough and if I treasure the others who are trying, as I am, not to go back to the old habits, I might be successful.

[1] There are lots of ways to express that. My choice of “time” was just a convenience. You could replace action B because you are committed to the value of action A because you thought A was morally superior or more technically effective or for any other reason you might have a preference.
[2] From the New Jerusalem Bible
[3] In most settings, “deep story” would be called a myth, but myth has now taken on the primary meaning of “not true,” rather than fundamentally true.
[4] Raymond E. Brown in The Death of the Messiah, calls these “The Four Terrestrial Phenomena,” see pp. 1120—1133.
[5] It is possible that this new road doesn’t actually go anywhere, but it is NOT that other road, certainly, and it doesn’t to anywhere, I will have to turn around—that’s why they have a word like metanoia, which means “to change your mind”—and come back.

[6]  And being a nice sort of person myself, I wince on Nicodemus’s behalf and learn to resent the Jesus I have experienced in that court reporter mode.

[7] Except, of course, for all those things I learned in newspaper mode over the course of a long life of Bible study. Those aren’t all going to change, magically, now that I am driving down a different road. They are still what they were when I first leaned them and I am going to stumble on them from time to time and be embarrassed.



About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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