Essentially something oblong

The beginning of a beautiful friendship

Derby Cathedral, 4 May 2014 (Easter 3), on this reading

Opening the scriptures. ‘He was opening the scriptures to us.’

There was a novelist once who had just published a novel and who therefore had been sent on tour by her publishers, to turn up at bookshops and give a talk and sign copies of her new novel. She gave her talk. It was wise and succinct and slightly unexpected, like her books. After the talk, there was the opportunity for questions. Someone stood up to ask a question. He was a tall thin young man, draped dramatically in a big dark arty coat. The novelist was a short solid elderly woman who contrived to make whatever she was wearing look slightly dishevelled. The young man asked his question. He said: ‘Mrs Fitzgerald’ – the novelist was Penelope Fitzgerald – ‘Mrs Fitzgerald, could you tell us how you think of The Novel?’ He asked it like that, as if The Novel had capital letters. The novel as such. Not this particular novel you happen to have written. The Novel, once and for all.

There was quite a long pause.

After the pause, Mrs Fitzgerald, having thought about it, answered the question. She said that she thought of the novel as, essentially, something oblong.

She went on to say that she was thinking of the novel as the published book. As the book which turned from an idea to a few scribbled notes, to a pile of manuscript pages, and in the end to a neat, printed, bound and nicely decorated object – an oblong object – which people would buy, and take home, and stick in their pockets, and read on the bus and in the bath and over breakfast. She was thinking, she said, when she wrote, about the book as something crafted. A story, but a story that arrives in a convenient oblong form, so that you can read it or you can use it to prop up the leg of a wobbly table. Or both, in fact, but not at the same time. It was an answer that completely deflated the tall artistic young man, which I rather enjoyed, but she wasn’t saying it to be sarcastic. It is a very interesting and complex answer. She was thinking about the book as something that is unlimited and limited, both at once. The endless infinite possibilities of the story, and the concrete solidity of the published book. The novelist has to get the story into the book.

Opening the scriptures is the reverse. Opening the scriptures is finding the story in the book and letting it out.

Think about the Bible as a book. Not the Bible as such, not the Bible once and for all, an actual Bible. The one you last read. The one you last saw, the book of the Gospels that was carried in procession, in all its oblongness. The big Bible on the eagle lectern. The little paperback Bibles you can find in the bookshop across the road, whole Bibles or the New Testament or just single books. The way we know the Bible is as a book. Concrete, solid and fixed.

Not necessarily oblong. It used to be a scroll, or a collection of scrolls. Now it’s often an electronic text scrolling past. That makes some difference: you can’t prop up a wobbly table with a scroll and it would be sensible not to read your electronic device in the bath. But it’s still clearly marked out: this is the Bible, that isn’t.

But the story of the Bible is not the same as the book. The best way to see that, I think, is to look at the way the Gospels end. The Gospel of Mark stops almost in mid-sentence as the women run away in fear from the empty tomb ‘and say nothing to anyone’, says Mark, inviting the question of how he knows about it, and thus inviting the reader to remember everything that’s happened since Mark’s last sentence stops so abruptly. The Gospel of Matthew ends with the disciples being sent out into the whole world. The Gospel of John says that there are many other things Jesus did, besides the ones in this Gospel, so many that if every one of them were written down the world itself could not hold all those books. The Gospel of Luke ends with the disciples hanging around in Jerusalem waiting to be clothed with power from on high. In short, none of them ends. The Gospel of Luke, indeed, has a sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, and that just carries on and on telling a story that doesn’t seem to intend to stop at all.

The endless infinite possibilities of the story, and the concrete solidity of the published book. The book is the book, but the book can’t quite domesticate the story – not if there’s any life in the story at all.  A novelist has to get the story into the book somehow. But the Bible, which is both one book and many books, is telling a story that constantly escapes from the limits of the book and carries on. We are familiar with it as a book. We tend to use it as a book, quoting a bit here, skipping a bit there, re-reading our favourite bits. That is not opening the scriptures. What we have to do is to find the way to get the story out of the book. Because it’s our story.

This Gospel, the disciples walking to Emmaus, is the story of that escape. It is the equivalent, in the Gospels, of the moment in the film when the prisoners work out the gap between the sentries patrolling the fence. When the identity papers get slipped into your hand as you wait in the canteen queue. When the tunnel breaks the surface on the other side. It is the moment that sets the story free.

Cleopas and his friend know everything, but they don’t know the story. They know the scriptures, the law and the prophets. They know about Jesus. They know what happened in Jerusalem during the Passover. They know that Jesus was crucified. They know that the women found the tomb empty and saw a vision of angels and heard that Jesus was alive. They know some people who went along to the tomb after that and said yes, it does seem to be empty. There is nothing they do not know. If you like, they are perfectly familiar with the book: but they don’t know the story. They know it only as a collection of facts, reports, bits and pieces. And that’s how it stays until they understand it through Jesus. Until they see it through Jesus. Until Jesus takes the bread, and blesses and breaks it and gives it to them. Then their eyes were opened.

If we take this story seriously – and I would – I would have it as the preface to any Bible, as a reminder – we must say: We learn the story of the Bible through Jesus. Not the other way around. We learn the story of the Bible through Jesus, and unless we do, it will stay tidily inside the covers of the book. But when we do, when we hear the Word as we receive the bread, broken open in our lives, and blessed, and shared, the story God is telling becomes alive in us; and we are set free.

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