January 10, 2008
Life Verses Versus Living Verses
I still remember the first passage of Scripture that compelled me to take notes as I read: "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough worries of its own" (Matthew 6:34). I liked it because of the implicit paradox: there's plenty to worry about, so relax; you need to worry at a sustainable pace. For a time I designated it as my "life verse."
The quest for a life verse has wide appeal. Individuals and organizations alike pursue the practice. InterVarsity Press turned to the Word of God for a means of encapsulating our corporate mission in our tagline--"Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength."--quoting Jesus' quotation of the Deuteronomic Shema to explain that we publish holistically, integratively, from a Christian perspective. Likewise, Likewise Books effectively adopted Jesus' exhortation to "go and do likewise" as our name and tagline to evoke the active, thoughtful, compassionate faith of the good Samaritan for our publishing program.
So between myself and my employer, I am well versed in the art of finding that one key phrase to organize your thinking, to focus your mission, to represent yourself to the world. But the practice has its blind spots. A friend of mine tells me that the Christian satire magazine The Wittenburg Door used to have as one of its favorite verses 1 Chronicles 26:18: "At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar" (KJV). By aligning itself with such an obscure reference, the Door was challenging the notion of a single life verse, daring its contemporaries to figure out what eternal truth they had in their finite wisdom determined was more important than every other statement contained in the Old and New Testaments.
Lately I've been enjoying the music of artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Half Handed Cloud and, most recently, the Danielson Family, all of whom in their songwriting take a playful approach to Scripture. This music isn't irreverent by any stretch--in fact, some of it is profound in ways that more radio-friendly music rarely achieves--but it's quirky, odd, an acquired taste. From Sufjan's reflections on Isaiah 55 in "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" to Half Handed Cloud's description of a purge of vice among the Israelites in "Let's Go Javelin'" and the Danielson Family's similarly scripturally rooted "Singers Go First" and "We Don't Say Shut Up," these songwriters have found a way to dance around the Bible in a way that rings true to the text without being cliched, doctrinaire, humdrum.
I find that my appreciation for these songwriters has affected my approach to Scripture. These days, rather than look for the one verse that would make a good tattoo, I tend to read any given passage and imagine what it would be like to actually feel the emotions being conveyed, to actually perform the actions being described, to firmly believe the assertions being made. It's made Bible reading more vibrant to me, more creative, more playful, more--dare I say it?--fun.
I've had fun with the Bible before. When I was in school my friends and I would giggle our way through passages that mention people's private parts, portray particularly gruesome deaths or describe bowel movements. I suppose my new discipline is similar to that earlier, sillier practice, only now without the crass irreverance. I think maybe I'm approaching the far side of simplicity as it relates to the Bible, where God's Word has moved from an archaic jumble of weird words describing ancient odd events, to a desperate search for one Word that justifies my existence, to an embrace of the Word of God as a generous gift.
Or something like that.