Russ Ramsey, a pastor in Nashville, is a friend and fellow-writer. His newest book, Behold the King of Glory, features forty chapters that walk through the gospel story and culminate with the death and resurrection of Jesus. I’ve asked Russ to stop by the blog to answer a few questions about writing gospel reflections.
Trevin Wax: Whenever I read “imaginative retellings” of gospel stories, I’m always looking to see if the writer’s storytelling distracts from or enhances the original account. How do you balance reverence for God’s Word with your God-given imaginative freedom to paint the scene?
Russ Ramsey: So much of the answer to a question like this boils down to how I regard the Scriptures. I started reading the Bible on my own in high school—half my life ago. I have had the great gift of being discipled by people who held a deep reverence for Scripture, from my mother to my pastors to my mentors. I love the Bible. I believe it is sufficient and just as God meant for it to be, and I believe it holds authority over my life. Everyone listens to authoritative voices—whether it be their own or the voice of another. I believe the Bible is everything Paul told Timothy it is: useful for all manner of correction, teaching, and training in following Christ.
So when I sat down to write Behold the King of Glory, I came to the project in a posture submitted to what was already there. I did not want to invent people, conversations, or stories. Instead, what I wanted to do was tell the story on the page the best that I could.
Over in Deuteronomy, when God instructs His people to tell their children about Him, I imagine them sitting around a fire at night saying, “Did I ever tell you the one about when Abraham took Isaac to Mt. Moriah?” That is the spirit of what I wanted to do with this book—tell a biblically faithful story in a story-teller’s voice.
Trevin Wax: All of these chapters are brief and easy-to-read in one sitting. Why did you think it was important to limit your storytelling to a self-imposed word count?
Russ Ramsey: I gave myself constraints for a few reasons, some of which are a bit more noble than others.
First, I imposed the limits before I ever wrote a word as a way of disciplining the author to stay focused. The Apostle John tells us that if we were to try to write all that could be written about Jesus, there wouldn’t be enough libraries in the world to hold it. There are entire libraries even now devoted just to the four Gospels.
Second, I wanted to compose the book to be a single narrative, not a collection of vignettes. This gave me freedom to set aside certain points I wanted to make for a later time.
Third, I wanted people to be able to use this book as a daily reader during Lent if they wanted, so I felt I had entered into a sort of gentleman’s agreement to keep some sort of consistency for their sake as they planned their day. A big part of writing well involves loving the reader.
Fourth, I prefer shorter chapters myself. Don’t judge me.
Trevin Wax: You often focus on a particular character for a chapter. I love this description of Nicodemus. “He was a riddle, coming at Jesus with the confidence of a statement while standing in the darkness like a question.” How did you decide which characters to portray?
Russ Ramsey: Ah, Nicodemus! Here is a man whose entire life was defined by his religious position in the world, and Jesus challenged his presumptions. Nicodemus is a person who reminds us that following Jesus costs us something—everything, actually.
I was drawn to characters with a story arc of their own.
I am intrigued by characters who appear more than once during Jesus’s three year ministry (John the Baptist, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and Nicodemus, who first comes to Jesus in secret, and then later defends him in front of the Sanhedrin, and then later tends to Jesus’s corpse after the crucifixion). We witness Nicodemus’s conversion as a slow turning, which is incredibly comforting when I think of others I see God working in, but are not where I hope they would be. The human experience we see being lived out in the lives of these people binds me as a reader to the people Jesus touched, dined with, and challenged.
Trevin Wax: There’s a lot of historical detail in this book. How does knowing the history help us see the full picture of what the Gospels are communicating?
Russ Ramsey: In college I had the amazing opportunity to live in Israel for a semester. I lived on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. We had a class called “Physical Settings of the Bible” which took three day long field-trips every other weekend. We toured all over Israel, and I was amazed to see just how compact everything was. Israel is about the same size as New Jersey, and yet it is the junction where the corners of the world came together: Africa, Asia, and Rome (Europe).
Details involving geography, politics, cultural norms, and status play in the Gospels like characters in the story. The desert is where people are tested and sometimes broken, The Sea of Galilee is a source of life and food and commerce that binds people close to its shores, and those masses gather to hear Jesus teach. Or take Pilate. We all know people like Pilate, and we are all a bit like him. He was a middle manager with just enough power to look bad if he didn’t perform well, but not enough to really think for himself.
Knowing the politics, geography, and historical details helps us not simply project our present-day, western ideas onto what is happening on the page of Scripture. I wanted to provide enough to keep the reader between the lines of truth, but not so much that I took over for their imagination. I hope I succeeded more than I failed at this.
Trevin Wax: You say that your desire is to help us rediscover the wonder of the gospel. Why do we lose our wonder when we read the Bible? And how (and why) should we get this back?
I think Christians tend to read the Bible differently than we read anything else. We either come to it looking for counsel, or we come to it assuming we already know the story. I know I do this, anyway. But the Bible tells an amazing story, and God has created us to be people who learn, grow, change, and gain wisdom through the hearing and telling of story.
The Bible is packed with amazing stories. As a complete story, it is the greatest ever told. What I hoped to do as an author was tell the reader things that were there in the text that they might have missed in such a way that they wanted to take up the Bible and look for more.
I hope Behold the King of Glory helps some readers see the Bible as more than a source for how to follow God. I hope Behold the King of Glory prompts readers to come to Scripture for what it is: God’s revelation of Himself to His image bearers.