Sandra McCracken and Russ Ramsey led a breakout session as part of The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference in Indianapolis, titled “Reading Scripture with an Engaged Imagination.” The songwriter and author, respectively, discussed the role the imagination plays in reading, understanding, and conveying biblical truth.
Even for individuals with a high view of Scripture, who believe the Bible is authoritative and reliable, Ramsey and McCracken argue that reading it well requires a fully engaged imagination—not because it is lacking in any way, but because that’s what our humanity demands. They also discuss how, in prose and songwriting, they mine the detail of Scripture and use their imaginations to faithfully flesh out its context and significance. In doing so, they encourage others to engage Scripture in the same manner—no matter your vocation.
This episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast is sponsored by The Good Book Company, publisher of Need to Know, a book by Gary Millar. This practical book will give new Christians the essentials—what you really need to know if you’re going to follow Jesus. To learn more, visit thegoodbook.com.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
So, my name is Russ, I am a pastor in Nashville, Tennessee with Christ Presbyterian Church. We’re a multi-site campus, and I pastor one of those sites. So, I’m the regular preacher and pastor at a location there in Cool Springs. I’ve been in ministry for close to 20 years. Now, most of that time as a lead pastor, most of that time as somebody who has been preaching week in and week out. I’ll let you… Do you wanna introduce yourself now? No, sir.
Okay. Yeah. So, one of the things that Sandra and I talked about this breakout session, gosh, several months ago, and wanting to do this because both of us work in this area where we can curate words and ideas, largely through interacting directly with Scripture and then communicating that to rooms full of people. And so, I do that through preaching, through sermon writing, through teaching. I also do that through writing and authoring, and Sandra through speaking and through music as well. And so, we’re always thinking about…and we’re both artists, and have an artistic mindset for just thinking about how to communicate in general.
And so, we’re always kind of thinking through specifically, what role does artistry play in the crafting of words and in the communicating of scripture? And you can’t have that conversation without talking about the roles of imagination, and wonder, and mystery, and even paradox, that those are essential to communicating biblical truth well because that’s part of the nature of Scripture. And so, that’s kind of what we want to talk about this afternoon.
So, as somebody who’s working with Scripture, one of the things that you should know about me is I have a very high view of Scripture. I believe it’s inerrant. I believe it’s authoritative. I believe it’s reliable. I believe that Scripture is God’s word. So, when I think about engaging Scripture, with my imagination up and running, it’s not because there’s anything deficient in Scripture, but rather it’s because I believe that Scripture to be read well requires an engaged imagination. So, Scripture tells us not to add anything to it, not to take anything away from it. So, what role does the imagination play in seeking to faithfully understand and interpret a passage of Scripture? So, I want to give you a part of my thesis for what we’re going to be talking about here in this session. And that’s this. I believe that in order to faithfully interpret Scripture, we have to come to it with an engaged imagination. We must seek to flesh out the words that we’re reading. And I’m gonna talk about why.
But we have to be people who when we’re coming to the pages of Scripture, we’re imagining. We’re imagining the scenes that are being described for us. We’re considering the implications of the details that are provided. And Scripture is rich in detail, but it’s also very thrifty in the way that it’s written. So, Scripture calls for this sort of reading and I’m gonna give you a kind of two before I hand it over to Sandra. Two reasons why Scripture calls for reading with an engaged imagination. The first reason is that Scripture is written in thrift. So, when you’re reading a biblical text, you’re reading…before a time when you could go to FedEx, Kinko’s and buy reams of paper and print things out, there are not a lot of rabbit trails in Scripture. There’s not a lot of waxing eloquent. There’s not a lot of belaboring a point because just the mechanics and the tools and the resources available to write something down was in extremely limited capacity, especially early on. To have pen and ink and vellum or parchment or something like that, Scripture is not super flowery, right, in the way that it’s written. And so, there’s lots of gaps, but that’s how literature works.
Whenever you read a novel, whenever you read a poem, whenever you read anything, your imagination kicks in and begins to fill out the scene, and Scripture is no different. So, Scripture is written in thrift, and it gives us details. They’re there to help us imagine a scene that’s happening. So, that’s how literature works one, is one of the reasons why we have to read with an engaged imagination. That’s how literature works. The other reason is because that’s how people work. That’s how human beings work, is that Scripture that describes the human experience. And the human experience is more than just six application points that you take away from a passage, right, that when you’re reading a Scripture passage, there’s something going on. Oftentimes, it’s narrative because most of the Bible is written in narrative. And there are things happening and we’re obligated to, within the reasonable confines of what we understand about the human experience, to infer. Not hold those inferences with an open hand. If it’s not on the page, and we’re inferring, okay,
But how are you supposed to understand Scripture if you’re not trying to empathize or get into a situation and walk around inside of it? So, for example, if you’re reading a passage of Scripture where a man’s son dies, if we don’t seek to imagine the grief of that moment, how are we possibly going to be able to relate to the response? And so, when David and Bathsheba conceive, and the baby dies, David mourns, and he grieves and then he cleans himself up and he moves forward with his life. There’s a lot of emotional freight carried in that story that’s not written out long-form. But it’s there to help us understand the character of David, also the character of grief, also the reality of the consequences of the sin that was involved there. I guess this is a simple way as I can say it. We’re meant to read scripture as human beings and not as mere data collectors. We’re meant to immerse ourselves in the story, and Scripture is mostly story. And engaging with those stories is often where the truth and the mystery and the wonder and the beauty comes to life.
Sandra McCracken: Well, so, I’m Sandra. And there’s a lot of overlap between kind of where Russ and I are both coming from in the sense of…I guess it was a few months ago when we started talking about this workshop. We were doing an event with other songwriters, and Russ was reading passages from his books. And we were singing songs, right, you know, back-to-back. And it was, I think, I’m pretty thrilled by Scripture. I think It never ceases to amaze me how it does this imaginative work in our hearts, even as we do imaginative work in responding to it. There’s this reciprocation that happens and it’s inclusive. So, it’s for you.
And it’s for everybody in the sense that you don’t have to have qualifications to bring to that and just the very nature that Scripture is alive. So, when we ponder these stories, when we ponder these words, and we, like you said, try them on, when we eat the words and we take them in, I remember from being a really small child and writing down little sections of Scripture on an index card. And then, those things would be called to my mind by the Holy Spirit at different times. And I had no real gift and both mentors and my mom who were able to point at that and show me, you know, evidence of that and helped me to pay attention to the context, like this dance of interaction between the Holy Spirit and the words, and then, Jesus himself who is the word, right? So, all of this kind of relational context around the words of Scripture.
So for me, vocationally, I’m a songwriter. And I started that…I’ve been in Nashville now for quite a while. I grew up in Missouri, moved to Nashville, was really intrigued by all the music culture there. But I was a little bit resistant to the categories of Christian music. And I found myself kind of between genres, which is significant in the sense that I was still writing scripture songs, even if I was just playing…even if I wasn’t like seen as a Christian artist. It’s true no matter what your vocation is that when we are soaked in the Scriptures, when we live under the authority of Scripture, when we believe that it holds truth above and around us for our lives, like that there’s something we can submit ourselves to, that we can go to for light and for truth and for correction.
And for like in the story of David, it’s like having somewhere to go and to recognize that you are not the first one to experience what you’re experiencing and to hear these stories that come alive off the pages. So, my contribution is less in the pastoral space but more in just to kind of by demonstration maybe play a little bits of songs throughout this time together to show how Scripture has shown up for me and how imagination has been part of that in a profound way and not in a way that I was orchestrating for myself. But my hope is that there will be permission for you to find whatever your vocation, that this is a doorway, that Scripture…that there’s this open doorway to interact with the Spirit of God to know God more vividly in your vocational and family and relational life because the Scripture is alive in you.
So this is one a song that I was like on maybe my second album, which has been a while ago, and I’ll just play a little bit of it, but I was having trouble…I mean, this is the simplest thing but I was having trouble sleeping at the time. And this song kind of sparked out of that experience. And it is based on Psalm 139. And I wouldn’t have categorized it or thought, “Oh, this is a Christian music song or whatever. It was just a song.” And yet you hear some of those words as I…I’ll sing a little bit for you, but and please forgive me. I’m a little short of breath. I am seven months pregnant. But so, I’ll play guitar for you sidesaddle.
Yeah. So this one, Psalm 139 is one I remember from when I was young, just the intimacy that the song is just saying, “Oh, Lord, you have searched me and you’ve known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up. You perceive my thoughts from afar. Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely.”
There is just a profound sense that we are wandering around in this world wanting to know that and when you’re awake and you can’t sleep, to have these words given to us in Scripture saying, “You are not alone. You are so known.” And then, the lines later in the song that says, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” And even lines like that, that we have to stop and say, “What does it mean to be fearfully made?” I have no idea what that means. And then we ponder it and we enter into it and then we find that we are changed and formed by it. So, I don’t have this plugged in or anything but I’ll just sing a little bit for you. It’s a song called, “Now and Then.”
I know where I’m bound
And where I’m chained
And where I’m left alone
I know no hunger, and I feel no pain
But tonight I wanna go home
Stay with me now and then
From all sides hem me in
And sing me a song
So I can close my eyes
Before I was born
All of my days recorded
Your thoughts like the grains of sand
Through wide-eyed nights
And then the morning light
As my days demand
Stay with me now and then
From all sides hem me in
And sing me a song
So I can close my eyes
Sing me a song
So I can close my eyes
Sorry to make you stay [inaudible]. Thank you.
Ramsey: How many of you are teachers who teach Scripture to people, whether in a pulpit or in a classroom? Can I see by a show of hands? So, then we would probably have this in common, and just anybody who reads Scripture. And that is the desire to help make application for people, right? And so, when I was taking seminary classes when we were learning how to preach, I had Dr. Bryan Chapell. And his framework was exposition, illustration, application. You know, those were kind of the three…if you had a sermon point you would exposit, then you would give an illustration, and then you would make a direct application.
Having kind of an artistic temperament, my mind does not really work super fluidly when it comes to drawing direct applications to make to people. Let me tell you seven things you need to do in response to this passage. And for a long time, I kind of felt that that was a deficiency. I think it still is, in some ways. I’ve known people who can make application of Scripture in ways that I just think, “How in the world did you just do that?”
But I also think that Scripture itself, if you read it, there are certain texts that are all about, “Here is a direct application for you. You know, do this. Don’t do that. When this happens, here’s how you should respond.” But when you look at the ministry of Jesus and you look at His method of teaching, what did you use more often than anything else to teach? A story, right? He told stories and He even told stories in such a way that hearers would say, “Can somebody please explain to us what just happened? Could you tell us what are we supposed to make of this?”
And I think there’s something beautiful about the way that so many of the stories in Scripture, they don’t resolve on the dominant. No, there’s a dissonance to them. There’s a complexity to them. I just preached this past Sunday on the passage in the upper room where Jesus says that one of them is going to betray him, and everybody asks the question, “Is it I?” No one suspected Judas in that room. And the one thing Jesus didn’t do is he didn’t expose Judas to everybody in that moment. He didn’t say, “One of you will betray me, and it’s him.” He didn’t do that. He said, “One of you will betray me.” He revealed it to John and Peter kind of privately through this little transaction of, “The one I hand the bread to that I dip in the bowl, that’s the one” But Judas didn’t even seem to know that when Jesus handed the bread to him it was a sign to those two guys.
And that story has a lot of application for dealing with slander. You have a person who is about to betray you, and you know it. And so what do you do? Well, it’s a story. It’s a true story. But it’s a story. So it’s not prescriptive in the sense of what Jesus did with Judas is what everybody should always do all the time because Jesus confronted other people very directly. But in that moment, he was compassionate to Judas. And one of the ways he was compassionate to Judas was by not burning him to the ground in that moment, but by letting him have every opportunity up to the very end to repent, by not humiliating him, by not exposing him, even by telling him, “Go do what you have to do and do it and do it quickly.”
Jesus got in his ear, he got in his head, he got in his heart, you know, and so we read stories like that. And Jesus taught in parables. And I think there’s something about as a preacher or as a communicator of Scripture or as a reader of Scripture doing the work of saying, “Okay, I want to engage with the nuance of the text, and really try to understand what’s happening here.”
Eugene Peterson, the late Eugene Peterson, he’s written a lot about this. Here, I’m gonna read a quote from him and then, he said this. He said, “Story is the most adequate way we have of accounting for our lives, noticing the obscure details that turn out to be pivotal, appreciating the subtle accents of color and form and scent that give texture to our actions and feelings, giving coherence to our meetings and relationships in work and family, finding our precise place in the neighborhood and in history.”
Story engages the whole person. And it’s not always a straight line. And that’s helpful for us because our lives don’t follow that course, either. Children are great examples of this. Children do not want to be told seven rules for life when you’re tucking them in. They want to be told a story, right? And part of the reason a child wants to hear a story, it’s not just because they liked the characters. Most kids would not articulate this back to you. Some of you may have the most intelligent child in the world who would say this back, but most kids wouldn’t. But what they’re doing is they’re comprehending life. They’re hearing stories and they’re understanding there’s good and there’s evil, there’s tension, there’s conflict. There’s the consequences of dishonesty. There’s the nobility of self-sacrifice, and they’re learning this in the form of story.
Sandra and I are both…I’m going to name drop. I’m sorry. We’re both friends with Sally Lloyd-Jones who wrote the “Jesus Storybook Bible,” and it’s an incredible, incredible resource. And she gets to go around, and she gets to go to churches and tell the story of Scripture in a way that both kids and adults alike just marvel at the simplicity and the clarity of this. She was telling me that she was at a church once and she was, you know, reading to the Sunday school class. And they were talking about the story of Jonah. And so she was reading from the “Jesus Storybook Bible,” and something happened where the regular teacher of the class got called out and had to leave, and said to Sally, “Just finish the story and then just help them, you know, make some life application with this.” And so she said she remembers telling the story of Jonah and the whale and how the kids are just, you know, their chins on their elbows leaning in listening, absorbing it.
And then she asked a question to the effect of, “Okay, so what do you think God wants us to learn from this story? What are some takeaways?” And she said, she could just see the kids disengage. She could just see them lose the thread because now we had moved from narrative and we had moved from telling the story into, “Okay, what’s the lesson? What’s the moral? What’s the point?” And I wanna say this carefully because we’re in a room that and we’re at a conference that, and I, have a high view of Scripture and believe that it’s an authority rule for life and practice. So the Scriptures full of application. But what I’m saying is I think there’s value in taking a story on its own terms.
I remember as a college student going to the movies. We had a dollar theater in our town and I’m a guy…Does anybody go to movies by themselves? Is that your preferred way to go to a movie? Yeah. It’s what we call this day and age self-care. I love going to movies by myself. And I took myself to see the movie “A River Runs Through It,” when it first came out. And I remember sitting in the theatre as a college student watching this movie play out, and it was like a key in a lock and the tumblers all just kind of aligned and a door opened. And I understood my own relationship with my dad and my brother in a way that I didn’t even know I had needed to understand my relationship with my dad and my brother. And I just sat in the theatre and wept. And if you’ve ever seen that movie, it’s a great movie, one of the things that movie does not do is draw a lot of conclusions for you. Man, what a story. What a story. And Scripture is full of these. It’s full of these stories that have detail and you look for the detail. And when you see them, they just carry so much weight and so much significance to them.
An example is when Abraham and Sarah are trying to conceive, right, and they can’t, but God has said, “You’re gonna be the father of a great nation,” you know, like, “With what?” And so, Sarah has the idea for Abraham to sleep with her maidservant, Hagar. And Sarah, or and Abraham, and in what could not have been enough time, said, “Yes.” She said, “I have an idea.” And he said, “That’s a great idea.” And so, he sleeps with Hagar, and they have Ishmael. And then Sarah hates Hagar and Ishmael because you know what? That’s human. That’s what we do. Her word became flesh and was now dwelling among them, and she hated it. And so, she says, “Send them out of here,” which send them out of here was not, “Make a move out of town.” It was, “Make them go into the wilderness where they’re not going to live. They’re gonna die.” In that day and age, it wasn’t like, you know, send them on down to Louisville. I don’t want them in Indianapolis anymore. It was, “Send them out into the wilderness.” And that passage when Hagar and Ishmael go out, it says, and you can see this in your text, that Hagar sets the boy down, and then this is the detail. It’s right there on your page.
She went and sat a bowshot away. That’s the language, a bowshot away. Friends, if your imagination is not meant to get engaged with the dropping of the word bowshot, you’ve not understood that passage because that word is a word of death. And it’s a word of one person killing another. And it’s the distance between a mother and a son in a desert. And that should break your heart. And that should lead to compassion for people. And that should be so formative. I mean, even right here in this room right now, me just telling you that, I heard the sounds that came back. That wasn’t because I made an application. It’s because we pulled out a detail, a narrative detail that we all said, “Oh, gosh, I resonate with that. I get that.” So, rather than reading stories simply to extract life lessons, we should mine them. We should see them as these multi-layered things and try to get it because truth lives in them.
McCracken: I’m so glad you mentioned children in sharing some of that. A couple of years ago, wanting to get involved in like writing some children’s songs with some friends and thinking about this whole idea of what it is to share that, our first project… This is called, Rain for Roots. And our first project was with Sally Lloyd-Jones and it was her poems. So it was just like, “Easy. We don’t have to really overthink this.” And then the second project we were like, “Oh, let’s do the parables. That would be so great. We’ll just tell stories.” And then we got into them and we’re like, “These are so hard to explain.” Like, how are you going to tell these stories in a way that is theologically sound when I really have a hard time understanding what are the conclusions we’re supposed to draw?
And it was such a wonderful exercise. And I think it caused us to live in the space that you’re talking about where you draw out the details and hold them up, and then you are not answering all the questions all the time. And one of the little stories that we focused on was one about the…it’s in a couple of the Gospels. It’s a very short little bit in between a bunch of other stories where Jesus just talks about a woman making bread and just the sense… I mean, that was kind of it, like, the kingdom of heaven. It’s like a woman making bread. And so, we researched it and we do really care about the telling of Scripture. But then you had differing opinions on theologically what would be the thing. Like some people would say that the leaven was bad and some people would say it was good. So we tried to just kind of sit with it and pray and read through the commentaries and then just bring out our guitars and see what happens. So, this song was the result of that.
And as we tried not to draw those strong conclusions, we found ourselves creatively in this space of longing and living in this space of longing. And once the song was finished, and we played it back we were all pretty moved by the theme that the kingdom of heaven and the waiting. The visual, the imaginative visual was basically like when we make bread with our kids. And this goes back to the fact that this is for all of us. This is for all of our communities. But when we make bread with our kids and with the neighbors, and with the neighbors’ kids, there is a sense of like, well, not a sense, you actually see the little kids around the table peeking up over the edges, putting their fingers in it. You know, it’s physical, it’s tangible, it’s real. And then the smell and the anticipation and the hunger. And then you put it all these layers together and you begin to see a picture of what it is to wait for the things that are not yet, the things that we need and the things that we have been promised. And somewhere in all that, we found our way through the text. So, this is a song called, “Leavened Bread.” I want to make sure you guys can hear me.
I wanna tell you another story
All about a woman making barley bread
Flour and water out on the table
“We need a little leaven,” she said
So, she works, she works,
She works to mix the leaven into the flour
She works, she works
She works to make the barley bread
Mama, mama, how much longer?
How much longer for the dough to rise
Oh, my children, don’t you worry
We just gotta wait till the time is right
So they wait, they wait
They wait while the dough is rising, rising
They wait, they wait
They wait for the barley bread
And this is a story of the kingdom of heaven
This is what the storyteller Jesus said
The kingdom of heaven is just like leaven
He works to raise up that barley bread
So we wait, we wait, we wait while the kingdom’s coming, coming
We wait, we wait, we wait while the kingdom’s coming, coming
We wait, we wait, we wait for the kingdom to come
We wait for the kingdom to come
Ramsey: This is so much fun. This is just so much fun. I know. Well, as you were singing that, I was thinking about how, you know, what was happening there was Jesus told a story that got written down in Scripture that has been preserved through time that songwriters then took and tried to figure out how to tell it to children through music. That’s just fantastic. But that’s the beauty and the reach of narrative and human beings trying to communicate things to each other. I love that. That was so good. That’s so good. All right. We’re going to do a little exercise together on this. If you have a Bible, I’ll read the text. It’s a short one.
But in John 12:3-7, we’re gonna look at that in a minute because I want us to do a little exercise specifically in mining a text for details and then imagining. And so, we’re gonna do this together. But I think when we use the details that are provided in a passage, what they do is they engage the imagination and we start linking things together. So, assuming that nothing in Scripture is just a throwaway word, that it’s all there because the Holy Spirit is involved in the accounting…the writing of Scripture and the preservation of Scripture and the illumination of Scripture in the life of the believer, then we take those details. And we mine them, and we try to link them together in order to try to get a sense of the fuller picture of what’s happening, to try to understand a move from being just a reader of a page to being a witness. And so, that’s kind of the idea is we’re moving from being a reader of a printed page and that’s it to being somebody who is gaining a sense of being a witness to what’s happening.
And so, Scripture is filled with passages that require imagination if we’re to grasp them. And this is one where Mary, who is…let me give you some details about this that are not in the passage, Mary, who is Mary of Mary and Martha and Lazarus fame. So, Mary would be…I think, if you think about how Mary and Martha and Lazarus are depicted in Scripture, the way I would describe them, is they’re Jesus’ friends, which is a beautiful thought to me, that outside of his disciples, Jesus had people in his life that were just friends. And when he went to Jerusalem, he stayed with them in Bethany right across the valley there.
And it makes you wonder, like the imagination engages, just are these childhood friends or are these people that because Jesus would always go with his family to the feasts in Jerusalem? And they would always have to stay somewhere and I’m presuming they stayed with people because it wasn’t a hotel culture. And so, they stayed with people. And so is it possible? I don’t know. But is it possible that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, were friends of Jesus? They certainly lit up. When he came around, they referred to him in intimate ways. They referred to himself to themselves in intimate ways in relationship to him. Like when Lazarus gets sick, they say, “The one you love is ill.”
Anyway, so Mary, the timetable of this passage, this would be the Wednesday of Holy Week. So the very next day is the day Jesus is going to be arrested. And so, this is what happens. I’m going to read the passage. And then what I want to ask you is I want you to tell me details that caught that spark your imagination, okay?
So it says, “Mary, therefore….” Sorry, right into the mike. “Mary, therefore, took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, he who was about to betray him said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?’ He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief. And having charge of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.'” Okay. Short passage. Many of you are probably familiar with that. But in looking at the text, what are some details that jumped out at you? Yeah.
Audience: She wiped his feet with her hair.
Ramsey: She wiped his feet with her hair. What’s in that detail?
Audience: It’s the second time.
Ramsey: What’s that?
Audience: It’s the second time.
Ramsey: It’s the second time it happened. This has happened before but in that detail itself, that’s intimate, right? That is a…. I’m assuming that doesn’t happen to you regularly, right?
Audience: Feet were dirty.
Ramsey: The feet were dirty? Yeah. What else? Yeah.
Male Audience: It’s a pound of perfume.
Ramsey: It’s a pound of perfume. Right, right. You know, it’s worth a year’s wages, that 300 denarii there. Did I read that right? It’s denarii a day. You know, this is worth the year’s wages. I like in this too, it’s like she uncorked a $50,000 bottle of champagne. You know, if you want to think of it that way. What else?
Female Audience: The fragrance filled the room.
Ramsey: Yes, the fragrance filled the room.
Male Audience: [inaudible 00:39:33]
Ramsey: Yeah. Anybody else? So, I’m going to read a passage. I think I’ll just read it now. It seems like the time to do it. So, it’s the Wednesday before his arrest. It’s a pound of perfume. John talks about specifically what kind of perfume it was. It was nard made from pure nard. I did some research on this perfume. When I was writing this book, “The Passion of the King of Glory,” this is a narrative retelling of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And one of my commitments in writing this book was, I wanna make a biblical literacy tool for people who have never read Scripture or are new to Scripture because as a pastor, what I’m finding is we live in a biblically-illiterate age. And I don’t mean that as an insult. I mean it as, very specifically, most people have not read the Bible. Many Christians have not read the Bible.
You know, the source material on which their faith is based, they’re generally unfamiliar with. And so, as a pastor, part of the job is to provide biblical literacy in the teaching and also inspire biblical literacy through the way that you teach. And so, in writing about this passage and thinking about this passage, as I started doing some research, I found out, so, nard it was almost like a honey type of consistency, only instead of being sticky it was oil. It was an oil-based, like a thick honey. So, she’s putting a pound of this on Jesus and the aroma is filling the room.
And it’s a culture that doesn’t shower. It doesn’t bathe regularly. And so, part of the purpose of the perfume was hygienic. It was to mask odor. It was also to give a scent to a person. Twenty-four hours later-ish, Jesus is going to be arrested. And that night he’s going to be taken into the high priest’s courtyard and he’s going to be beaten up. And then he’s gonna stand before Pilot. And it got the wheels turning about, here’s this really expensive perfume that only like wealthy people, royalty would just use to the fact that when Mary uses it on Jesus, the reaction here is Judas but just a couple days earlier it happened another time with somebody else anointing him with expensive perfume. And everybody reacted like, “Why are they wasting this?
But perfume is not meant to be a commodity, first and foremost. Perfume is meant to be spilled out, right, the aroma is the point of perfume. The assault on the senses, right, of the perfume. And so, I got into this and it just struck me that in those hours as Jesus is being arrested and tried and flogged and crucified, he smells opulent. And I think we’re supposed to get that, you know. We’re supposed to…especially a first-century reader is going to say, “He left a lingering scent as he went down the Via Dolorosa and it was the center of royalty. And it was the scent of extravagance.”
And so, I wrote about that, and I’m gonna read an excerpt from it just to see a little bit of this in practice and how I approached it. And one of the things that I did in these books is I include…there’s hundreds of Scripture references in the back that point to the text because one of the things I didn’t want to do is I didn’t wanna create characters… You know, I didn’t wanna give like, Pontius Pilate a Cruella de Vil cigarette and a mustache that he was twisting. You know, like, I didn’t wanna do like do that kind of thing. But I wanted to say, “Okay, there are details here that have significance to them. And so, I’m gonna try to mine them and when I see them, I’m going to try to articulate them and express them.” So, I’m gonna read this and then Sandra can talk a little bit, sing. We’ll do some Q&A after that, and then we’ll close with a song together. All right.
“While they reclined around Simon’s table, Mary, Lazarus’ sister came into the room carrying a stone-hewn bottle. She handled the flask as though it were a rare and precious jewel. Knowing what it was her brother leaned forward in his seat. His sister had been saving this bottle for a long time. Many times she had told Lazarus and Martha what she meant to do with it. The steeled-sewn bottle was made of an Egyptian alabaster. It held a pound of exotic Arabian perfume called nard. The costly scent fetched close to a day’s wage for a day’s supply. So, it belonged mostly to the wealthy and powerful. Arabian nard was the scent of opulence, the fragrance of those whose needs had been met and wanted for nothing. Over the years, Mary’s family had saved a half-liter of the exotic fragrance equal to a full year’s wage and now Mary was its keeper. Mary took a seat on the floor beside Jesus turning the bottle in her hands as the men talked. Gripping the bottle with both hands she broke the neck and the scent of kings wafted up, filling the room with a fragrance that brought an instinctively reverent silence.
“Then with every eye now on her she began to pour the oil-based perfume on Jesus’ head so that it saturated his scalp, filtered into the sides of his beard, and wicked through his garments and onto his shoulders and back. After this, she used what remained to anoint his feet. It was an intimate moment between friends. Jesus had given Mary so much not only by saving her brother but also by being her friend. Though her sister Martha expressed her love through cooking and serving, Mary was a woman of extravagance when it came to giving the gift of unhurried time. The perfume gave her time with Jesus and she wanted to spend it all. Many regarded the perfume Mary poured over Jesus’ head and feet as her only security for the future.
“They immediately began to question her judgment. But this was no whim. It was Mary’s response to what Jesus had given her. He had brought her brother back from the dead and then promised to do the same with her. In this promise, she sensed that Jesus meant to give her something more and wouldn’t stop until he was finished. So in return, she gave Jesus everything she had. She anointed her king’s head with the oil in the presence of his enemies and made lovely the feet of this one who had brought her so much good news.
“The disciples reacted as men often do. They thought about the value of her perfume. It seemed a waste. They thought about how they might have capitalized on the nard’s value if it were theirs. To voice such dreams seem vulgar, but something needed to be said. So they addressed their indignation under noble auspices of concern for the poor. They said to each other, ‘Think of the poor people who could have benefited from the sale of this perfume.’ Hearing this, Jesus came to Mary’s defense. ‘Leave her alone, for what she’s done is beautiful. You will always have the poor but you won’t always have me.’ The men in the room regarded that alabaster bottle as a commodity that Mary should have held onto in the event that she needed to trade it in.
“But what were such fragrances for? Perfume was meant to be spilled out and evaporated in order that it might fill a room with its beautiful and startling aroma. As the scent electrified the senses of everyone present, Jesus called it beautiful. Creation testified to a maker who delighted in beauty for beauty’s sake. And many things in their world were beautiful that didn’t need to be because God opted to make them that way. This could be for only two reasons, because beauty pleased him, and so that he might arrest people by their senses to wake them from the slumbering economy of pragmatism.”
McCracken: In our time together as we’re kind of winding down, that reading is such an invitation. No matter where we’re coming from, what your vocation is, what your roles are, that you would hear the call to engage fully with your imagination in Scripture, and be changed by it. And it’s really the invitation for all of us and it’s evidence of the life of the Spirit in you, and it’s a joyful participation. It’s not like, “Hey, you got to do this, you know, 10 minutes every day.” It’s like, “Oh, wow, what if I just brought my whole self to the Scripture, sat with it, you know, maybe study,” like, have opportunities very practically, like, having times where you are with the Word of God and with the stories and with the details in such a way that you allow the Spirit to speak to you not just try to figure it out, and that light a candle.
Give yourself, you know, a little more time. and see what emerges. And I have seen that the Spirit is ready and eager to bring out and to bring forward these kinds of insights. And it’s not really our invitation. And if this feels accidentally devotional as a workshop, I am happy that there would be a sense. This is not just our invitation. This is there’s one calling you to be with him in this. And there’s so much joy in that because the richness of the text and what is contained in it is meant to give life and not just for you, but through you and in the world and in the kingdom. So, this is a little song that…the guitar is gonna be kind of quiet. But it’s kind of based on that idea.
Come to Jesus
He will never cast you out
Come you thirsty
Put aside your fear, your doubt
With great gentleness
With great gentleness
He draws you
How he draws you
See how he draws you to Himself
Come to Jesus
He will satisfy your heart
With his presence
Be your lantern in the dark
With great gentleness
With great gentleness
He draws you
How he draws you
See how he draws you to himself
Ramsey: Let’s do a little Q&A. Anybody have any questions for either of us? Yeah, back there. The question is, who do we learn from in doing this? You know, one of the best resources in terms of resources that I know of, for me personally, is just a good study Bible, those notes at the back. The ESV Study Bible is the one I use a lot. Just the notes, a lot of those are just fleshing out and drawing attention to the significance of details. And so, I’ll do that as I’m reading Scripture. But honestly, I think one of the things is we’re talking about learning the skill of mining detail in Scripture, but also part of what we’re learning is just how to resonate with the written word in general. And so a lot of that for me is trying to read well, trying to read classics, trying to read literature that has endured the test of time, and is beautifully written, spending time with poetry, reading poetry out loud, you know, anything that can help you kind of, you know, be growing, always growing in your familiarity of the turning of phrases and how language works and how communication works. What would you say?
McCracken: That’s really good. I think adding a couple of things that…I would add Robert Altar has a great translation of songs that I love. And we didn’t get into a lot of that in terms of songs today, but that’s been a place where I feel like because he knows the original language, places where you can get past that translation and start to really hear the story as a first reader might have heard really helped me to engage the imagination. Ellen Davis is another one. She has a really beautiful study on the book of Ruth that I’ve loved and things like it.
Ramsey: Yeah. Eugene Peterson is another name that comes to mind and Frederick Buechner as well are both people who have written a lot about the narrative of Scripture and really tried to mine the stories.
McCracken: Yeah. It’s so hard to slow down, isn’t it? I mean, just to get quiet enough to really hear the text. And I think one thing that’s been helpful practically for me is just like starting out a time of prayer or meditation, asking, like, being conscious of not doing the work. Like I’m not coming here to do the work, but the Spirit is ready to do work. And I think it’s like a practice for us as people because that’s so hard. But when we develop relationships, and we have a meal together, like I don’t know what the fellowship time is but that feels like that’s important because if your fellowship time is restful, and you’re not trying to work really hard, but you’re giving each other space and listening well, that will also fuel time when you’re studying the Word. You can really listen and be part of it. So that’s a couple of practical thoughts.
Ramsey: So the question is, how has pain and heartbreak affected imagination?
McCracken: None of us have any of that though, right?
Ramsey: Yeah. I don’t know what you’re talking about. You know, I think one of the things that suffering grants is it releases your grip on needing everything to be watertight, all of your doctrinal ducks to be in a row without having to give up orthodoxy. But being able to say, “There are certain things that will remain in the category of mystery and even paradox in this life that no one will ever speak the perfect word of encouragement that will resolve the whole thing for me.” I don’t want to speak for Sandra but, you know, a lot of my life, especially in recent years has involved a lot of suffering, a lot of affliction. And it’s fundamentally transformed a lot of the ways that I think.
There were a lot of things that when I was 22, I knew that I knew that I knew. And now I don’t know, you know. I’m a Presbyterian. I believe in the covenant. I have kids that are teenagers and I don’t know where all of them are spiritually and I don’t know what to do with that. I baptized them all, you know, and I believe in covenant baptism. And I believe that the Lord is a better parent than me and that he loves my kids more than I do. And I am in a place where I am having to trust him with things that when anybody tries to give me an easy answer, it just rings hollow. Even though I’m not cynical, and I’m not doubting or disbelieving, I’m just at a place where I think one of the things suffering does is it exposes some of the categories that seem to be so watertight as maybe not being that way, which I think is circling back to what we talked about.
I think it’s one of the kindnesses of The Lord by giving us his Word largely in the form of story, rather than edict, because there’s so much in story that is…and so many of the stories are unresolved. The rich young ruler went away sad. But that’s an ellipsis and not a period. What happened after he went? How did you deal with the sorrow? How did he process the things that Jesus had said?
The Lord in His wisdom leads us into things in life where we suffer, and we experience affliction. And we come face-to-face with mortality. I don’t know anybody who would look at those things and say, “It was all for nothing. And I didn’t learn a darn thing.” You know, those are formative times. And yet, they’re also sacred. It’s sacred ground. You know, you wanna take off your shoes when people are telling you those stories because it’s a holy thing that’s happening in that moment. But yeah, I think without suffering, without affliction, there are certain things we would never understand the same, you know. We see through a lens, through a lens of suffering in a way that’s different. Yes?
Female Audience: [inaudible]
Ramsey: Yeah, I think, you know, one of the benefits teachers have, preachers and teachers, is you have the benefit of time. You know, that you don’t have to do everything in one sitting. And so, I think very cumulatively, when I’m studying and I see details… When I’m reading a text, I’ll a lot of times highlight or circle something that’s kind of a, “I’m gonna get more into that. I’m not sure I understand what’s happening there. I wanna understand that a little bit better and kind of mine that.”
A lot of that stuff ends up on the cutting room floor. You know, you edit it out because of time. And so, you pick your spots. But it’s still, it becomes for you as the teacher, as the one who’s preparing, you go into it with this richer understanding so that even as you’re choosing what to talk about or you circle back to something or you decide to inject something in because in the moment, you’re realizing, actually, that detail wasn’t in my outline. But it really belongs based on how it seems like it’s going in the room right now. You can bring that stuff in. But, you know, I think it’s a marathon and not a sprint. And I think that’s a freedom as a teacher to say, “All right, we’ll keep bringing them in, and we’ll keep, you know, mining these things.” So, do we have time for one more?
Male Audience: Maybe one more.
Ramsey: Okay. We’ll do. I appreciate it. You? Yes. Exactly. So, the question, and I’ll stick with the last one is, what comes first context or imagination when you’re dealing with a biblical text? Context comes first because otherwise, you can imagine whatever the heck you want, right? And it doesn’t matter and it’s a free-for-all. Context is helpful because then it helps you imagine the scene and then that’s where you begin to see where it overlays into the culture that you are in, in particular, whether it’s an African culture or a suburban culture or any of that. Hey, this has been wonderful. We’re gonna close by singing a song. And by we, I mean, Sandra is going to close.
McCracken: Should we [inaudible]? We could do it.
Ramsey: Let’s do it. Let’s do it.
McCracken: Okay. We’ll sing a chorus. We’ll just like process out singing together, okay, like the Pied Piper. Let’s just sing this together. This is from Jeremiah 31.
We will feast in the house of Zion
We will sing with our hearts restored
He has done great things, we will say together
We will feast and weep no more
We will feast in the house of Zion
We will sing with our hearts restored
He has done great things, we will say together
We will feast and weep no more