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The Word of God Confronts You in Your Own Shoes
John Barton on Multi-Dimensional Relationship between the World of the Bible and our World
John Barton makes an interesting analogy from Eastern Orthodox iconography to explain the power of biblical narratives. Now, there are three very important caveats before sharing this:
John Barton is a historical-critical scholar who rejects the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, so I do not commend his work in general. I am reading his work for a class, and, while there is some meat along the way, there are a lot of bones to spit out.
I entirely reject the role that he/the Eastern Orthodox give to iconography. Nothing in the Scriptures commend this perspective and, in fact, the Scriptures explicitly forbid using images in this way in the 2nd Commandment.
That the biblical narratives are true history is an indispensable part of their nature and character for me, but not for John Barton. I am not minimizing the importance of their historical nature here, but only highlighting an interesting way to understand their function.
With those caveats in mind, this is a really interesting analogy that is helpful for understanding how God uses his Word to convict us of sin through the biblical narratives:
The icon does not invite us to enter its world, still less to penetrate behind it; it challenges us to allow ourselves to be the recipient of its 'message', to be worked on by the icon rather than working on it ourselves. Thus icons, which to many Western Christians seem so smooth and bland and two dimensional, can be perceived by the Orthodox as reaching forward to the worshipper, who constitutes the picture's third dimension and who is needed to complete its effect. (Barton 2000, 57)
Biblical narratives do not ask us to leave our world in order to enter their world. That is, reading Bible stories is not a way to escape our own realities, problems, and sin. We do not read the Bible to escape our world, in the way that we might read a novel on the beach.
On the contrary, biblical narratives abruptly enter our world to confront us, right where we are:
It is the same with some biblical stories. The lines of perspective in the story seem at first to converge behind it, giving it a satisfying aesthetic shape and a satisfactory closure. It is only as we read it more deeply and grasp its ‘point’ that we realize they really converge on us, the readers, so that the story leaps at us out of its frame. This is what happens to David in 1 Samuel 12 when Nathan tells him the nicely rounded parable about the poor man and his little lamb and then destroys its closure by revealing that it is a story in which David himself is deeply implicated; and this effect, whereby the story denies its own fictivity, is then replicated in us, as we hear the prophet's word, ‘Thou art the man’, addressed to ourselves. (Barton 2000, 57)
There is a huge ethical difference between judging the actions of the biblical figures at a distance, and contemplating them. To judge is to keep them at arms’ length, holding yourself above them.
To contemplate, on the other hand, is to consider the ways that their actions are similar and dissimilar to yours. It is to allow God’s Spirit to convict you of sin (“Thou art the man!”) through the biblical narratives, even when the biblical narratives stop short of saying “Thou shalt not….”
This process may begin with “putting yourselves into the shoes” of the biblical figure you are reading about, but it doesn’t end there. The Word of God is living and active, and it bursts through the ancient stories to confront you today about the way you are walking in your own shoes.
Source: John Barton, “Disclosing Human Possibilities: Revelation and Biblical Stories,” in Revelation and Story: Narrative Theology and the Centrality of Story, ed. by G. Sauter and John Barton (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 53–60.