Definitely a first world problem — you want to watch a movie and the only DVD available is in the dreaded full-screen edition — the version that chops off the edges of the film to make it fit into a square TV shape. Anathema to a film connoisseur, but perhaps favored by one preferring their television to lack black swatches on top and bottom, what is really at stake here? Two of the main problems are when one cuts the sides off the original film, the number of characters one sees is potentially reduced and this exaggerates the significance of what is left on the screen.
Does something similar happen when we read the Bible? Recently I was leading a discussion for a group of about a dozen Bible students. I had them read out loud in turns, starting at the beginning of Colossians and continuing through chapter three. I then gave them three key words, which if I was to do this again I would add a fourth, so I’ll include it here:
Corporate – having to do with a larger group of people than just one’s self, namely those one is in relationship with, an entire congregation, or the larger Church
Bodily – having to do with the physical and sensory world of bodies, not just the “soul”
Cosmic – having to do with the entire creation beyond humans – animate and inanimate
Eschatological – understood in the broadest sense of anything having to do with God’s big future for the world in which he will restore all things and make all wrong things right (cf. Rev. 21:1ff)
I instructed the students, that as we read, anyone should simply shout out the word when they heard something spoken that related to one of these words. You may have already noticed what all these words have in common: they all focus on issues that are larger than the individual person and their internal spiritual life. As we read, the chorus of outbursts was at times incessant. We could hardly get through a single verse without one (often more than one) of these words blurted out. Sometimes it was readily obvious. Other times I gave some brief instruction to see how a certain concept was eschatological, corporate, etc. (see for example, “Christ in Y’all the Hope of Glory“).
Beside being a rollicking and hilarious fun time, there was for many, a big “Ah ha!” They were seeing how often the Bible addresses these issues. They were “reading the Bible in widescreen.” Young believers are often told that their faith is all about “you and Jesus,” or that the Bible is essentially a “love letter” from God to them. While I understand the well-intent, the difficulty with all this is the degree of disappointment we set people up for when they actually begin to read the Bible. One only needs to read a few pages of the Gospels or a Pauline letter (no less 1 Kings!) to realize that what they are reading is not immediately about them individually. It does not sound like anything approximating a “love letter.” They are left with the daunting task of reinterpreting everything they read as being about “me and Jesus,” which often ends in discouragement because, I imagine, they intuitively sense how much of a stretch this is. Tragically, many conclude that the problem either lies with them — they are too stupid, too dull, too unspiritual, too immature — or with the Bible — it is boring, confusing, irrelevant.
There is another possibility. It could be rather than the problem lying essentially within ourselves or with the Bible, the difficulty lies in the lens through which we look at the Bible. Often our ability to understand others has much to do with our set of expectations regarding what is being said and predictions about what will be said. If I am convinced that a friend of mine is talking about one thing, while in reality they are talking about something significantly (or even subtly) different, I will be notably confused. The problem is not with my own stupidity nor with them. Rather, the “mental overlay” I am placing on what they are saying creates a degree of incongruity that is difficult to reconcile. The issue is not so much that I do not understand what the other is saying, as much as what they are actually saying does not fit well with what I expect them to be saying.
In similar fashion, when we read the Bible in “fullscreen” rather than “widescreen,” we distort the message of Scripture by chopping off the larger context of corporate, bodily, cosmic and eschatological life. The result is — surprise! — an exaggerated emphasis on one’s self. In our obsessively narcissistic culture, we should not be amazed that our reading of Scripture is twisted in this way. However, when we widen our lens, and rediscover the corporate, bodily, cosmic, and eschatological dimensions of the Gospel concerning what God has done in and through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, we find, as the Psalmist, that we are “brought out into a broad and spacious place” (Ps. 18:19). We breathe freely in the wide open world which God created and loves. We emerge from the cramped and anxious confines of our individual and isolated self. We rejoice in bodily, relational, and earthly life as central, rather than hostile, to God’s good intentions for us. We discover God’s love afresh, not exclusively for our individual selves, but precisely for the individual as integrated within the entire creation which God in his love will reconcile, redeem, and restore — drawing us out of the despair and brokenness of our present age into the unending and exhilarating feast of eternal life.
**For the widescreen/full-screen analogy I am indebted to Beverly Gaventa’s article “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” in the July 2004 installment of the journal Interpretation.