What’s in a Name?
An effective form of bridge-building consists of naming details in the biblical text in familiar modern terms. We are not yet talking about finding modern counterparts to what is in the biblical text, but only to the terminology we use in naming details in the text.
It is well known that 2 Corinthians is an autobiographical epistle in which Paul defends his ministry by listing his accomplishments as a missionary. When this strategy is labeled as Paul’s listing of his credentials, we suddenly understand the rhetorical format of the book because the idea of presenting credentials is familiar to us. When the “peddlers of God’s word” whom Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 2:17 are called “shady characters,” we have a familiar category into which to fit them. Esau, the person without a capacity for spiritual experience, was an easy-going “good time Charlie” who was a slave to his appetites.
The disciples whom Christ called to follow him were “country boys,” and as unknown common people, they were the original “No Name Offense.” Paul was an “apostle come lately.” If the speculation is correct that the owners of the pigs into whom Jesus cast demons were compromising Jews who raised a forbidden animal to sell at great profit to a Gentile market across the lake, Jesus can be seen as taking a swipe at their secularization and materialism. When Jesus told his disciples to take nothing with them on their evangelistic journeys, he was telling them to “travel light.” Furthermore, there was to be no “hotel hopping” for the Twelve.
“A sharp distinction between what the texts meant in their original setting and what they mean in the present has considerable ramification for the work of the preacher, if he in any sense sees it as his task to communicate the message of the Bible to the congregation whose shepherd he is, and to the world which is his mission field. If we may use . . . the analogy of the original and the translator, the preacher is called upon to function as the bilingual translator.”—Krister Stendahl
In an incident recorded in Mark 6:31, the press of people on the disciples was so great that the disciples could not even find time for a snack. As for the twelve disciples, through their calling by Jesus and association with him, they became not simply “a special lot” but men who enjoyed elite status. Phrased thus, the terminology is familiar, and it has the effect of making the disciples seem less remote than they might otherwise seem.
Noah endured a five-month lock-in with Mrs. Noah, his three sons and their wives, and a complete menagerie of the world’s animals, birds, and crawlers. When the sons of Jacob avenged the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34), they engaged in what we today would call a genocidal massacre. Joseph received a promotion from his boss when Pharaoh noticed his exemplary work ethic. Potiphar’s wife wanted to have an affair with Joseph, and in this story we find a scriptural example of what we call “fatal attractions.” Joseph, of course, found himself in a hostile work environment, and he ended up in prison on trumped-up charges. When Joseph died, he was given a state funeral.
Part of the power of metaphors in preaching and teachng is that they are often examples of terminology that make details in the biblical text come alive and seem familiar. For example, what the Bible calls “the heart” can be an elusive concept, especially since it means more than simply a person’s emotional being. What happens if we speak of the heart metaphorically as “the epicenter of a person’s being?” We know what epicenters are; to call the heart or soul an epicenter is to have built a bridge.
Calling details from the text by their modern names can work wonders in making the world of the Bible fall into place in our understanding. In Luke 9:49, John is recorded as complaining to Jesus about “someone casting out demons in your name.” It is hard to get an angle on this remote figure, but when a preacher phrases the situation in the following terms, we suddenly have a familiar label by which to understand this shadowy figure: “John had encountered a successful freelance exorcist.” We all know that a “freelance” person is someone who performs a service individually rather than as part of an organized group or company.
Modern culture is attuned to thinking in terms of psychological categories, and these, too, can be immensely useful in labeling details from the biblical text in terms that make them instantly recognizable. In the story of the exchanged birthright, Esau emerges as the person for whom the concept of delayed gratification had no place. In the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), Martha emerges as a Type A personality—the conscientious person who makes sure that duties are performed on time.
In the story of the fall (Genesis 3), when God accosts Adam, Adam responds with the statement, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” In that reply we find a wealth of recognizable psychology: denial; shifting of blame; rationalizing; appeal to victimhood; self-deception.
The figure of the prodigal in Jesus’ famous parable (Luke 15:1-13) is thoroughly recognizable in his psychological make-up. We infer that he chafes under family rules and wants to be his own man. He longs for financial independence and the freedom to go where he wishes. He exudes the entitlement mentality that characterizes modern American culture. The impulse toward self-indulgence of the appetites is a strong aspect of the prodigal’s psychological profile, accompanied by lack of financial restraint. The prodigal comes to his senses when he becomes homesick. The recognizable human psychology that Jesus manages to pack into just a few verses of our Bibles is breathtaking.
Finding Modern Counterparts
Closely akin to naming biblical data in modern terms is the practice of finding modern counterparts to what we find in the Bible. The Old Testament prophet Balaam seems at first glance a remote figure for whom we lack familiar categories. Imagining him in modern terms yields the following:
As we look at Balaam traveling from mountain top to mountain top overlooking Israel, his robes streaming in the wind, his face flushed with prophetic vision, we might think that there is no character in the Bible less relevant to our day. But the longer we look at him, the closer he moves to where we live. The plains and the mountains fade away, and Balaam walks the streets of our city, shops in our Christmas bedecked stores, and warms the pews of suburban churches during Advent. His flowing garments morph into today’s fashions, and the rushes of eloquence, seeming refusals, and childish coaxing look so much like the aspirations and weak protests and sin of our own hearts. Balaam is as modern as today.
A good formula to have in mind in situations like this is that details in biblical text can be viewed as metaphors of the human condition. The way to tap this potential is to phrase details from the text as metaphors of ourselves. Here is an example, from a sermon on the crossing of the Jordan River by the Israelites: “God has Jordans that he wants us to cross. Beyond them lies land that he was us to occupy, where our service will be enhanced and life will be richer. Do you have any Jordans that you think are impossible? Any rivers that you think are uncrossable? If God is leading you to cross them, you can.”
“It is because preaching is not exposition only but communication . . . that I am going to develop . . . the metaphor . . . of bridge-building. Now a bridge is a means of communication between two places which would otherwise be cut off from one another by a river or a ravine. . . . The chasm is the deep rift between the biblical world and the modern world…. It is across this broad and deep divide of two thousand years of changing culture (more still in the case of the Old Testament) that Christian communicators have to throw bridges. Our task is to enable God’s revealed truth to flow out of the Scriptures into the lives of the men and women of today.”—John R. W. Stott
Building upon the story of Mary and Martha, it is obvious that churches are filled with latter-day Marthas—people who assume that others should be committed to the same Christian causes they support, or who are too busy with Christian ministry to immerse themselves in the Word of God. As we read about the Israelites’ stones of remembrance (Joshua 4), an obvious application is that as individuals and families we need to build our own stones of remembrance. As for the story of Babel, the lesson of the story is that we must leave our own Babel and abandon our own Babylonian hearts’ search for security in the city of man with its collective delusions.
To use details from the biblical text as metaphors of our own experiences is always potentially striking. In a sermon on Esau and his pagan Edomite wives, Kent Hughes recalled the “Esau’s” of his life—men who grew up in believing families but who never valued spiritual things, who married unbelievers and achieved success, and who subsequently felt empty and returned to the faith. “But their families did not follow. When these men died, the family asked for a funeral in the church in respect to their father’s wishes. And when I preached, it was to ignorant, unbelieving hearts—Edomites.”
A good formula to use when building bridges of this type is to ask who the s of our own day are—the Pharisees, the practitioners of the behaviors denounced by the prophets, the Jonahs, the Gideons. When this question is applied to the seeds that fell on the path in Jesus’ parable of the soils, the result is something like the following: for people like this, “life is no more than a sports page and a beer, or a fishing pole, or a movie magazine and an hour at the beauty shops, or a spin in the car. There is no interest in God or his Word. Life is crowded with other things.” These are the contemporary seeds that have fallen on the path.
It is only occasionally that we can transport details from the Bible directly into our own experience by way of metaphoric identification. Usually we simply discover parallel situations, as in the following examples. The gifts that Pharaoh gave Abraham when sending him away after the deception involving Sarah (Genesis 12:16) included female donkeys and camels. Female donkeys were more controllable for riding than their male counterparts, and therefore the ride of choice for comfort-minded travelers. Translated into their modern counterparts, they become Lexus and BMW luxury cars. Camels, recently introduced as domesticated animals and therefore a rarity, were prestige symbols—valued for ostentation rather than utility. Translated into modern counterparts, they were nothing short of a Ferrari Testarosa.
Recognizable Human Experience
Preachers and teachers bridge the gap when they keep their eye on the universal human experiences presented in the Bible. If we can be led to see that what is happening in the text is identical with what happens in our own lives, the gap has been bridged. Balaam’s momentary sentiment “let me die the death of the upright, / and let my end be like his” (Numbers 23:10b) is a longing that many people feel at certain moments, even if they are far from the kingdom of God. Here is how Kent Hughes explicated this universal human experience in a Christmas sermon:
So many men and women dull themselves to the true call of God and the reality of future judgment by the delusive recollections that they have had elevated wishes and godly desires—times when they felt a tug to do God’s will. Even the most confirmed sinners have had thoughts at some time or another that amounted to godly desires.
But the great danger is that of being deceived into thinking that in that welling of emotion—that longing to do the right thing—there is saving power. I may come into church at Christmas tide, and the grand music of the Incarnation graces my ears. The rising architecture and ordered worship lift my feelings and focus my thoughts on God, and goodness, and eternity. I reflexively give assent to the sublime truths of the gospel as recited in the Apostles’ Creed. I go from church feeling better, thinking more about God, and having a greater desire to rid my soul of meanness and envy and hatred and greed. But I have deceived myself. My aspirations are merely passing. These are not the things I desire in my heart of hearts.
Balaam felt similar emotions and gave his feeling expression for all who have felt that way: ‘Let me die the death of the upright, / and let my end be like his.’ But that is not how he lived—or died. Balaam died as an enemy of God at the hands of the people of God, his seer’s robe torn and shredded, his prophet’s eyes staring up blank at heaven: ‘And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword'” (Numbers 31:8b).
The general drift in this example is to carry a character from the Bible into our own life situation.
The reverse is also possible, as we are led to see ourselves in a character of the Bible. The following passage appeared in a sermon on the woman healed of an issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48): “This desperate woman represents humanity—all of us. We are ill. We have spent our money on things that do not work. But when Christ comes to us, we need to touch him by faith. We must not fear that he will not respond.” This type of bridge-building will happen if we put our own heads on the shoulders of the characters about whom we read in the Bible.
“The teacher must help the student construct a bridge that will carry biblical principles from the world of Abraham, David, Jesus, and Paul to one of stock markets, inner-city housing projects, high school hallways, and the Internet. . . . God’s Word is . . . contemporary. It is relevant. But it is the teacher who has the task of aiding the student in seeing Scripture’s relevance.”—Larry Richards
Here is another example, from a sermon on the occasion when Joshua and his fellow leaders were hoodwinked by the deceptive Gibeonites because they “did not ask counsel from the Lord” (Joshua 9:1-16): “They did not seek counsel because things were going well. They had let their guard down; they were confident and relaxed. This comes as no surprise. We are all prone to think ourselves independent of God as soon as things are going well. During trouble we pray continuously in great detail. But when everything is fine, it is hard to think of what we should pray for.”
The characters who live in the pages of the Bible are a prime means by which we can see our own experiences and observations in the Bible. The following brief portrait of Esau is an illustration:
Esau was a spontaneous, extroverted outdoorsman of generous impulse. He lived for what was before him, be it a hunt or a meal or the company of women. Esau was singularly unreflective. He had no sense of the spiritual, no eye for the unseen, no vision, only earthbound dreams. Holy things? He never thought that deeply. It is no wonder that he trashed his birthright and his heritage. Esau could not see beyond what was in front of him. He possessed no vision, no spiritual imagination. Pleasure in the now was his guiding star.
By the time Esau is described in such terms, he emerges in our awareness as someone whom we have all met numerous times, including aspects of our own personality.
Lamech, known to us only by his recorded boast of vengeance (Genesis 4:23-24), emerges as a thoroughly recognizable type in our contemporary culture of violence. He is a brutal, remorseless male. He wears violence as a badge of honor. His boastful song valorizes exponential violence—not sevenfold revenge but seventy-sevenfold. In short, Lamech is someone about whom we might hear in tomorrow’s news.
The drunkenness of Noah is equally recognizable. Here is how he emerges from a sermon on his story: “His pathetic example demonstrates that people in their prime, and even in their old age, are sometimes overtaken by sensualities that they before had avoided. They allow themselves indulgences with the dismissive line that ‘I’m too old for these things to harm me.’ The tendency is to ease up when the conflicts lessen. When all the world was against Noah, he faced scorn and violence straight-up. But in his vineyard among his own who needed no proof of his virtue, he relaxed.”
Familiar Literary Parallels
We all have literary experiences in weekly lives, ranging from television drama to movies to novels. On the basis of these literary experiences, we have a storehouse of familiar literary genres, terms, and motifs as part of our mental equipment. An often untapped form of bridge-building is to identify the literary forms and techniques in the Bible by their customary terms.
The epistles provide simple examples. The epistles, intended to be read in congregational settings, are what we know as “open letters” to a group. The letter to Philemon is a letter of recommendation. 2 Corinthians falls into a familiar genre known among literary people as Apologia Pro Vita Sua, a Latin phrase meaning “defense of his life.”
“The ideal interpreter should be one who has entered into that strange first-century world, has felt its whole strangeness, has sojourned in it until he has lived himself into it, thinking and feeling as one of those to whom the Gospel first came, and who will then return into our world, and give to the truth he has discovered a body out of the stuff of our own thought.”—C. H. Dodd
Familiar narrative patterns abound in the Bible as well. The stories of decline about which we read in the Old Testament historical chronicles often follow the contours of literary tragedy. Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel was what we call a showdown or duel, and it began when Elijah metaphorically speaking threw down the gauntlet. Within the larger story of Elijah, the Mt. Carmel episode is like a two-hour season-ending special in a weekly television drama.
The story of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is a travel story that we can subtitle “on the road with Jesus.” The Gospels are at some level biographies of Jesus. The book of Genesis narrates the epic lives of the patriarchs. The story of the fall in Genesis 3 is an archetypal temptation story, and it ends with the prototypical tragedy of the Western imagination, ending as a story of exile.
Jesus’ sayings and discourses as recorded in the Gospels are replete with familiar rhetorical devices that should be called by their usual names. For example, Jesus was a master of the startling, penetrating paradox. He excelled in enigmatic epigrams and attention-grabbing hyperboles. The rhetoric of reversal permeates Jesus’ sayings and discourses, where the first are last and the last are first. Jesus’ parables, too, are built around familiar literary motifs like loss-search-discovery, or archetypal plot patterns like surprise endings and reversal of fortune in the afterlife (the parable of the rich man and Lazarus).
Application of a biblical text to the experience of the congregation also constitutes a form of bridging the gap. For genuine application, we need to start with a detail in the text or an entire passage and then carry that data over to life in the world as we know it.
In 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, Paul states that “if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.” Here is an application:
Recently I heard a member of our congregation tell how she had repeatedly explained the gospel to another woman who simply did not get it, though she apparently wanted to. So finally my congregant said to the woman, ‘You have a veil over your heart. And you need to pray that God will remove it.’ A few weeks later the woman called, elated, as she explained that she had gone to bed the night before perplexed, but when she awoke that morning everything was clear.
Here is a similar bridging of the gap by way of application at the end of a sermon on Abraham’s experiment in expediency during his sojourn in Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20):
Abram who started so magnificently stumbled in ignominy because he did not expect the famine, the trial, that came after his experience of faith. He stumbled because, when testing came, he forgot God. And forgetting God, he resorted to his own devices. The message for us who have believed God and trusted him for salvation is this: Expect trials as a part of God’s plan. When trials come, do not turn to your own resources, but to Christ.
The hermeneutical premise here is that what happened to characters in the world of the Bible also happens to us. We can travel through Egypt to Hometown by applying what we encounter in a biblical passage.
A sermon on the demoniac boy healed by Jesus included this application: “Perhaps you have descended so deeply into sin and the scars are so profound that you have given up on ever being made whole. You may even be demonized. If we were to meet face to face, perhaps you would tell me, ‘You don’t know the grip that sin has on me.'”
“If we are to build bridges into the real world, . . . we have to take seriously both the biblical text and the contemporary scene. . . . To withdraw from the world into the Bible (which is escapism), or from the Bible into the world (which is conformity), will be fatal to our preaching ministry. . . . It is our responsibility to explore the territories on both sides of the ravine until we become thoroughly familiar with them. Only then shall we discern the connections between and be able to speak the divine Word to the human situation with any degree of sensitivity and accuracy.”—John Stott
Similarly, the first announcement of the birth of Jesus to shepherds is paradigmatic of how salvation comes to everyone who receives Christ. At the time of the nativity, the only group lower than shepherds were lepers. Here is the application: “God comes to those who sense their need. He does not come to the self-sufficient. Christmas is for those who need Jesus.” In other words, salvation is for the metaphoric shepherds of the world.
The application at the end of a sermon on the genealogies of Esau included this statement: “For every generation, the challenge is the same—to see that there is more to life than a meal, a video game, baseball, a party, or an indulgence.” With that sentence, the portrait of Esau that had emerged from the sermon was transported into the sermon listener’s life.
The categories that we have named in the successive sections of this chapter represent an anatomy of the specific ways in which preachers and teachers can bridge the gap from the Bible to Hometown. This list is not a grid to memorize. Its purpose is to raise our consciousness about ways to relate the Bible to the lives of the person in the pew.
This is not to deny that we can identify helpful techniques for bridging the gap. But the more crucial thing is an orientation on the part of a preacher to make connections. If the commitment to perform the task is present, a preacher will succeed in doing it.
We need to reiterate that some preachers and teachers have a natural aptitude for doing the types of connecting that we have descried in this chapter, while others do not. Yet bridging the gap is a skill and orientation that can be nurtured. Preachers who do not bridge the gap have never committed themselves to it. Furthermore, good models exist, and exposure to them will foster the required ability. Finally, simply knowing the types of bridge building that we have named in this chapter can help equip a preacher to perform the task.
Leland wants to see people growing and reading the Bible as literature. He has been a college teacher of literature for over half a century, authored some sixty books, and now continues to bless the Church through his resources made freely available on this site.