“I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.” -Barbara Brown Taylor
Truth be told, we all have books that set the categories through which we think… which books are yours?
Several weeks ago, I conducted an unofficial survey regarding people’s go to books of the Bible. I asked people via Twitter “If you could only read/study/wrestle three books of the Bible for the rest of your life, which books would you select?” I think it’s a fun–and perhaps even important–exercise because it forces us to think about the places in scripture that speak to us on a soul-level.
To be fair, some do not like these kind of question games. It’s like asking a devout loyalist of U2 to choose their three favorite albums (The answer, in case you are curious is obvious: The Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree, and Rattle and Hum. That settles it. You’re welcome.). Or, it’s like asking a pro-basketball fan to select the 3 greatest players in NBA history (Jordan, Jabbar, Russell). Some people simply don’t like competition lists. I’m not one of those people. I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that we all privilege some texts over others (or albums, or movies, or music albums, or whatever). It’s what we do. It’s part of being human. If you’re Protestant, remember Martin Luther had his favorites (Romans) and his least favorites (James).
I’m suggesting it is a helpful exercise to reflect upon the role Scripture plays in one’s imagination, and ethical world-view. None of us use the whole Bible all the time, it simply isn’t possible. This is not an excuse from learning the deeper meaning of Leviticus (for instance), but it’s a healthy admission that some places in scripture move us at a deeper level. If the Bible is that which “an elephant can swim and a child can wade” . . . we must think about which places we end up, more or less.
So . . . here’s my go to list of three books of the Bible. Some rationale included. If I could only read/study/wrestle with three books of the Bible for the rest of my life . . .
Genesis. Because it is one of the primary texts Jesus grew up with, I have found Genesis to be one of the most liberating, enticing, and challenging books in all of scripture, not just Torah. It’s part of the Bible Jesus read and whether or not it was written before or after Exodus (something scholars argue about) it lays the foundation for almost everything that is central to Jesus’ kingdom message: the goodness of creation, the power of God over chaos and destruction, the image and Spirit of God that is found within humanity, the sacredness of calling and vocation, sin, faith an politics, empire, forgiveness, reconciliation, suffering, theodicy, and the list goes on. I don’t know if Jesus develops his kingdom strategy if not for the power of Genesis. Great resources on Genesis: JPS commentary, Robert Alter (Translation and Commentary), and Bill Moyers (Genesis).
Luke (do I get Acts too if I give you a draft pick TBD?). Of all four gospel narratives, Luke has impacted me the most. The combination of historical recollection, unique parables of Jesus (only Luke contains the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son), and mystic Christ encounters (Luke 24), leave me constantly returning back to the pages of this sacred story to remember how and why I fell in love with Jesus and his vision for the world (Luke 19) when I was a student in college. Luke, in my estimation, is Christianity’s good news that, in Jesus, God is bringing the the entire world–including the rich and the poor–together in a way that one other religion attempts to do. Luke is the ultimate example that the spiritual life is about seeing (imagination), believing (theology), and doing (practice). Great resources on Luke include: Luke Timothy Johnson’s Luke commentary (Sacra Pagina), Tom Wright (Luke for Everyone), and Joel B. Green’s commentary (NICNT).
Revelation. Perhaps the most mystifying, power-packed, complex, mysterious, frustrating, hopeful, and imaginative book in the entire Biblical canon, Revelation has been crucial to my understanding of the non-violent, upside-down, future-invading-the-present nature of global Christianity. Chapters 20-22 alone have shaped my theology as much as any three chapters in all of Jewish/Christian scripture.I truly believe that eschatology shapes everything else. Where we think things are headed tends to shape the way we understand the present and the way we interpret the past. Islam and Christianity (and to a lesser degree, the new movements of Atheism in the West) are essentially eschatological
debates. We need Revelation because it reminds us that eschatology is about the faithfulness of God in past, present, and future realms. Great resources for Revelation include: Greg Stevenson’s A Slaughtered Lamb and Brian Blount’s Can I Get a Witness?
It should not surprise you that I’m all-in on narrative theology and narrative preaching. I essentially chose three books that are mainly narrative (back off hard-core Bible nerd-I know Revelation is technically apocalyptic but it still reads like a Stephen King novel meets subversive Anabaptist Jews. And, Revelation depends heavily upon the real story that under girds the apocalyptic vision contained within its pages.)
The truth is that most Christians operate based on a canon within the canon. The books/sections of sacred scripture that shaped us in college or early adulthood usually remain the portions of scripture we return to over and over again. As with music, so with scripture. And, in my estimation, that’s not a bad thing. Because, after 12 years of working in ministry, I can assure that having a canon within the canon is far better than having no canon at all. So, what’s on your list? What’s your canon within the canon?
Josh Graves is the teaching minister for the Otter Creek Church in Nashville, TN. He is author of The Feast (2009), Heaven on Earth (2012 with Chris Seidman), and How Not to Kill a Muslim (Cascade, 2015). He holds a doctorate from Columbia Theological Seminary. You can follow him on twitter (@joshgraves).