We’re just around the corner from the release of Russ Ramsey’s book, Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In forty short chapters (just right for devotional reading), Russ tells the story of the Gospels. What I have said before about Behold the Lamb I say again about Behold the King:
Russ Ramsey tells a story you’ve heard a hundred times and still haven’t heard enough. With remarkable attention to the facts of the matter, Russ brings to life the story that brings us to life. Here is glory made visible, tangible, audible. Which is to say, here is the Incarnation.
Russ and I recently had a chat about Behold the King, three-legged dogs, and the Millennium Falcon.
So, Behold the King of Glory is coming out in time for Easter?
Crossway will be shipping them any day now to folks who ordered online. January 31 is the official release day, but online orders will be fulfilled as they roll in.
Forty chapters for the forty days of Lent?
Yes. If you’ve read my first book, Behold the Lamb of God, this book picks up where that one left off—same voice, same chapter length. Whereas Behold the Lamb has 25 chapters so folks can use it as a daily reader for advent, Behold the King was written as a 40-chapter book so folks could do that same for Lent.
How do you usually observe Lent?
To be honest, I wrote this book as a tool to help me observe Lent better. I grew up going to a church that observed a liturgical calendar (I remember the first thing I ever gave up for Lent was a die-cast metal Millennium Falcon. It sat on top of our refrigerator from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday.)
That’s amazing. Forty days of not playing with the Millennium Falcon. Have you ever gone forty days without playing with it since?
Man, if I could find any of my Star Wars toys, I’d be thrilled.
I gave up the news one year. That was a pretty good way to spend Lent.
Part of the reason I wrote the book was to give a daily reader to folks who may not come from a liturgical background. For me, the heart of Lent is meditating on the finished work of Christ. Self-denial is a great way to do that, but dwelling on the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, I think, is the best way to prepare for Easter. I should mention, however, that I am not driven so much by the liturgical season as I am the story the season focuses on. The story of Jesus, regardless of when the book is read, was the reason I wrote the book.
Here’s what I love about your approach in Behold the Lamb of God and Behold the King of Glory: they’re about incarnation in the most concrete terms possible.
The humanity in scripture is deeply moving to me. Compelling.
There’s a way of telling the story of Jesus that can still leave things pretty disembodied. In every Christmas pageant I’ve ever seen, for instance, the shepherds wear clean robes. But if you’re envisioning shepherds in clean clothes, you’re not envisioning shepherds; you’re envisioning some kind of disembodied being—a symbol, a placeholder. In Behold the Lamb, the way you talk about shepherds—nasty, rough-edged, marginalized, and altogether necessary—that was transformative for me. Those shepherds look a lot more like people I’ve met than the shepherds of the Christmas pageants do. In Behold the King, you’ve done something similar with the Pharisees. They aren’t just cardboard cutouts of bad guys, but very human.
Early on, the Pharisees were folk heroes. They were men of conviction who stood up to idolatrous invaders who sought to defile the temple and their way of worshipping. The Pharisees, at least in their beginnings, were people who wanted to preserve fidelity to scripture among their own people. So they committed themselves to becoming living examples of what it looked like to keep the Law. The problem—as self-righteousness works in all of us—came when they started to believe their own press.
Who would be a good modern-day parallel to Pharisees?
A good parallel might be the person who sees their family line being destroyed by immoral behavior and decides to take a hard line stance against anything of the sort. But then, they begin to believe they are the only one who is righteous.
The Pharisees, as it turns out, are relatable human characters. The more I dig into the stories of the people and parties in scripture, the more I see that they become who they are over time in ways that elicit empathy and warrant understanding.
Tell me an insight you got from this process, something that surprised you.
One insight I saw again and again was that we become who we are as a result of the lives we live. No one chooses to be a self-righteous stick in the mud. But in our efforts to live good clean lives, or at least lives we can feel good about when we lay our heads on our pillows at night, we set up systems we think amount to a life well lived. So the Pharisees, the political figures—like Pilate or Herod—are people who are living out their assumptions of what constitutes a good life. We are all in the process of doing that same thing.
Another insight is that Scripture is full of Easter eggs.
For instance, Jesus led the disciples in a song before leaving the upper room for Gethsemane (Matt 26:30, Mark 14:26).
Please tell me it wasn’t “Kum Ba Ya.”
It was probably Psalm 118.
I have never in my life thought about Jesus singing.
Let’s talk about the day Jesus went back to Nazareth and his friends and neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff. Did you write about that?
I did, actually. What I found so poignant about that was that was the last time he ever went back to his hometown. Think of that. You grow up in this town, a neighborhood kid, and then you go out and become a sought after healer and teacher, and whenever you come home, people look at you funny—like they don’t trust you. And it’s because they cannot believe you have become what people say about you. That scene is a moment of great biblical irony. It’s the people of Nazareth living out the slur “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Even they can’t believe something good has come from among them.
Was that phrase proverbial? Did everybody know Nazareth was a mean town?
It seemed to be a saying: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Like someone might say, “Can anything sophisticated come out of West Virginia”?
I’ve known some mean towns. There’s a famously mean one in Georgia called Rhine—speed traps, three-legged dogs, etc…
My brother once saw a three legged dog while we were driving down the road and exclaimed, “Look at that one-legged dog!” My dad about crashed the car laughing because, apparently, he pictured a one-legged dog pogoing down the sidewalk.
Anyway…I like to imagine Nazareth was like Rhine. It does affect the way one thinks about Jesus, to realize what a tough town he came from.
Nazareth was a rough place. An out of the way place. But if you spend any time at all with scripture, you see that the world at that time was a rough place.
That does bring up a question of interpretation: What are the dangers in, say, imagining Nazareth as Rhine, Georgia? There’s obvious value in relating the world of Jesus to a world I’m familiar with…but what are the pitfalls of that approach?
The pitfalls are that we see through a very Westernized lens. Many of our cultural values are, historically speaking, minority views. We live in a highly sexualized, pop-psychology-influenced culture. We live during a time when we tell children they can be anything they want. In Jesus’ day, that wasn’t common at all. If your dad was a stonemason, guess what you were probably going to be?
So how do you as a writer bridge that gap and help the reader to “relate” without Westernizing things?
I try to focus on what does translate—which is the human experience of wanting to know where we stand in this life. One of my goals with this book was to stay as faithful to scripture as possible. I did a ton of study with each chapter, trying to bring in as much historical accuracy as I could—details not necessarily in the text, but embraced by New Testament scholars. And I try to make sure that I’m caring for my reader as I write. I read aloud what I’ve written, trying to see if I’ve buried them in a bunch of book-learnin.’ I think about both Behold books as my attempt to help people hide scripture in their hearts by way of their imaginations. I firmly believe the Bible is an amazingly compelling story, very relatable.
You do a great job in both books of showing what’s compelling and relatable, and helping me to enter into the story imaginatively. But still, I have some concerns. As much as I love my own imagination, it’s not authoritative.
I would submit that we all have made Jesus in our own image (at least in some measure)—and that we can’t help it.
We can’t help it, but surely we’re supposed to try to help it, aren’t we?
Yes. This is why there is no way to read scripture well unless we read through a lens of humility. It’s part of being the earthbound creatures that we are. God anthropomorphizes himself so we can understand him, and then we anthropomorphize his anthropomorphisms even more.
The lens of humility—that’s right on. I know your research process was rigorous: if writing the Behold books has required a lot of imagination, it has been a highly disciplined imagination. Can you describe the process by which you shaped these forty chapters?
Yes, I spent many hours with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John open in front of me, trying to make sense of the chronology. I consulted the works of others. I began the slow process of breaking Jesus’ life down into five “Eras”:
- Obscurity (his early days in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee)
- Popularity (his preaching tour of Galilee)
- Jerusalem and Judea (mostly from Luke and John), and
- Passion Week.
From there I broke those down into smaller epochs that would become the chapters. Then I gathered study materials for each chapter and studied, took notes and mapped out the key acts of each mini-story.
Were there research resources that were particularly valuable to you? Anything you kept going back to?
I found that, for the purpose of this book, I had to create my own. I found a lot of resources that were great for certain parts of the research—like a few solid chronological syntheses of the four Gospels—but no one resource that covered all the parts. I made a manila folder that had maps and timelines and Scripture references all on one place—things to keep me between the lines as I was writing. I still have it.
Do the research, and then trust your research.
There is a third Behold book to be written. More story to tell. I won’t name it explicitly, but anyone with a New Testament should be able to figure it out.
I already figured it out. You’re going to retell the Book of Revelation.
Swing and a miss.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.