Sam: You’re a pastor with an inkling for art, what many would describe as an unworkable tension. How have these two loves been combined in your vocation as an author?
Russ: For me, pastoral ministry and art are not only a workable pair, but pretty essential for how I’m wired. Like a lot of folks in pastoral ministry, I’m not great with administration. I’m competent, I suppose. But what gets me out of bed in the morning is that I think the Gospel is beautiful, and I believe one of the most powerful ways the Lord meets people with it is by surprising them with its potent beauty.
Since I’m a person who believes Scripture is God-breathed, I believe the Bible is a trustworthy and bottomless wealth of wonder and beauty. I believe there is art to be mined from every page of Scripture– beauty and power that sneak up on the unsuspecting discouraged soul. And I love to be there when that happens.
My work as a pastor affords me time to marinate and meditate on a text–to see how it connects to what comes before and after, to see the greater story arc a passage fits into. There have been many times when I’ve been preparing a sermon and I’ve come across a little detail that stops me in my tracks–like Mark 14:26 which tells us that before Jesus left the upper room for the garden of Gethsemane, he led the disciples in a hymn. Think about that for a minute. After dispatching Judas, after instituting the Lord’s Supper, after praying the High Priestly Prayer, after breaking it to Peter that he wasn’t half the man he thought he was, and knowing when he left that room it would be to await his arrest, he led the disciples in a song! Really?!
Say all you want about that being a part of the passover. If it was you, would you have been in the mood to sing? Would you have been strong enough to say, “Friends, stand and join me in a doxology of praise to our always faithful God before we go?” This, to me, is a profound picture of the strength of Jesus, and it wrecks me.
And what did his voice sound like when he sang? I want to know these sorts of things. And it fascinates me to know that there were disciples who could tell us.
I can bring those details up in a sermon, but when I write, I can hide myself from view and just paint the scene. And as a pastor, I know there are people in crisis who need to know the strength of Jesus in the midst of their suffering. From the pulpit I proclaim the strength of Jesus the best I can. When I write, I’m trying to show the strength of Jesus in a different way.
Sam: Your new book, Behold the Lamb of God, is described as “An Advent Narrative.” Why Advent and why narrative?
Russ: Well, as for the Advent part of your question, I grew up in a church that followed a liturgical calendar, and from as far back as I can recall I’ve been fascinated by the whole idea of attributing entire seasons of the year to the intentional reflection and meditation on a single theme from the story of redemption. I think there’s something beautiful about Advent, Lent, and the rest of the liturgical seasons (especially Ordinary Time) that call us to really steep in the second part of your question–the narrative of redemption.
Christianity is so much more than a list of rules and theological precepts. It is a story, one that takes us through the valley of the shadow of death into the light of the glorious freedom of the children of God. The story is rich, long, dramatic and directly connected to my own standing before my Maker. My hope for the book is that it would give people a chance to trace the story of redemption from the Garden of Eden to the manger in Bethlehem.
Sam: How do you envision people using/enjoying this book?
Russ: So now you’ve led me into a question I’m struggling to answer. On the one hand, I intentionally composed 25 chapters so the book could be used as a daily reader for December, ending on Christmas Day. I’d love to see the book become an annual liturgical tradition for individuals, families, and churches–something they dust off every Thanksgiving and read through the month of December. That would be a dream realized, as far as I’m concerned.
But on the other hand, I also really hope the book rings clear with relevance throughout the rest of the year too, and that people would feel the liberty to read it over a weekend, or during the month of May–whenever, however. One of the things I love about Andrew Peterson’s record, Behold the Lamb of God: The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ, is how it transcends season. While it is the Christmas story, it doesn’t sound like a Christmas record. I’d love for my book to follow that pattern–to tell the Christmas story, but not necessarily to read like a Christmas book.
Sam: Do you feel a tension between being “clear” and “plain” in preaching and writing and being “creative” and “artful?” When I have heard you preach, its feels like you sort of effortlessly marry clarity and beauty. How do you do that?
Russ: Preaching is an art, and I’m a student. For me, so much of what I see as clear and plain in Scripture is very artful and beautiful. Poetic. I’m drawn to the way a story unfolds, the economy of words, the dialog we’re given–which usually isn’t much. If I preach on, say, the “woman at the well,” and if I’m telling the story like a first year journalism student giving just the facts, I know I haven’t grasped the point of the story. That story contains astonishment, confusion, an undercurrent of cultural bigotry, a woman with a broken heart, and a teacher with the ability to see into her soul. When I take on a story like that, the burden of being clear is to, as clearly as I can, unfold the tragedy and beauty God himself has recorded in the canon of Scripture. That’s a story where God reveals himself to a broken person. I want to labor to show the beauty in that.
Sam: What’s next for Russ Ramsey, author?
Russ: Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative is the first of three books I plan to write. The second, which I’m calling Ordinary Time: The Life of Jesus of Nazareth picks up where Behold the Lamb leaves off–with Jesus’ earthly ministry. That one will be 31 chapters–symbolic for a month of reading. The third will be a companion to Andrew’s sometime-to-be-released Easter record, Resurrection Letters. That one will take 40 chapters (one for each day of Lent) to trace through the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. When the three books are together, they will take the reader through the story of the need for, the coming, the life and ministry, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I’m underway with Ordinary Time right now. I hope to have it available by next Christmas.
Thank you, Russ. You may purchase Russ’s fine book here in the Rabbit Room store.