One of the many luxuries of being able to do a large portion of my jobs from home, is that I get to be an active participant in the daily lives of my family. Recently my wife has started the practice of reading real chapter books aloud to the kids at lunch and before bed. Over the course of the last several months, I’ve had the opportunity of listening to “The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe”, “Because of Winn-Dixie”, and “The Wizard of Oz” read aloud by my wife and experienced for the first time by my children. — Please don’t spoil the end of Winn-Dixie for me. I missed the ending because I had to work and I don’t know if everyone at the party finds him or not. — The current book we’re reading is Oz. There’s no telling how many times I’ve watched that movie. It was in constant rotation in my house growing up. I’d conservatively guess I’ve watched the movie 25 times. But, despite having seen the movie many times, I’ve never once read the book. To be honest, until I married my elementary school librarian wife, I didn’t even know Oz was a book. So, this read-aloud experience has been really cool for me. I’m getting to experience the book of The Wizard of Oz for the first time.
It’s a well-established axiom that the book is always better than the movie. This is very true for Oz. The book has so much action! The metaphors around what true bravery, smarts, and heart look like are so apparent in the book, but were entirely missed by me in the movie. The Wizard is more mysterious and less nice. There are true dangerous situations with horrifying half-bread monsters. There are deep ravines and dangerous rivers. And, most shockingly of all, Dorothy has silver shoes. Silver!
Let’s pivot to another story for a bit and I’ll get back to Oz, I promise. For those of you who don’t know, I became a Christian in my mid-20s. It’s a long story, but essentially, I read my way into the faith through theology books. From my conversion until the early part of seminary, I just couldn’t get enough of theology books. In my quiet times on the back patio, on rainy Sunday afternoons, and into the dark evenings of winter I’d be found reading my theology books. I learned so much from these books and am so grateful for the ministries of the many authors who instructed me and led me closer to God!
Through-out this time, however, I started to feel convicted. You see, I was reading a lot about the Bible; lots of little quotes, and bits in the footnotes, but not the Bible itself. As I was struggling to maintain a Biblical faith in the face of my progressive peers, I was realizing I could tell you what Wesley, Luther, Augustine, and Aquinas thought about the Bible, but not what I thought. I was attempting to maintain a Biblical faith that was real light on the Bible part. It was like I was a fan of the movie without ever having read the book.
I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle. When I look around on social media, I see a lot of people talking about Jesus and his gospel. But, based on what they’re saying, it seems they have only seen the direct to VHS Bollywood edition of the Gospel. They’ve clearly never read the book. Like me, until recently, they’re living in a world where Dorothy has red slippers instead of silver!
In today’s epistle reading, Paul is calling Timothy to stay true to Jesus. Timothy lives in a world where the Church will soon be assaulted by “evil people and impostors.” The Church will not be content with the traditions of her teaching but will have “itching ears” and look for new teachers to “suit their own passions” and will “wander off into myths.” Sounds familiar to me.
There are so many proofs of Paul’s apostleship, and this is yet another one. Though he was talking directly to Timothy and the situations he was facing, through the power of the Holy Spirit he was also speaking to the struggles of our day. We, like Timothy, sit in a culture that wants to ignore and reject that which is old. In its effort to escape — or at least forget — the reality of sin and death, our culture “progresses” to new ideas and disposes of that which is old.
Look around. Like the person who’s only ever watched the movie, our culture wants to establish “innovations” and “lies” not found in the Book as truths. In the book edition of Oz, the Emerald City is actually white marble and only appears green because of the green-lensed glasses everyone is forced to wear. In the movie the glasses are dropped from the plot entirely, and the city is actually green. A powerful metaphor about beauty, truth, and the corrupting lies of power and control is dropped by the movie. A lie becomes truth. That which only seemed to be green because of a complex and nuanced narrative now becomes the newly established reality.
Now obviously, the director of the Oz film didn’t have evil intentions. Glasses just wouldn’t work in a film. But I think we can all look around in our present moment and see the many places where “movie Jesus” has become the “truth” and Biblical Jesus has faded into the past, unknown by many. We see it all around us as people profess a hyper-masculine Jesus hesitant to forgive, a Jesus who’s more a political revolutionary than Redeemer, a Jesus who doesn’t desire to transform but only wants to affirm, a Jesus who’s a teacher and example instead of a God.
Time and time again, those who hold a traditional view are told they are the innovators. For example, I recently stumbled upon a conversation online where people were commenting on how hypocritical it was for Christians to be against idols while they worshiped Jesus like an idol. Even as Christians were responding citing the fact that the command wasn’t against worshiping a god (i.e. “idols”), but “thou shalt have no other gods before me,” — i.e. you can only worship the one, true God, Yahweh — they were told they were the ones trying to innovate their way out of hypocrisy. The movie — Christianity as defined by popular culture —- had become truth and citing the Book an innovation.
So, I think y’all see where this is going. I’m about to tell y’all to read your Bibles more. And that’s true. But, first, I want to acknowledge how hard that is. Like movies versus books, it’s so much easier to sit down and watch something for two hours than is it to commit to hours of reading. Our brains are not naturally accustomed to the deep work of Bible reading. We’re accustomed to succinct, organized, and plain ideas being packaged and delivered to us in neat little bundles. A collection of writings written by many different men interacting with the Living God over millennia is a different ball of wax.
Reading the Bible takes effort. It’s a hard discipline to start. I’ll admit, it took me years of false starts and failed attempts to get into a habit of regular Bible reading. You want to know what worked for me? I’ll tell you: the prayer book.
You see, this little red book is English Christianity’s gift to the Church. In this book are patterns and plans that’ll lead you to the Book and away from the movie. For most people, picking up a Bible and deciding to start in Genesis is not going to be a plan for success. The Bible is not a book you just read. The Bible is a book you pray. The Bible is a book you experience. The Bible is a book that draws God near to your heart. This little red book for me, and for so many, is the key. The discipline of Morning and/or Evening prayer: approachable reading plans spanning Old and New Testament, prayers, confessions, silence, and participation with saints past, present, and future — is the path I recommend to you to get into the Word.
But, however it is that we enter the discipline of the Bible, we must do it. We cannot proclaim a Gospel we do not know. We cannot lead people to a God who is a stranger to us. Paul says that Scripture is “God-breathed.” This is no normal book. In the Bible we not only read the full and beautiful story with all the parts the movie left out, but we experience something not to be found anywhere else. Bible reading, when done in the context of prayer and purpose, transcends to a near sacramental act. As the Anglican priest John Wesley once said:
The Spirit of God, not only once inspired those who wrote it [the Bible], but continually inspires, [and] supernaturally assists those that read it with earnest prayer. Hence [the Bible] is so profitable for doctrine, for instruction of the ignorant, for the reproof or conviction of them that are in error or sin: for the correction or amendment of whatever is amiss, and for the instructing or training up the children of God in all righteousness.
We live in a fallen world. We are surrounded by those who want to teach the Church what she wants to hear. It is so easy to fall into the sins of making our own god. If we only watch the movie, we can quickly find ourselves serving a god who looks a lot more like the culture around us and requires very little of us.
Instead, we are called to “preach the word” and “do the work of an evangelist” in all seasons of our lives and in every culture.
So, grab your Bible, explore the gifts of the prayer book. “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.” Think of the saints that have gone before us. Think of their strength and their witness. They taught us “from our childhood.” In the prayerful reading of Scripture, the Holy Spirit meets us and makes us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
The movie is often a more comfortable place. The rough edges have been sanded away. Difficult plot points have been edited out. Conflict is reduced. Nuance is thrown out for a clearer narrative. To expand the audience, difficult things are thrown away.
But we are called not to slip on our ruby slippers and walk down the yellow technicolor road to Oz. We are called to the silver slippers. We are called to the complexities and nuance of the full story. The real road to Oz is not full of song and dance, but we should not be afraid. Jesus calls us, but he also empowers us to obey his will. We are not alone. He travels before us and beside us. And though the Book road with Jesus is longer and more challenging than any movie, we are better for it. Our journey with him leads us to the happiest of ends. He will lead us home.
Let us pray:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.