There are many times in which I don’t know how in the world I could possibly preach if I hadn’t majored in English in college.
That’s where and how I learned to read closely and write consistently, two skills that I have found more important than any others when it comes to sermon design and delivery.
And I truly believe that a good novel shows you more about what makes people tick — and self-destruct — than any book of psychology or theology. These days, I’ll gain more ministry insights in something by Ann Patchett than in the latest “How To Grow A Major Mega Church” book.
All that came home when I looked through my very own hard copy of Head Scratchers. Chapter One is called “The Violent Bear It Away,” which is a relatively obscure translation of a relatively obscure verse, Matthew 11:12. In fact, it comes from a 1609 Roman Catholic translation of the New Testament called the Douay-Rheims version. Which choose that over my trusty NIV?
Because I’m an English major!
My graduation project was a 122-page thesis on the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, a Georgia-born, Catholic-haunted, and lupus-afflicted literary genius.
I think I’ve gotten a bit better at titles through the years; I called that thesis “Self-Reliance, Earthly Perfection, And The Search In Flannery O’Connor.” That lacks a bit of the snap of Head Scratchers, much less Solutionists.
Anyway, one of O’Connor’s novels is called . . . drum roll please . . . The Violent Bear It Away.
As it turns out, the novel has a scene that crystallizes the interpretive ambiguity at the heart of Matthew 11:12. Here’s how Head Scratchers says it in a little literary aside that wasn’t in the preached version:
O’Connor had a reputation for creating bizarre characters who engage in incomprehensible acts, and The Violent Bear It Away is no exception. The central scene in that particular bok is when a twelve year old backwoods prophet simultaneously baptizes and drowns a five year old boy with Down’s syndrome . . . A baptism. A drowning. At the same time. The Kingdom advancing and the Kingdom under assault. Violently. A friend of the gospel is a foe of the gospel. That’s why O’Connor settled on The Violent Bear It Away as the title of her novel, and perhaps that’s why I have been drawn to this particular translation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:12.
To get the rest of that chapter, check here.
I suppose all that is a way of saying I find it oddly appropriate that the first chapter of this book that has been such a pleasant surprise in my life comes from something I learned, not in kindergarten, but as an English major.
I guess I would do it all over again.