Category Archives: Story
St Luke’s two-volume history — which we know as Luke-Acts — has a grand scope. It runs from Jerusalem out to small-town Galilee, then back to Jerusalem, then from Jerusalem to all Rome’s empire, and ends in the great capital city of the empire itself. By structuring his grand narrative thus, Luke creates a brilliant apologetic concerning the kingdom of God — established through Jesus, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, for glory of his people Israel and for a light to lighten the Gentiles.
For a story of global ends and high apologetic ambitions, Luke’s gospel has quite provincial, and some might say unpromising, beginnings: an old priest with a barren post-menopausal wife, a virgin in a blink-and-you-miss-it town. Mary visits Elizabeth in a town in the “hill country of Judah,” a town so small that it has no name. Luke doesn’t scoff at these beginnings. On the contrary, he narrates them with the utmost care and respect, without a whiff of condescension. The humble beginnings appear neither as little obstacles to be razed by the global kingdom, nor as the small confines from which the story has to emerge before it can really get going. The characters do not appear as blinkered, ignorant hicks who need to be educated after the manner of, say, Luke himself. Their knowledge of their nation, culture, theology and liturgy is so deep, when it’s stirred by a fresh promise of fulfillment, it bubbles over in songs of beguiling subtlety – and revolutionary power.
Given the breadth of Luke’s narrative, it is striking that he, alone among the four evangelists, pauses to record the song Mary sings during her visit with Elizabeth, and the one Zechariah sings at the birth of John the Baptist. It is doubly striking because Luke is the only Gentile evangelist, and the Magnificat and Benedictus are, in structure and symbol, thoroughly Jewish songs. There they are, two songs for the summing up of the old covenant and the dawn of the new. We still sing them today, magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in God our Savior, in ancient words first heard in the remote hillsides of a faraway land. For that, we are indebted to a man who, like A. P. Carter and Lesley Riddle in Appalachia, did not regard transcribing the songs of the hill country as too light a thing for him.
One of the most important, and trickiest, parts of telling a good story is figuring out how much detail ought to be given to physical descriptions of the characters, and, if so, what those descriptions ought to be like. This is doubly tricky in our age – for we live in an age of body idolaters and body indifferentists. If we follow the former, we may describe our characters’ physical characteristics in some detail, but those descriptions will go no deeper than the skin. If we follow the latter, we will be Gnostics.
That isn’t to say that we must include detailed physical descriptions of characters, or be Gnostics. The New Testament authors, for example, are quite emphatic that Jesus was and is a real Man, with real flesh, and that He trod upon and did not float over, the real earth (except on the rare occasions that He walked on water). Yet nowhere in the New Testament do we get a physical portrait of Him. The only physical detail of significance we get is a curious detail about the risen Jesus: He retained the five wounds of His passion. That physical detail, though, has considerable narrative significance. It demonstrates that the Man who walked out of the tomb Sunday morning was the same Man whose marked and lifeless body was laid to rest in the tomb on Friday afternoon. The Man’s story was graven upon His hands, feet, and side.
We see that kind of sparing physical detail throughout the New Testament. The only other instances of physical descriptions I can think of in the entire New Testament (excepting the Revelation) are the descriptions of Jesus at the transfiguration, and Luke’s statement in the Acts of the Apostles that in the moments immediately preceding St. Stephen’s martyrdom, his face “was like the face of an angel.” And Stephen would soon be among the angels.
When we turn to the Old Testament, we get little more. Meeting young David for the first time we hear three things about his appearance: First, that he’s less impressive, physically, than his older brothers – for the Lord looks on the heart, not the outward appearance; second, that he’s ruddy from keeping the sheep; and third, that he has beautiful eyes. The author does not explain that last detail in terms of the color, shape, or set of David’s eyes. Yet it is significant that the author specially notes the eyes – the part of the outward appearance where the heart is most visible.
The point is that there are physical features that have peculiar narrative significance. Some of these are common features: eyes and smiles, features common to all, have stories written all over them. Some of the features of narrative importance are more unique: marks from pregnancies, scars from battle, surgical scars. In marking these features out for particular attention, we avoid both body idolatry and Gnosticism. Noting them, we preserve the evocative things written upon flesh that make characters.
 As to smiles:
So much reads straight in a smile’s crooked lines:
One betrays care, fear of the enemy –
tough, big, or swindler — crouching at the door;
Another knows where the enemy hides,
And, that presently the bastard will be
Knocked out cold upon the doorstep.
If you smile, friend, follow that second line;
The first is to cast your pearls before swine.
 Character is a word of Greek origin. In biblical usage, it may refer to an instrument used to make a mark upon something, or the mark impressed upon something by such an instrument. It’s the word used of Christ by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews – that he bore the “express image” of God.