The following is an excerpt from Memoirs of How It All Began by Mark F. Whitters. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
WHEN IT COMES TO the Bible, there is a yawning gap between scholarship and practice. This regrettably has caused a parallel gap between institution and public. The little that filters down from the specialists often disillusions those who might pick up the Bible for inspiration and guidance. More broadly, as the Bible loses traction, so do the institutions that the Bible would seem to promote—and thus more and more the public identifies with being “spiritual but not religious,” as if one can only find what is true within the subjective world and not in supernatural revelation. What is left behind are groups that are increasingly introverted and isolated from each other and a general skepticism predominating among everyone.
This book attempts to bridge the gap between scholarship and practice, and it hopes to address those who identify with being spiritual but not religious. How? By portraying a world where Jesus lived as witnessed by Luke’s artful eye, while inviting the audience to enter into the dramatic action he reports.
How can we imagine this time travel? Memoirs of How It All Began and its companion volume Memoirs of an Unfinished Tale rely on a concept called “Reacting,” where the audience enters into a text as performers. They live and act in the world the text represents, something like a virtual reality. Much like virtual-reality games that attract so many young people today, the outcome for Luke’s staging in this book depends on how the various participants respond—and it is different each time the narrative is retold. And with each play of individuals and groups, the situation for everyone involved changes. Certain “facts” the text gives or assumes cannot change, but the reacting of everyone to the story’s circumstances does change. Thus, the text springs to life, not only in its original context but in the mind of the performer who has to make new decisions about what to do.
Reacting brings us back to the gap above, especially to the one between institution and public. The institution (say, the Church or the Synagogue) has been involved unawares in this very method of communicating for centuries, restaging and rehearsing stories in front of its members, sometimes effectively and sometimes not, something that can be called “liturgy,” where the “word” is the text and the “sacrament” is the virtual-reality game.
So Luke is reteaching his audience about Jesus, starting from scratch, starting with the narrative he wrote but ever trying to draw the reader (Theophilus and us) into its action. How would he communicate his point while livening up the details for someone who either was not present for the actual event or did not pay sufficient attention the first time the Gospel of Luke was performed?
Memoirs of How It All Began is Luke’s second chance to tell his story to a younger and still eager Theophilus. This current work focuses on what happened that drew disciples to Jesus. It makes no assumptions about Jesus (though of course no updated narrator can simply detach themselves totally from presuppositions about a past story) and allows Theophilus to make up his own mind about what Luke reports.
Luke realizes that if he is to arouse his younger companion to act on what he remembers about Jesus, he must again perform his stories and replay the events before Theophilus’s very eyes. He knows that Theophilus is interested in history not as a dry memorization of facts nor of a metal chain of events, but as a compendium of lessons that guide growth and change. History, thinks Luke, unfolds as episodes, cohering around an intelligible theme with drama and suspense. So, not unlike a play, it requires imaginative performance to both entertain and provoke an audience to react.
What follows therefore is Luke’s representation of the Gospel of Luke, but it appears improvisionally here as an emerging and entertaining drama. Think of what follows as a play directed by an experienced playwright who stands with one foot on stage and one foot in real life, a creative project with episodes guided by the original text. This cycle of viewing and reviewing past events to derive current meaning constitutes what ancient Greeks tried to do in narrating history and in staging plays about its heroes—and it is a good principle to facilitate the reading of the Bible for anyone.
The performance below reformulates in modern language what Luke might say to an audience today. At the same time it selects and highlights particular episodes and details instead of repeating the whole story. While it may not cover each verse and reference that a full commentary does, it hopefully will narrate the line of adventures that ties the book together and then can shed light on everything that a more thorough reading of the Gospel of Luke brings out.
The presentation corresponds to the layout of the text Luke wrote, that is, it follows the chapter-by-chapter development of the book. It divides each chapter into episodes that the reader can follow in regular intervals, day by day and week by week. Alternatively, the episodes often stand independently enough that one can consult them for particular interpretations. There are at least six particular applications of this representation that allow for a dramatic performance of the Bible as a method of reaching an audience. This method of teaching is particularly useful in today’s “virtual reality” world.
IT’S TIME TO START over, Theophilus and fellow reader, to go back to the sources. What drew me and others to Jesus in the first place? Why him—and not others who made similar claims and had similar followers? To do this, I think I have to start over and reduce what I wrote in my first book to the basics of what we should now review.
You can call it, I suppose, an “orderly account” [1:3] of what you read earlier. Only this time, I’m asking you to start over and meet Jesus as if he were striding onto the stage for the first time—and the stage is your life. Just in case you missed it in my first book [Gospel of Luke] about Jesus or my second book [Acts of the Apostles] about the generation after Jesus, I don’t just write history as if to repeat what others have said. Nor do I simply reenact things as if to entertain. No, Theophilus, I write to perform these stories. Now, more than ever, I write so that you enter into the drama and react to what I have staged.
Tell me, O readers, that my text is a ruse
—that no one can whistle the song of Jesus!
To force his words and his life onto stage,
—to play him like this in lights is obtuse!
And I reply with wicked wink
That all you need do is hear
How Jesus piped his tune and danced
For crowds to hiss or to cheer.
Performing his message about a throne—
The audience, provoked, now guessed,
Is Elijah to come, John to judge,
Are you Moses or one of the rest?
A lead, a role, a script, I’ll add;
He knew what others rehearsed before;
And he, the best and sum of it all,
Spins salvation out of such lore.
Praise for Memoirs of How It All Began
“Long entombed within the amber prose of King James scholars, Luke the Evangelist here emerges as a deeply human teacher, by turns poetic and even puzzled, yet always profound. Mark Whitters, a superb scholar and perceptive humanist, has found new words and a new way to lead us to a deeper understanding of the words and the way of Jesus of Nazareth.”
—Mark C. Carnes, Barnard College, Columbia University
“In Memoirs of How It All Began, Whitters bridges the yawning gap between scholarship and everyday life and between divine revelation in Scripture and subjective spirituality. Like a skilled movie producer, Whitters takes the old written movie about Jesus’ life first produced by the Evangelist Luke and remakes it for a contemporary audience. Beyond vividly portraying Christ crucified before their eyes, Whitters compels the audience to enter the Lukan story as performers and to react to the dramatic characters and unfolding events. This prequel to Whitters’ Memoirs of an Unfinished Tale is sure to capture the attention of modern audiences, and I give it two-thumbs up!”
—Troy W. Martin, Saint Xavier University
“Memoirs of How It All Began will immerse readers of the Gospel of Luke in a creative experience of the text. While remaining rooted in excellent scholarship, it acts as a bridge between ‘then’ and ‘now,’ offering a new and rewarding way into the Gospel. Highly recommended, especially for study groups!”
—Leslie Baynes, Missouri State University
“Most believers recognize their need for help with reading Scripture, yet the commentaries they read leave them more confused than before. In Memoirs of How It All Began, Whitters takes the Gospel of Luke and recasts it as a holy play. Where you and I see disconnected tales, Whitters see paragraphs in a story and the plot of a spiritual mystery. He invites us to participate in the production of the true story of the God who became Man. As we participate as performers, that story becomes real in our lives. I wholeheartedly recommend Memoirs of How It All Began for individuals or groups.”
—Samuel C. Williamson, Founding Director, Beliefs of the Heart
“Picture, if you will, that Luke took pen in hand for a third rendering of the drama of Jesus intervening in the course of human history and God’s Spirit animating the simple people of field, village, and religious center. Dr. Mark Whitters takes pen in hand and deftly portrays the layers of paradox (and pun) as God turns the world on its head in showering light, mercy, and peace on common people in a way that would pale the efforts of the religious and political powers of that day. Something God continues doing to this very day! Come discover your part in this ‘drama’ of renewal and redemption!”
—Bob and Deb Clark, Faculty Ministry, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Madison, WI
“Memoirs of How It All Began is a captivating account of the Gospel of Luke. Whitters provides the requisite background that illuminates the Gospel. I found the background and the footnotes to be very helpful in setting the context for my study of Luke. The questions that he crafts tease out applications of Luke’s Gospel for us in our busy lives. In Memoirs of How It All Began, Jesus is the performer and he invites the disciples and us (Theophilus included) into his performance! What a great invitation!”
—Anthony M. Musumba, University of Mary
About the Author
Mark F. Whitters is a senior lecturer with a post in Jewish Studies in the Department of History & Philosophy at Eastern Michigan University. He is a member of an ecumenical brotherhood called Servants of the Word that has done urban outreach in the city of Detroit, where he has lived for the past seventeen years. He is author and editor of several books and more than twenty articles.
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