A lesson in structure

The King James Bible’s stories and ancient words and lovely turns of phrase have influenced legions of writers. I’m charmed by its liberal use of sobering colons: like so. And by the nonsensical italics. And there’s Jesus: talk about someone who works on multiple levels. He’s always getting thronged and spied upon—What’s he gonna do now?—and he delights in flummoxing. He speaks in riddles to the dumbfounded masses, though perhaps his rhetorical strategy is to intrigue them and, by using symbolism from their lives, as in the parable of the sower, to drive his meaning deep. Just in case, he clues in his disciples (and us, privy to the inner narrative). He works on the sabbath and rebukes hypocrites, establishing his character: a dramatic temper bearing a message more spiritual than doctrinal.

But it wasn’t until recently, reading Mark’s gospel in the New Testament, that I saw how beautifully structured a Bible chapter can be. Verily, I speak of flashbacks.

Momentous events occur in Mark’s brief sixth chapter. Jesus performs two famous miracles, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes; and he walks on water, strolling past a ship that’s struggling against a headwind on the Sea of Galilee. Yet what stayed with me was the artful placement of a scene that transitions into another scene set in the recent past. The passage has emotional richness and drama, and it foreshadows Jesus’ fate.

The essay is structured like this. First, Jesus goes about preaching in the synagogues “and many hearing him were astonished”—offended—because he’s just a carpenter and they know his humble family. (It’s the recurring theme Who does he think he is?) Jesus responds to their unbelief with the “prophet without honor” line and leaves for the villages to teach and heal. Second, he gives his twelve disciples their marching orders, basically to tell people to repent but to expect rejection (which he tells them to handle angrily, I must say—but, again, we readers have knowledge the extras don’t). Third, setting up the flashback with a scene, King Herod gets word of the revival and says Jesus is John the Baptist, returned to life. Herod’s courtiers try to comfort him, saying He’s just a prophet; or It’s the devil. No, Herod says, “It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.”

Exposition explains Herod’s guilty conscience: “For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison” for his wife’s sake. His wife was first his brother’s wife, and John had told Herod not to marry her. John’s edict made her so mad she wanted him not just jailed but killed. In the flashback we see how she maneuvered Herod into separating John from his head. It involves a sexy damsel’s alluring dance and Herod’s folly in making a loose-tongued promise in front of his vengeful wife. At the end, we’ve got the resurrection theme; and we understand Herod’s character—a threat to this new holy man. The narrative timeline resumes with the apostles reporting back to Jesus on their mission work.

Next: miracles.

The ages have burned much fat from biblical narratives, and what’s left has poetic compression. But I was sore amazed at how deftly Mark 6 tucks in the resonant Herod scene and flashback. In this chapter, narrative, theme, and structure work elegantly together within the New Testament’s larger story.

(Incidentally, for my amusement this post is structured like the classic five-paragraph freshman theme: introduction and thesis; three developing support paragraphs; and a conclusion. I know, it has six paragraphs. Don’t be a fundamentalist: I could have stuck the second paragraph thesis statement into the introduction, but this is a blog.)


Filed under creative nonfiction, MY LIFE, narrative, religion & spirituality, structure, theme

3 responses to “A lesson in structure

  1. John

    Read it over many times, each time more stuck. I can’t believe you are creating an appitite in me to read the bible. What was the parable of the sower, again? Give us more bible stuff!

  2. The sower was Jesus’ story about a man seeding a field to a grain crop. Some of the seed fell on rocks and birds ate it immediately; some sprouted where the soil was thin and underlain with rock, and the plants grew great until it turned dry and then they died of thirst with shallow roots. Some seed fell on deep mellow soil and took and grew and bore fruit.

    This was his parable about his own message: some would get it, some wouldn’t at all, and some would try for a while and fail.

  3. Zarathustra

    Did the Herod flashback take place before John the Baptist tortured a thief, or was it during his query for the commander-in-chief?