An ancient lesson in structure

Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), 1905-1906

A version of this post first ran October 3, 2008

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 then 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. He’s a hoot, and nothing like his skeevy interpreters would have you believe.

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 so. 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 about him: 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. The guy was no mellow Buddha in this tale. 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 latest 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, deeper meaning, and structure work elegantly together within the New Testament’s larger story.

Advertisements

11 Comments

Filed under NOTED, punctuation, scene, structure, symbolism, theme

11 responses to “An ancient lesson in structure

  1. Thou speakest not as one of the scribes but as one who speakest with authority. Isn’t it fun to notice and decide things for oneself!?

  2. theexile

    A very astute reading of Scripture. And it’s a shame Bible readers have abandoned The King James in favor of easier to understand versions, versions so dry and prosaic I can’t see how anyone could get any spiritual insight from them, much less find pleasure in reading them.

  3. Richard, I brought one Bible with me to Brooklyn–the leather-bound, gilt-edged, Holman (Cadillac version) of the KJV given to me as an eleventh birthday present in 1959. I have a half dozen or more other Bibles. I brought this one, partly because when I press my nose against the leaves at the binding, I can still smell my childhood.

    Your close reading of Mark 6 is a revelation to me. Maybe I brought along this version so that I can learn how to structure my memoir!

  4. Do you have a Facebook page or Twitter? Would love to follow you there, I’m on my iPhone and love reading your stuff!

  5. Richard, I attended a session at the Brooklyn Book Fair last week featuring David Rakoff of NPR fame. Someone in the audience talked about reading the KJV for rhythm and cadence. Rakoff raised an eyebrow and opined be didn’t know anyone did that. I thought of you.

  6. I love your writing style truly loving this website.

    • Thanks so much, Shirley. Wonderful! It is such a great work, as the article affirms, and a wonderful model for writers. I have been reading the Book of John and it’s such a scenic, unfolding narrative, with great use of dialogue, that all writers should study it, as they once did.