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Step into Scripture: Do You Imagine Yourself in Bible Stories?

Readers step into the sandals of woman disciples in my biblical fiction Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold. In a recent interview, podcaster Kate Nash asked me "What is the impact of seeing Jesus through the eyes of women?". Seeing Jesus through their eyes, ears, and experiences results in a fresh look at the stories of Jesus.


Christians and Jews have a long history of seeing ourselves in stories of how God has helped us in the past. We place ourselves in the stories of how God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt through Moses and Miriam, and how God put Esther and Mordecai in place to save the Israelites from genocide. We place ourselves with the adults and children waving palm branches as Jesus entered Jerusalem, and we take the role of the women on that first Easter when we say "He is risen!" and reply, "He is risen indeed!".


In the sixteenth century, Ignatius of Loyola encouraged imaginative contemplation by putting yourself in a Bible story (1a) as a form of listening to God in prayer. Ignatius encouraged contemplation and praying with the imagination to engage the mind, heart, and emotions (1b). As we imagine ourselves in a Bible story, we can think about what we might feel, smell, see and hear. This is also what biblical fiction does. Ignatius suggests that on imagining a scene or story, ask yourself what difference it makes in your everyday life.


In the parable of the lost son, if you relate to the younger son, you get a message of grace. However, if you relate to the older son, the good and faithful son, you learn that you have no extra privileges and your father shares everything with both sons without favouritism. If you relate to the woman caught in adultery, you get a message of grace. However, if you relate to those who wished to judge her, you learn that your sins are as grave as hers and you're not in a position to judge. If you put yourself into the various characters of Bible stories, the Bible is likely to stimulate critical thinking and challenge your views. (2)


My biblical fiction imagines Clopas's wife Mary as his companion on the road to Emmaus. It makes sense to me that a husband and wife would be returning to their home after Passover, exchanging ideas about what the men and women had seen and heard, and arriving at their home to eat supper. Only Clopas spoke to the stranger on the road, as it was customary for women not to speak to strangers. Mary of Clopas was at the tomb when the angels appeared and told them Jesus had risen (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10). Why didn't she speak? The male disciples had told the women they were talking nonsense, telling foolish stories, and imagining things. The men gaslit the women, making them doubt their own experiences and afraid to speak about the angels at the tomb (Luke 24:11, Mark 16:8). The idea of Clopas travelling with his wife is not a new, feminist idea. Duccio di Buoninsegna portrayed a woman and a man in his Road to Emmaus painting in 1311

Emmaus
Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_Road_to_Emmaus_-_WGA06821.jpg

For many years, I felt it was important for my daughters to imagine themselves on the road to Emmaus (3). I thought that would show them that they were important enough that Jesus would appear to them and speak to them. If you start with the preconceived notion that all disciples are male, you may believe that Clopas's companion is therefore a male. Some may think it's important to believe that the risen Jesus would only value men enough to appear to them on the road to Emmaus. If you put yourself in various characters of Bible stories, it may challenge your views.


But what about other potential characters in this story? What about the story behind the story? What about the invisible people we often ignore? What if we put ourselves in the story not only as a woman disciple, wife of Clopas but also as a biracial servant?

Emmaus
Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez_-_Kitchen_Scene_with_the_Supper_in_Emmaus_-_WGA24358.jpg

In 1618, Diego Valazquez portrayed the story from the view of a kitchen maid at Emmaus. Valazques put a Moorish servant working in the kitchen in the foreground, and Christ with his disciples in the background. The artist contrasts the worldly story of food preparation with the spiritual story; he effectively portrays a story behind the story.

"The subject of this painting, then, is a person marginalized at every level — by her race, religion, gender, and class. While the men speak of spiritual matters in the back, she's hard at work in the kitchen." Daniel B. Clendenin, Journey with Jesus (4)

The maid is shown as a Muslim, a group heavily persecuted in Spain in the 1500s, yet she is privileged with seeing and knowing the risen Christ. Today we would call this a portrait of intersectional feminism. The art has inspired a poem to enhance our imaginative contemplation (4):

poem
Servant Girl at Emmaus poem
poem
Servant Girl at Emmaus (continued)

Valazques used a similar technique in portraying Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in 1618. The piece contrasts contemporary life with the Bible story, telling the story of the dinner preparation behind the story of Jesus.


I understand this painting to depict Martha in the foreground, her cheeks flushed from hard work and her face reflecting her many worry and indecision. Over Martha's left shoulder, we can see her sister Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, learning as a disciple. Over her right shoulder, an older woman seems to rebuke Martha, possibly saying that Martha needs to complete the food preparation. The artist portrays the dilemma we all share, balancing spiritual and worldly needs. Putting yourself in the place of Martha, burdened with worldly responsibilities, may challenge your views.

Mary and Martha
Martha and Mary Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary.jpg

Joachim Beuckelaer does a similar portrayal contrasting spiritual and worldly realms in his 1565 painting of Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (below).

martha and mary
Wikimedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joachim_Beuckelaer-J%C3%A9sus_chez_Marthe_et_Marie.jpg

Valazquez's most famous "painting within a painting" is Las Meninas, done in 1656. The purpose of the gathering was that Valazquez was doing a portrait of King Philip IV of Spain and his wife Mariana of Austria.

Spanish princess
Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Las_Meninas,_by_Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez,_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth.jpg

We see Valazquez himself standing behind his easel on the left and the subjects of his portrait in the mirror behind him. The story behind the story is what really happened when he painted the portrait. The focus is on five-hear old princess Margaret Theresa and her ladies-in-waiting. This painting puts the main story in the background and real life in the foreground.


It seems to me, that we have often put the main characters of Bible stories - Peter, James, and John - in the foreground of our thinking.


However, we may be missing valuable insights that can be gained by instead putting real life in the foreground. In the stories of Jesus, who was cooking and serving? When he taught, were there both men and women present? Were there both children and adults? Both free citizens and servants? Were there people of all ethnic backgrounds? If we put all of these people into our reading of the Bible we may see it challenge our views.


 
 

Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor







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