Shakespeare, Scripture, and ‘All the world’s a stage’

Shakespeare has been appearing on my radar a lot lately. I recently drove past a billboard with his portrait saying “Shakespeare—words never had it so good”. There’s a new play at a local theatre I believe has combined all of his plays into one integrated performance. Othello was a crossword puzzle clue today. A friend confided the other day he’d like to read all of Shakespeare’s works before he died, a desire I also share. I also conveyed this same goal to my sister in a recent conversation.

One of the most avid readers I know, she replied deftly “Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be read, but watched. It’s like reading a recipe book; all the ingredients are there but you have to make and taste the dish to really experience it.”

It made much sense to me. When Shakespeare wrote, it wasn’t books but scripts of lines for actors to learn and perform on stage for all to see and experience. The entertainment of its day, the stage offered drama, distraction, imagination, enlightenment, and camaraderie to the masses. Not as polite as today’s modern theatergoers, the energy of the audience often created the atmosphere in which performances took place, helping draw them into the story and making them, too, participants. The entire experience was a feast for the senses for all involved, both actors and audience. As a Bible student, I see this dynamic as distinctly similar to approaching and applying Scripture.

The Holy Scriptures are not a disjointed collection of randomly written sentences blabbering on about some impersonal deity. They are revelation of the main character, LORD, and the story He is framing around His epic cast of human characters. Much of the story concerning them is one of estrangement, from both God and each other; the story God is crafting, however, is one of salvation. Each Bible book—whether history, statute, wisdom and prayer poetry, or prophecy—bears witness to the salvation story and it’s saving Storyteller who sanctifies His characters.

If we are to be participants in the salvation substance of this story, we need to get into character. The sacred Script has assigned us our parts; as the Body of Christ, who is the image of LORD, our role is to embody the holiness of the main character. Our lives are now passion plays proclaiming salvation’s hope. Both as individuals and congregation, we demonstrate the vitality of salvation living by enacting these words which give shape to salvation life.

Scripture is meant to be read; but it is certainly meant to be experienced in those who conform to the character of Christ and seen in those whose lives are enactments of salvation.

Jesus had his own “All the world’s a stage” line when he told his followers “you shall be My witnesses…to the remotest part of the earth”. With the curtain thrown open, unveiling our place of performance and participation, the salvation show must go on.

A helper word for following Jesus

In the past few months, I have been reading and writing through the Book of Matthew.  With each text, I find myself pondering how I and we can actually embody and live these passages out in our daily lives.  It has been an interesting and challenging process, gradually forcing me to internalize the reality Christ is presenting and, I hope, form the character of Christ in me.

But not until just recently did I discover this discipline has a name: orthopraxyOrthopraxy is the discipline of actively obeying the Scriptures we are actually reading.

In congregational contexts, we talk a lot about obedience, but much of the time I sense we’re doing so with an abstract vagueness.  Many generalized calls for obedience aren’t always clear about what we should be specifically obeying.  Orthopraxy pulls us into specifics.  No longer are we generally reading our daily Bible plan; we’re assimilating Christ’s character.  The preacher is no longer just delivering a message; the text is becoming our task.  Spiritual thoughts are now not just for pondering, but personifying.  Orthopraxy holds up Scripture as life that must be lived.

For example, if you were specifically reading through Matthew 5:21-26, the discipline of orthopraxy might challenge you to actually take time to sort through and address anger issues you might have in general or towards specific people or situations.  The process could be an opportunity to filter all those emotions, issues, past memories, and “if I could have my way” fantasies through the holy character of Christ, prayerfully conforming to a patient peacefulness rooted in him.  This process could also be an opportunity to reconcile  wounded relationships and experience the healing of God’s holiness, or attempt to create Christ-glorifying peace between conflicting parties.  Ultimately the discipline of orthopraxy turns passages into projects and patterns for living in order that we may cultivate and give witness to the character of Christ in us.

The addition of this new word to my vocabulary has become to me something of a hiking pole, giving me balance or leverage to help lift my frame into the path where God’s righteous character is lived out.  I hope this word might serve like your own walking stick as we believers strive daily to keep in step with Jesus upon the way of his Word.

The Beatitudes as a First Impression of Kingdom Reality | Matthew 5:1-12

The first section of the “Sermon on the Mount” is a series of statements often referred to as “The Beatitudes”.  When his disciples come to Jesus on the hillside amidst the crowds, he opens his mouth to teach them and what he says conveys the first impressions of how the Kingdom of Heaven redefines reality.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Poor in spirit” was not a state these Jewish commoners actively aimed for, yet it was a state they were often in.  They believed they were God’s chosen people, yet life under Rome’s fist and religion’s thumb often looked more like abandonment, creating hearts devoid of hope.  Even while persistently reaching to grab hold of hope, their neglected status incessantly fueled their impoverished souls.  Perhaps cursed may have been a more apt adjective to describe their state.  Reality, however, was no longer as it had seemed; new reality rang in their ears as Jesus described them as Blessed.  It was a profound paradox produced by the presence of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed; one that would counteract the cursed reality it contradicted as it expanded with blessedness in the hearts of the hopeful.

The blessedness Jesus bestows is not possession of materials or resources, but the reality of God’s redemptive reign in our midst, enrichening our wanting souls with his salvation work, pulling our poor spirits into the glorious abundance of himself.  While the subsequent blessing statements are in the future tense, Jesus’ first issuance of blessedness here is in the present tense, as if the present blessedness of God’s kingdom reality spills over into every aspect of the life of his listeners.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

The atmosphere of first century Israel weighed heavy, crushing spirits with heartache and mournfulness as the people longed for times of refreshment; but those who would believe the good news of the kingdom of heaven would find themselves wrapped in the comfort of its blessedness.  “Comfort, O comfort…” 

“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Though the people of the land tried to humbly delight themselves in the Lord, the exploitative nature of the tyrannical world they knew always reminded them they were not gaining any new ground; but as the blessedness of God’s kingdom reality begins to bring all of life into subjection to the King, the meek shall realize they are sharing in the inheritance of an Earth being redeemed.

Having enriched impoverished souls and comforted mournful hearts, the blessedness Jesus proclaims also proceeds to satisfy the desires that have reflected the character of their God.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

Right living can often get lost in ambiguity as we turn it into obsessive rat-race rule-keeping or the hypocrisy of performance art.  But for those who have craved right living deep in their carnal being, the blessedness of God’s kingdom reality brings them into the essence of righteousness, embodied in the person and presence of Christ.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Those who have made mercy their mission have captured a vision of the dynamics by which kingdom reality is dispensed to the neighborhoods and peoples all around.  Mercy begets mercy.  Those who have shown it shall have it revisited upon them because it is the culture they have cultivated through the blessedness of kingdom reality.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

The condition of our hearts shapes the substance of our vision.  When the blessedness of kingdom reality is set into purified hearts, we are given visual of the King through whom everything in life is being encompassed, subjected, and sanctified.  While impurity impedes clarity, purity expands our capacity to encounter God through the blessedness of his kingdom reality.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

First century Israel had no shortage of violence, striving, and tension, the participation of which deluded their identity as God’s people; those who would prioritize and participate in kingdom-centered peace, however, would within the blessedness of kingdom reality find a Father identifying them as his own and aligning them with his redemptive purposes.

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Persecution needs clarifying; persecution is resistance to the cost of kingdom reality, namely humanity’s self-sovereignty.  In persecution, it is not we who are being resisted or rejected, but the righteous life of kingdom reality.  This is important to know because it prevents us from taking persecution personally; inversely it also prevents us from assuming we are blessed because we are being persecuted.  We are not blessed by persecution, but we are blessed in persecution because it brings the kingdom of heaven already in our midst, via the presence of Jesus, to the forefront of reality.

“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The King and his kingdom bring a blessedness that liberates and sanctifies us to freely and fruitfully follow the King.  But blessedness has a cost; it’s a way of life constantly in tension with what human nature prefers.  To foreigners of kingdom reality, it seems like a curse, and so they resistantly respond to it as such.  The paradoxical irony, however, is that Jesus has already redefined reality by calling this way of life Blessed, a reality which refreshes and renews its kingdom citizens.  And so we respond with rejoicing and gladness, because God’s reign is setting his redemption into our weary world.

Jesus’ words provide a first impression of how kingdom reality is encountered and embodied in the lives of disciples: relief in light of God’s kingdom reality, comfort amidst suffering, a humility content with God’s redemptive work, satisfaction in God’s righteousness through Jesus, a heart of mercy towards a world that doesn’t deserve it, a purity that paves our perception of God, a priority for peace which plays us into God’s purposes, gladness that God’s kingdom perseveres even when it’s difficult to see.  God’s kingdom reality has been set in our earthly midst; if we believe that good news and participate in the good life it brings, we shall be brought into its blessedness to give witness to this reality by which God is redeeming this world.