I was born on a Sunday, and as the story goes, the next Sunday I was in church. As a child, I nodded off to sleep at night as my mom read to me the stories of Joseph and his technicolor coat, David slaying Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den. As an adult I’ve committed my life to the serious study and preaching of scripture. Basically, I’ve never been far from the Bible. But over-familiarity with the text and a lack of discipline on my part has, at times, caused my reading of scripture to feel like listening to Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” on repeat and then suddenly never wanting to hear Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” again. When Bible reading feels stale, projects like Russ Ramsey’s Retelling the Stories, help to break up the fallow ground in me. They evoke new wonder at readings of The Old Story.
The Three-volume Series You Want On Your Shelf
Psalm 19 says that the Law of Lord is meant to refresh our souls, give joy to our hearts, and light our eyes and does so with campfire stories, family dramas, and epic myths. Nearly half of the Bible is narrative, another third poetry. The story of scripture intends to knead our hearts into a Christ-shape. Ramsey’s series helps you see the story that moves us.
Retelling the Stories is a three-volume set that renders the story arc of the Bible into a new narrative form, and each of the three books take care to lead us straight to Jesus and open our hearts to the glory of God’s storytelling. The first book, Advent of the Lamb of God, is a new edition of Ramsey’s earlier book Behold the Lamb of God, which itself was a companion book to Andrew Peterson’s Advent concert album of the same name.
Advent of the Lamb of God follows the story of God’s covenant through though Old Testament in part one “Awaiting the Messiah” and then to the birth of Christ in its second part, “The Savior has Come.” The next installment in the series, The Passion of the King of Glory, is a retelling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Passion of the King of Glory is written in forty chapters and can act as worthy devotion through the season of Lent. Finally, The Mission of the Body of Christ, the third and new installment, retells the story of the apostles in Acts.
Ramsey states his purpose for writing the series in a preface before The Advent of the Lamb of God:
Every story God tells is filled with glory. . . . I want to read the pages of Scripture with my eyes open to the beauty of mercy and grace. I want this for you as well. One of my highest hopes for this book is that it will deepen your understanding of the wonder and glory of the story of the Bible. Biblical literacy is one of the most important goals of my work as a pastor. I want people to know what the Bible says.
Russ Ramsey’s Retelling the Stories is a worthy addition to the tradition of scriptural retellings, such as Eugene Peterson’s The Message and Sally Lloyd-Jones’s The Jesus Storybook Bible.
A lack of self-discipline and casual familiarity with scripture has caused me to look for easy moral lessons tied with a ribbon at the end of each biblical story, but that’s not how stories are meant to work. Stories compel readers to invest emotionally in their plot, characters, setting, and prose. Narratives invite readers to practice empathy, to enter a text and walk around a bit in the life of another.
The Retelling the Stories series invites the reader to walk into the open door of scripture confident that the Holy Spirit inspired the scripture writers to craft purposeful narratives. Ramsey’s take acts like literary commentaries to the holy text, giving readers a deeper, more particular understanding of the scripture. The commentary-like approach lets Retelling the Stories succeed where others, like Peterson’s The Message, falls short. Ramsey does not refer to Retelling the Stories as actual scripture. Instead, he writes, “this book is not a substitute for the Bible itself. . . . This book is meant to be a servant of the Bible.”
Reviving the Heart of the Familiar
Two weeks ago I preached on Genesis 22, in which Abraham binds Isaac. The story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac is a familiar story that my childhood mind found harrowing and visceral (would a father actually do that?), but adulthood has dulled my lazy rereadings. As I studied the text again, I struggled with how to break the story free of its familiarity while remaining faithful to what God communicated. Ramsey’s chapter “God Will Provide a Lamb” provided an emotional anchor while I waded through the stormy waters of tricky typologies and Kierkegaardian ethical dilemmas. He explores Sarah’s inner life with such nuance as she contemplates her barrenness, her relationship to Abraham, and God’s impossible promise. He takes the reader inside the mind of the one who laughs at God. By the time the chapter came to Abraham having bound Isaac, standing over him, knife raised, I was in tears. The ram in the thicket felt like a ram given to me by the Lord himself, “caught by its horns in a nearby thicket, stood a ram, as if it had ascended this hill from the other side for the purpose of dying in order that Laughter might live.”
The three installments of the Retelling the Stories series are beautifully written and easy to read without being condescending, simplistic, or taking too many liberties. As a commentary engages the mind, Ramsey’s books capture the heart. The stories here, in service to the scriptures, refreshed my soul, gave my heart joy, and lit my eyes. If Russ Ramsey’s goal is to help his readers understand scripture better and to have their “eyes open to the beauty of mercy and grace,” he succeeds.
Cover image by Kristopher Roller.