Robert Farrar Capon is an Episcopal priest, a lecturer, and the author of more than a dozen books. His works include his popular trilogy on the parables: The Parables of the Kingdom, The Parables of Grace, and The Parables of Judgment; The Mystery of Christ and Why We Don't Get It; and The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-and-Found of Church History (published by Eerdmans). His most recent work is The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect through a History of Images (Eerdmans).

Robert Farrar Capon is an Episcopal priest, a lecturer, and the author of more than a dozen books. His works include his popular trilogy on the parables: The Parables of the Kingdom, The Parables of Grace, and The Parables of Judgment; The Mystery of Christ and Why We Don't Get It; and The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-and-Found of Church History (published by Eerdmans). His most recent work is The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect through a History of Images (Eerdmans).

Your work is full of images. Do you think Christian faith is lacking in original images?

Not at all. The problem is, the images we do have mostly have been given short shrift. We either haven't paid much attention to them or we slap images on top of them that violate them. For example, in the case of the parables of Jesus, which are all images, we've misnamed almost all the important ones. The "Parable of the Lost Sheep" is not about one lost sheep. It's about a man with a hundred sheep. The right title should be "The Shepherd Who Lost One Sheep," because it's the shepherd's losing that drives the parable. The sheep doesn't have to do anything except get lost. Its being lost makes the action of the parable possible. That is an image, if you take it correctly, not of just a nice thing to do for a lost sheep, but of what God does for a lost world that he seeks in the death and resurrection of his Son. He just goes after the world in its lostness. Not when it improves. Not after it gets better. But while we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.

You mention the parable about the young maidens with oil lamps. We were always taught that story was about preparedness.

The only mistake that the foolish virgins made was that they were precisely fools when they left a wedding they were already at to find an open hardware store at midnight, which is dumb. When they finally return and find the door shut the Christ-figure bridegroom says to them, "I don't know you -- I can't understand people like you. You were already in, why did you go out? You didn't trust my invitation." All anybody wants out of the guests at a wedding is that they will be there and stay there. What happens if a bridesmaid on the way up the aisle breaks a high heel? Does the bride shoot her? No. She lets her hobble up as best she can. She wants her to stay in the party. Hell is what happens to people who are at the party but refuse to be in the party. What Jesus does in his parable is make bad people the heroes of the story. The wise virgins are snotty little girls, saying, "You can't have any of our oil."

So the point of the parable is not to emulate the "wise" or to become better than you are. It's just to be in the party.

The parables tell you not what you think you want to hear, but what you don't want to hear. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, nobody listening to Jesus wanted to hear that a Samaritan was their neighbor. So what the parables basically give us is stuff we can't stand to hear. Take the Lost Sheep. What we want to hear is that the lost have to find themselves first and then come back to God. Wrong. All you've got to be is lost. Not fancily lost. Not ethically lost. Just plain lost. Likewise, all you've got to do to be raised from the dead is to be dead. Not uprightly dead or piously dead. Just dead.

It's a mistake to think you can't go to heaven with your sins. If God could only take me to heaven without my sins, then of the 4,000 pages of the novel of my life, all that would get to heaven would be a four-page pamphlet. He'd have to edit me down so far that my life wouldn't be recognizable. It would not be my history. But he saves my history. Me! In my whole history. He becomes sin for us. That's 2 Corinthians 5:21. "He made him who knew no sin to become sin for our sakes. . . ." The job is done. The church doesn't preach that, though. It's always saying the job is done; but then it insists you have to cooperate with that job before it will be done for you. Wrong! It is done for you. It has been done for you. It's all done for you. Trust it.

We try to make it some kind of transaction.

Exactly. But even in Jesus it is not a transaction. In the Trinity, you might call it a transaction between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. But in the world, his death is not a transaction. It's not a religious act that does something. We're not saved by stuff Jesus does or even stuff he teaches. We are saved by who he is.

I like the playfulness of your books and how you have these conversations allowing us to imagine the staff meeting of the Holy Trinity.

The real point behind it all is that, for the Trinity, the act of creation is play. It's the interplay of the three persons. What I've said in sermons is that the Father is carrying on endlessly about this idea he's had about beings. Then the other two say, "What do you mean by that? We are being. What do you mean beings?" He says, "You know: things. I have these ideas about frogs and ducks and stars and galaxies and all this stuff, and I think it's nifty." So the Son and the Holy Spirit go off to one side and say to each other, "You know, he's crazy about this stuff. Why don't we go out and mix him up a batch and give this to him as a present on his eternal unbirthday?" So they do. The Holy Spirit goes over to nothing and broods on it with unutterable groaning. The Word says the name of everything the Father ever had thought of. And then they take it and present it to the Father in their divine playfulness. That makes creation a happy thing. It doesn't make it a job God did grunting and groaning to yank the world out of nothing. It makes it the fun of the Trinity. The world is a fun place. It's also a grim place. Partly because we made it that way and partly because God made it that way. The reason there are earthquakes is not because of sin. It's because God put a ball of hot slop in the middle of frigid space. It cools down, and when it cools enough, the crust begins to crack. If you happen to live on one of the cracks, you've got problems. There's a lot of tough stuff in the world and it's simply there by God's design. As for example, death is there by God's design. It's not just a punishment for sin. It's the way the creation works. The world is an ecology of life and death, of good and evil, and God made it that way. What we decided at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, though, was that we wanted to run the ecology a different way. We wanted to run it so we could make the good better and get rid of the evil altogether. But look what we've done with that as a result. We've made death a problem to be solved. Death is not a problem to be solved. It's a mystery to be entered and embraced. For everyone. Not just for Christians. For ducks and geese and mice and men. Our problem is not that we need new images. It's that we need to go to the images that are there and actually look at them. Play with them.

Beginning with the biblical images?

Beginning with the Bible, because the Bible is the master book of images. The book I'm working on now is about the first three chapters of Genesis. But it's also about the whole of scripture as a movie in which the star is the Word of God himself, God the Son. The director is the Holy Spirit. The producer is the Father. And the production company is Trinity Films, Inc. When you see the beginning of a film, it makes no sense to you at all. What do you do? Walk away? No, you just go on. It's only when you finally get to the end of the film that you're capable of reviewing it in your mind as you hold it there and see the beginning in the light of the end. For example: in the very first verse of Genesis, you can't decide what "in the beginning" means, until you have seen John's gospel begin with, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." Or until you've heard Jesus, in John 8, when asked who he was, answering, "the beginning which is what I've been telling you all along." And at the end, in Revelation he says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." Once you've seen all that, then you can go back in your movie review of the Bible and begin to talk intelligently about, "in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

Our trouble is we read the Bible. I think you have to watch the Bible as a film. When Jacob goes to meet Esau, Esau has 400 armed men with him. All the text says is that Jacob bowed himself to the ground seven times as he came to Esau. You've got to see him come a few paces and go down flat on his hands and knees with his face on the ground and then get up. And go some paces more and do it again. And do it five more times! Ancient people had visual memories. When you told a story they saw it. It was just like a movie; and the Bible operates on the same assumption. Sometimes it can race right through these wonderful images. You need to do a little directing in your own head to stretch them out. At other times, the Bible will rattle on endlessly, repeating stuff it's already said. The device of seeing, watching the scripture as a film, immediately gets us off the dime of literalism. There are two kinds of literalism. There's the literalism of the right, which is fundamentalism; and the literalism of the left, in which the liberals try to find some kind of cut-down sacred original that they can think is literally authentic. But both are barking up the same tree. The left is no better than the right. Neither of them will face the Bible as it is: a tissue of images.

But you say in your new book that what holds the Bible together are images -- not statements of propositional truth, but images: word, water, lamb, city.

This is not something you can just tell people. You have to preach it for years without much hope of success before even a handful of people will begin to see it. Eventually, though, some do. And that's great. That's what preaching is for, so that they can see Jesus. When Jesus told his parables to the people, his disciples asked, why do you talk to them in riddles? And his answer was: "So they won't catch on. Because anything they could catch on to would be the wrong thing. As Isaiah said, seeing they don't see and hearing they don't hear, neither do they understand [Matthew 13:10-17]. That's why I talk to them like this: because I don't want them to have little lights go on in their heads. I want to put out all the lights they've got, so that in the darkness they can listen to me."


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