Novels, science fiction, fantasy, etc. were not on my permitted reading list as a child or a teenager. That drove me to books on war, torture, weapons, prison camps and other things. Presumably these were permitted because as history they were stamped safe. They were facts, reality, some variants of true things.
While I now disagree with some of those prohibitions getting to that point was laborious, and one I am not entirely free from. Fearful of angering God by wasting my time with novels I found that I could read classics, like those of Charles Dickens and mentally “get away” with it. Guilt did not send itself chewing about my moments if I was reading these things.
One day I stumbled across a shorter Dickens novel: Hard Times, and I copied below a vignette from its second chapter. When I read this passage for the first time I found a magnetism in it and one that has remained to this day. Why was I drawn to it such that I read and re-read especially this part of chapter 2? Why has it made it into a Sunday school lesson decades later? Well, facts were safe territory, sanctified even. Truth was embodied by crystals of fact. Oh, how the Gradgrind-Bitzer interaction resonated with me.
The second chapter, entitled “Murdering the Innocents,” starts by the introduction of a fictitious albeit stereotyped 19th century British school teacher named Thomas Gradgrind.
“Bitzer, your definition of a horse…”
“Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities…of fact and calculation. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over…”
“…Thomas Gradgrind now presented Thomas Gradgrind [himself] to the little pitchers [children] before him, who were to be filled so full of facts.
Indeed, as he eagerly sparkled at them…he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them [the children] clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.
‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’
‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.
‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecelia.’
‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.
‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’
‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’
Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand….
…’Very well, then….Give me your definition of a horse.’
(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)
‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers [children]. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse’…
…’Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’
‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in the mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’
She curtseyed again, and would have blushed deeper, if she could have blushed deeper than she had blushed all this time. Bitzer, after rapidly blinking at Thomas Gradgrind with both eyes at once, and so catching the light upon his quivering ends of lashes that they looked like the antennae of busy insects, put his knuckles to his freckled forehead, and sat down again.
So goes that bit of chapter 2…and much more.
I get that because of having been brought up in a rigid world. My formative years were in a fundamentalist, southern, Christian school. I can still see Brother Skippy in his white shirt and red tie pulling his thick leather belt out of his blue pants. (Don’t miss the red, white and blue America theme.) He never used that belt on us, but how he liked to speak of whipping the carnality out of us. They loved the word carnal in that school. It means to be ungodly, worldly. We must run from ungodliness. As a child in that school, though, I was taught mainly from the vantage point of threats. Jesus offered to lead us out. Those teachers were ready to beat it out.
Now fundamentals are good and God has graciously drawn me so that I did not discard him. I have heard some people self-describe as recovering Catholics. Others just discard Christianity outright. Recovery is good, but rejection is unfortunate. Fundamentalism can take years to disentangle. In this lesson all these years after this event with Charles Dickens found me to be disentangling even more. I am thankful for God’s grace in my preservation. With this as an introduction let us now turn into the Holy Scriptures.
The first fantastic scene
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. (Revelation 1:12-16–ESV)
Imagine the “Gradgrinding” of this passage
When I approach a text my idea is that there is one meaning to it. Like the Authorized or the King James Version Bibles there is one interpretation to rule them all. My presuppositions are hidden even from me as I come all to ready to give a Bitzer-like description of it. Those presuppositions will rise with their fits and starts trying hard to distill a passage like this into authorized adjectives. It never gets stated or really expressed that way, but the beliefs are swimming around under the thoughts spouting up every now and then.
In reality there is no one authorized set of adjectives, but there is one Holy Spirit to illuminate.
When I came to this passage I found it to border upon fantasy. I don’t mean that I doubted the character of Jesus, but the description of blazing eyes and feet, swords from mouths and the holding of stars goes beyond a normal human experience. Wanting the interpretation of Christian tradition I ran off to the internet. Biblehub.com posts the commentaries from many wonderful expositors, and as I began to nose around inside of those I quickly saw that many have written extensively on this subject.
I wanted to Gradgrind them all up distilling from them the central nuggets that all Christians would do well to park in their brains.
Look what I found when I read from others
- Wool – eternity
- Snow / whiteness – purity
- Blazing eyes – omniscience
- Brass feet – strength / stability
- Voice – comfort to friends / terror to enemies
- Waters – bear down on all before him
- Stars – favor / protection
- Sword – justice / righteous anger
- Sharp (here I move to Ellicott at Biblehub): lay bear the thoughts and intents of the mind
- Double edged (also Ellicott)
- First edge is like the Old Testament cutting away the external things, the carnal things, the worldly things
- Second edge is like the New Testament cutting away sins of the heart, spiritual sins, things internal
- Either sin is cut off from man or man is cut off in his sin.
- Sun, countenance – no mists or clouds to hide him
Now, these things are true and they are reasonable. I even had an inclination to memorize them. “Yeah, let me make this into a table and post it here. We’ll know the traits of God for sure and it will be a blessing to us.” That view must not be entirely discarded but if too centralized becomes like an ashfall from a volcano. It puts the wrong tint on our view of things.
These things are good, but the shape of what is happening is not. By painting with these things I am following Bitzer’s trail. These true descriptions have their roles and places, but Jesus told John to write what he saw. I have found that on a second look there are better personalized things to notice. I see, things beyond the adjectives of sterile description, beyond Bitzer.
Stepping back from rigid gives a view of magnificence
As I worked through this passage I wrote and wrote out so many things, and I found myself seeing things differently. It is as if I pulled up my recliner on the island of Patmos and looked at what John saw. In watching I felt what that moment meant for John. Below are the things that the Holy Spirit illuminated as better for me from this portrait of Jesus.
- Different than I
- Fear engendering
- Me out of place
- Not safe
- Maybe even like Southwest Airlines tag line, “Wanna get away?”
Jesus did not show up on Patmos as a professor. Academic approaches to a doctrine of majesty or dominion, authority or power are poor substitutes for a portrait. When Thomas Gradgrind asked Sissy Jupe about a horse he asked for her description. A horse, to Sissy, was so much more than a description. Her imagination flared up for her wonderful circus-time memories. While she might not know how many teeth those horses had she knew what the animals could be and what they could do. Bitzer with his pale blinking eyes could report the details of the horse, but his real understanding of the horse was ghost-like and ephemeral. It was a sterile composition spouted out of a rigid, square, rote-like mind.
What about these two lists?
To dominate teaching by the first list runs the risk of being Bitzer with the scripture. It puts a rigid, academic, “just the facts, man” type approach to what Jesus looked like standing before John. In this approach I stay in my place while John and Jesus stay in theirs.
The second list is more akin to how Sissy Jupe saw a horse, and this is the list that flares a meaning in my mind.
I have just finished reading Brandon Sanderson’s first book of the Mistborn Trilogy. In that book there is a cadre of characters who ingest metal and then flare those metals. From the flare come abilities both dramatic and crucial for their moments.
When I step back from the rigidity of the first list focusing instead on what the second represents it is like Sanderson’s Mistborn, the name of those who can flare many types of metals. Isn’t it all the better to be Christborn and to find one’s confidence to flare at the picture John painted? While one can say, “White hair means purity” it is far more powerful to perceive the distinction between Jesus as pure and myself as impure.