I met Russ Ramsey several months ago when he reached out in a desire to connect with like-minded writers in the Nashville area. We grabbed coffee and got to talking about writing as a Christian but also as a craftsman and it didn’t take long to realize we shared many of the same aspirations and convictions. Our conversations are always meandering and entirely livening. I come away with new ideas and a sharpened perspective. For that reason when he gave me a copy of his book, Behold the Lamb, I was excited. I never get excited about advent related books. They’re generally tired to me and offer little in the way of heart-gripping and soul-moving. That book was different. I read it last December in the days leading up to Christmas and it connected my should to the deep wonder of Christmas in a way that hadn’t happened in a long time. His narrative of the full biblical story in a scant few pages to tell the story of the coming lamb was beautiful.
That’s why I’m so excited about his forthcoming book, Behold The King of Glory. It will be an ideal lent companion book, but really just a magnificent portrayal of the coming savior. I had the chance to interview Russ about the book, and I’ll let him share his vision and heart in his own words.
Me: I grew up in church, knowing Bible stories inside and out. I knew the Easter story like the back of my hand from early elementary school. For someone like me, for whom the Bible can become kind of dry and overly familiar, how can your book bring us into the story in a new way?
Russ: With Behold the King of Glory, I tried to take the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and put them into a single story in such a way that the reader would come away with a clearer sense of the arc of Jesus’s earthly ministry.
I think people who grew up with the Bible have a better sense of the “episodes” of scripture than the arc of the story itself. I imagine many church-goers would struggle to know when Jesus cleared the temple—for example. But when you locate it in the narrative, you see that he did it twice—once at the very beginning of his earthly ministry when he was unknown and then again on the Monday after the Triumphal Entry, just three days before his arrest. With that bit of context, suddenly you see some of the drama unfolding.
I think of elements like these as Easter Eggs—details that are right there in front of us, but often missed. Other Easter Eggs would include the fact that Jesus sang a hymn before leaving the upper room for Gethsemane, or that Jesus made no less than the equivalent of 700 bottles of wine at the wedding at Cana—one hundred and fifty gallons! Think about that.
One of my deep commitments was to avoid all novelty. I didn’t want to make anything up—no characters, no conversations. I wanted everything I included in this book to be either directly from Scripture or very reasonably inferred because of what Scripture tells us.
Me: What made you write this kind of book, a narrative, instead of a book that was more reflection or lesson shaped?
Russ: Stories, I believe, often take us deeper into truth than mere instruction. I know they have for me. They sneak up on you.
I wanted to continue the story I began with my advent book, Behold the Lamb of God. The story of Scripture is such a rich, life-transforming story. There is nothing in my life that hasn’t been transformed by the story God lays out in His word.
As a pastor, one of the things I want most for people is for them to know the Bible—to have an ever-deepening level of Biblical literacy. One way I feel called to contribute to that goal is through story-telling—specifically by helping people see how the story of the Bible holds together as a single narrative.
Behold the King of Glory is part of my contribution to that goal—and I feel strongly about it because I think knowing the story well is one of the ways we can hide scripture in our hearts. If I can tell the story of, say, the storm on the Sea of Galilee in such a way that the reader can later close their eyes and imagine it in its context, I have helped them store the word of God in their imaginations. I want that for people.
Me: I love stories, anything from Harry Potter to Make Way for Ducklings to Star Wars to East of Eden. However, I don’t always see the Bible in the same way. (I certainly didn’t growing up.) How did you come to see scripture as an amazing story and how can someone like me begin to make the shift to see it that way too?
Russ: No one has a simple story. So everyone we meet in the pages of scripture—every beggar, every harlot, every self-righteous but miserable churchman, every father of a dying child, every barren woman, every struggling fisherman, every politician, every criminal, and every wandering nomad has a back story full of hope, pain, struggle, need, failure, triumph, and longing. The humanity Christ steps into is rich, diverse, and common.
So when I see, for example, the nobleman from Capernaum running to find Jesus in Cana because his son is dying, I am drawn to him. The fact that he is a nobleman—a man of means—becomes secondary to the fact that he is a father and his son is in trouble. Now, suddenly this has become a story of a desperate man casting himself on the mercy of a Jesus he has only heard about, but who may also be his only hope. I know many people for whom this is their story.
Scripture is full of heart. I find that it comes alive when I try to image the characters on the page as real people—and not merely as vehicles to get a lesson across.
Me: Your book on advent, Behold The Lamb of God, is beautiful in its story telling and how it traces the thread of advent from Genesis to Jesus. I especially love the way some minor characters, like the shepherds from Luke 2, are shown to be pivotal and vital to the full shape of the story. What are some of those characters or moments from Behold The King of Glory that bring to prominence someone or something often overlooked?
In Behold the King of Glory, the two often overlooked characters that jump to mind are Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees. It is easy to want to sort out the players in the story of scripture into good guys and bad guys—and then turn them into one-note caricatures. But no one has a simple story, and I find a lot that we can empathize with in both of them.
Pilate was a secular middle-management company man trying to climb an organizational ladder. Everything he did has some sort of political consequence. I know lots of people like that. I can be a person like that. Pilate is the person who believes that his future rests in his own ability to navigate a dog-eat-dog world. This is not to take away from the horrible role Pilate played in the crucifixion of Jesus, but if I am to read the Bible correctly, his role in Jesus’s death and mine—theologically, anyway—are not that different. So I empathize a bit with his position, even as I grieve over the results of his godless pragmatism.
And the Pharisees are easy targets because by the time we meet them in the New Testament, they are the self-righteous, self-appointed conscience of the people. But the Pharisees came into being as a band of folk-heroes. I flesh that story out in detail in a chapter called “Zeus and the Pharisees.” But what I saw in them was that they were a group whose self-righteousness came on gradually, over time, but eventually set up like concrete in their hearts. My self-righteousness works the same way. I know there are things I believe I do better than others, and pride has hardened my heart to the point that I cannot see my own self-importance. I am more like the Pharisees than I am like Jesus.
Whenever Jesus opposes the self-righteous, it seems harsh. He calls them white-washed tombs—pretty to look at but full of nothing but death. I think the strength of his rebuke is a mercy—he is trying to break stone. To do that, he hits hard, with precision. Sometimes that is how he works in us.
Me: It is hard for an author to say exactly who should read his book, since we would love everyone to read our books, but who did you write this for? Church folks bored with the Bible? Unbelievers? New believers just coming to the Bible? Some other group?
Russ: I wrote this book for people who want to know the story of Jesus. I wrote it to be a servant of Scripture itself—a book that would maybe serve as primer for the Word of God itself. For the person who knows things about Jesus, but not Jesus himself—hopefully this book will provide some clarity and focus. For the person who struggles to hold on to the narrative thread of the Gospels, hopefully this book can provide some structure. For the person who has come to find their own interaction with Scripture growing stale, hopefully, this can serve to breathe new life into their time in God’s word.
I want Behold the King of Glory to help to hide scripture in the heart by way of the imagination.
Me: This really isn’t an “Easter book,” is it? Yes, it’s convenient for publishers to release books with a seasonal emphasis to boost sales, but this is really a book more about the full narrative of the Bible leading to Jesus life, death, and resurrection, right? Something people would benefit from reading during Lent or on summer vacation?
Russ: Chicken and egg, right? What book about Jesus isn’t an Easter book? And what Easter book isn’t relevant at any other point during the year? I certainly hope this book helps people in their worship of Jesus during the Easter season, but the story itself is timeless.
I wrote these two books—Behold the Lamb and Behold the King—because I wanted to tell the story of Jesus. I love the Gospels more than any other writings. I give my life to the study and expression of Scripture, and it is one of my greatest joys to be able to say that. The story told in these pages is my story. Every picture of brokenness in these pages is in some measure the story of my own brokenness. Every need that rises to the surface is in some way a need I share. Every tendency toward rebellion, every cry of desperation, every prayer for forgiveness, and every hope of redemption rings true in me. I write not as a removed researcher, but as an eye-witness to the impact this story has had on my own life and the world I inhabit.