Jason Byassee: If you understand it...

When we talk of leadership, as when we talk of anything else in theology, we should let Scripture be mysterious.

Editor's note: This is the first of two posts by Jason Byassee on scriptural interpretation and leadership.

One of the biggest mistakes we make in reading Scripture is in thinking we know what it means. This assumption can take many forms: lots of anti-religious people I’ve met know next to nothing about the faith they reject. We religious professionals more often gloss over familiar stories because we’ve read them so often they’ve become words worn “smooth as poker chips,” in Walker Percy’s phrase. Some of us who write leadership literature move too quickly from a text to its application (Jesus had vision; so should we!).

Fortunate for all of us there are texts throughout Scripture that remind us just how little we understand about Scripture. This incomprehension is appropriate: it’s God we’re talking about. Such texts remind us the first response to Scripture is not the shrug of the shoulders but the bend of the knee.

Think, for example, of Isaiah 6, with its stunning account of the heavenly throne room, two six-winged seraphim attending the Lord on his throne, and Isaiah proclaiming he is lost, before having his lips seared with a live hot coal.

Anything about vision or leading there?

The seraphim use two of their wings to fly, two to cover their feet, and two to cover a “face” -- whether their own faces or God’s face is unclear. They cry “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty,” in what the early church perceived as a hint of the Trinity. From time immemorial Christians have used that refrain in our Eucharistic liturgy. The ancient Christians saw the Eucharist hinted at in the burning coal with which Isaiah’s sins are burned away. St. Ephrem the Syrian, the great poetic 4th century church father, spoke of the coal this way: “The seraph could not hold it, Isaiah did not consume it, but our Lord has allowed us to do both.”

Now what does that have to do with institutional leadership?

Perhaps nothing. In the face of such texts we should first tremble. Venturing out a little more, we might say that all Christian leaders should approach the table over which they preside with trepidation. Our work is an echo of the Eucharistic table, seraphim attend to it, the One on the throne will judge it, and it burns with the fiery presence of God not less than the bush in Exodus 3. Be careful when you approach your work table next: you might hear bizarre creatures chanting and then swallow a live hot coal burning with the presence of God. More daring still, the story suggests we might imitate the seraphim. St. Cyril of Alexandria noted their echo of one another as a sign of mutual patience: “They show respect to one another, both receiving and giving the doxology.” Some ancient rabbinic interpreters saw a warning in Isaiah 6: the prophet is given a message that will be rejected (6:9-10). Perhaps this is a punishment for being too eager to speak for God.

The fragmentary nature of these interpretations is intentional. Passages like this are about the living God. Who are we to think we can understand them?

I heard an artist interviewed once who works on large scale landscape art. The interviewer asked what biblical passages inspire his work -- a normal, milquetoast, vanilla sort of interview question. He said “I really like the passage in Ezekiel where God tells the prophet to cook his food on human dung. The prophet objects, so God says it’s ok to use cow dung.” The interviewer looked at him. “Ok...next question.” I’d never read Ezekiel 4:12-15, but I took the artist’s point: Scripture is too rich, too off-putting, too much like God in God’s unknowability, to be reduced to mere inspiration.

Here’s another angle. In J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Gandalf faces off with the Bal-rog knowing he cannot win on his own power. Yet he musters up all the wizardly powers he can: “I am the keeper of the fire of Anor, the wielder of the secret flame,” and then in the film version with Ian McKellon’s inimitable (but constantly imitated) insistence, “You shall not pass!” The creature falls into shadow, taking Gandalf with him.

Why’s it work? What’s Anor? What’s the secret flame? We never learn. Maybe Tolkein doesn’t know. It’s just magical. We should do what Gandalf tells his friends as he falls with the creature: “Fly, you fools!”

So too with Isaiah 6 and leadership. We don’t understand it. That’s a good thing. As Augustine said, “If you understand it, it is not God.” And we should bow down in stupefied, silent, glad, sin-cleansed worship, and make haste with our friends to our destiny.

The first thing we do in the face of Scripture is bow. Then eventually we stand back up and have to go somewhere, do something.