by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
Previously, I told you that Lloyd Douglas was unable to “pull it all together” in his book, These Sayings of Mine, because he was still approaching the gospel like a minister. I said, “He needed more practice thinking about the everyday lives of regular people. And he got it… in some unexpected ways.” In my last post, I told you about one of those ways: through the Grand Tour of Europe that he took with his wife Bess in 1925. Here’s another unexpected way.
In 1927 he came out with another book entitled, Those Disturbing Miracles (New York: Harper, 1927). It was meant as a companion piece to These Sayings of Mine. In These Sayings, he had claimed that we don’t pay enough attention to the things Jesus said, and instead we linger over the miraculous element of his ministry. In Those Disturbing Miracles, he went a step farther, suggesting rational explanations for some of the wonders recorded in the Bible.
But that’s not what I want to point out to you in this post. I want to tell you about chapter 3 of that book: “A Chest of Relics.” It was the story of the House of Obed-edom, from I Chronicles 13:9-14. (The same story can also be found in II Samuel 6:6-11.)
David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem where it belonged, and he did it in style, leading a procession with music; but because he didn’t obey the Law of Moses and have the Levites carry the Ark on poles, it almost fell off its cart and a nearby attendant was struck dead for touching it. (Even if you aren’t familiar with the Bible, you should expect that if you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
Douglas says (rightly) that the death of that attendant gets so much of our attention that we skip over what happens next. Unwilling to risk any more casualties, David commanded that the Ark be kept at the nearest house until the Law could be consulted; he would come back for it once he knew it was safe to do so. In the meantime, the people in the nearest house would have to deal with it. Douglas writes, “At this point our imagination takes us by the sleeve and leads us up the road to inspect the home of the Obed-edom family” (p. 47).
Douglas loved this story. From his earliest years as a minister in Manchester, Indiana, it’s listed as a sermon topic, and then again in other congregations after that. And the reason is simple: because he could see the story possibilities in it. All that the Bible tells us is that God blessed the home of the Obed-edom family while the Ark was with them; it doesn’t tell us how. So Douglas’s vivid imagination “took him by the sleeve.”
In this 1927 version, published for a general audience, he took the opportunity to imagine a real family – a poor farm family in 1927 – and how they would react to the kind of thing the Bible describes. “So the Obed-edoms stood, open-eyed and open-mouthed, watching the golden chest go through their front doorway…. [T]he procession was reorganized quietly; a word of command was given; the pilgrimage was in motion… slowly disappeared over the shoulder of the hill, and the stunned family was alone with the Thing!” (p. 49).
In Douglas’s version of the story, the family sleeps in the barn that night. The next morning, Father and the boys go out to the fields to work, and Father tells Mother and the girls, “Stay away from that thing!” But they don’t. Mother goes into the living room and is in awe of the Ark’s beauty. Then she looks around at the rest of the room and is ashamed to have something so wonderful sitting in the middle of a mess. So she cleans the room, and she sends her daughters out to the yard for some flowers to help beautify the place.
When the men come home for lunch, Father is horrified to learn that the girls have been working around the Ark. He peeks in, sees what they’ve done, and admits that it’s an improvement, but points out cobwebs in the corner. Mother says she couldn’t reach them and she asks him to do it.
Father climbs a ladder and cleans the wall. Then he and the boys decide to put a fresh coat of paint on the walls in that room; but now all the other rooms look bad by comparison, so they keep going and paint the rest of the house, inside and out, and fix the broken chimney. Now the yard doesn’t match, so they tear down the rickety fence and plant a garden. They repair their tools, which not only improves their work in the fields but also allows them to build the girls two new looms, with which the girls make themselves better clothes.
Now the thrilling quest of beauty began to affect the inner character of the Obed-edoms. Where, hitherto, their voices had been shrill and petulant at breakfast, it was easy to detect a general mellowness of tone in the presence of this contagious ideal. The Obed-edoms took on a new culture. Their entire attitude toward one another was transformed. They began to prosper materially. And it was not long until the neighbors were spreading the report that a miracle had been wrought in the house of Obed-edom because the Ark of the Covenant was there. It was true. The Ark had performed a miracle – exactly such a miracle as may be effected in any home or any heart where a beautiful ideal enters, driving out all the ugliness and meanness just by the fact of its presence.Those Disturbing Miracles, p. 53.
Douglas gives the moral of the story:
Now, anybody who wants to take his Chronicles straight is fully entitled to believe that in some mysterious manner Jehovah ‘blessed the house of Obed-edom, and all that he had.’ I, too, believe this. But I find it so much more plausible to think that the miracle was performed in terms which might, in God’s good providence, occur again. It seems to me it would be ever so much more delightful a miracle if, instead of being restricted to the enrichment of the Obed-edoms, it might happen almost any time, to almost anybody, almost anywhere.Those Disturbing Miracles, pp. 53-54.
Here’s what I want to point out: in the process of demonstrating his thesis, he takes a cast of characters from his own acquaintance (a farm family just like the ones he knew as a boy, and in his first pastorate) and imagines what would result if something biblical could be introduced into their daily lives. And the answer is a sequence of events, each one building on the ones before it – in other words, a story. But notice! It’s not a religious story. It’s a story about real people, learning and growing and doing great things.
This was, in essence, the formula that would make Lloyd Douglas a household name for the next few decades. He just didn’t know it yet.
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