Recently I got a chance to chat with Ben Nelson, author of the new book Encounters with Jesus (you can find my review here).
FC: Ben, thanks for taking a few minutes out of your busy schedule and agreeing to have a quick chat about your new book, Encounters with Jesus. Even before the book was a concept, which story did you write first and whatever propelled you to tackle a first person accounting of a well-known Biblical story?
BN: It’s my pleasure. A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to share with a group of college age, and twenty-somethings at a gathering called The Porch. I wanted to share the story of the woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears, broke the alabaster box of spikenard, and poured it out over Him. I looked at the four gospel accounts and took a huge leap combining those four stories, and sprinkling in the suspicion that Simon the Leper, Simon the Pharisee, and Simon the father of Judas were all the same Simon.
Rather than simply telling the story, I had the idea of setting up a dinner table and acting out the scene as Simon, preparing for his guest to arrive. Knowing the material I easily got into character and just let it play out. It was well received and led into a wonderful teaching about the seeming waste of pouring out our lives on the feet of Jesus as the ultimate act of worship and the subsequent by product of such complete worship – – – that we smell like Jesus. Years later I read a post by Helen Murray* who wrote in the first person from Peter’s point of view. I found myself hanging on every word, and it got me thinking about how powerfully stories can teach.
FC: There are so many great stories in this book. Have you included all of the stories you’ve ever written in this manner? If not, what didn’t make the cut, and why?
BN: I probably should have been a little more discriminating. I tend to say more than I should sometimes. I’m really thankful for my editor, Susan Hughes* for her help. She took my rough work and cut away bunches of useless words and phrases and often pushed me to find better ways to express what I was trying to communicate. There were three other stories I played with as possibilities to include. Usually I play a story out in my mind before I start writing, but these three wouldn’t ever come together for me. I may pick them up at some point in the future – but they are (1) A priest listening to the 12-year old Jesus in the temple, (2) the Maître d at the wedding where Jesus turns the water into wine, and (3) someone, I’m not sure whom, interacting with Jesus when he told the disciples they could ask for anything in His name.
FC: That priest one would be interesting.
BN: I know.
FC: On your blog* you typically use the NASB (New American Standard Bible) version of the Bible when you quote scripture; yet in your book you chose to use only quotes from The Message. I’m curious, why the switch?
BN: That was a little tricky. I wrote the first half of the stories for my blog, and at that point I was using NASB almost without exception. When I decided to pull these together for a book of stories, I was also asked to write some similar work for my church’s Christmas season. They were going to accompany a sermon series on the voices God used to speak to folks in the Christmas story – Angelic visitations and dreams. These were going to be performed, and there would be fairly long portions of scripture read to the congregation. When I read some of the angels’ narratives in The Message, I felt like I was hearing these very familiar speeches in a fresh, new voice. That clinched using the Message version for me – even though it may have been the hardest decision that Susan and I made.
FC: Which was your favorite story to write?
BN: What I found at the Well. I wrote that piece as I was preparing to preach on John 4 because I’m a lay leader in a small church in Northern NJ and get the opportunity to preach three or four times a year. We were going through the book of John and I had the opportunity to preach on one of my favorite stories in scripture; so I wrote this narrative, and asked my dear friend Sharon Chang to read it dramatically before I got up to preach. One of my desires is to get this book into the hands of pastors and leaders. We have used a number of these stories, modified to suit the specific need, and they really bring a service to life.
FC: Which story gave you the most trouble? Why do you think that was? Did you ever just want to abandon that story and go on to something else?
BN: Interesting question. Most of the stories I wrote for the blog came from the ministry portion of the book. Then in October I pushed through the Christmas section full speed ahead. It was then that I decided to run the book through to the resurrection. This left me with the passion. I spent the Christmas season and the better part of January looking at the Lord’s passion from every conceivable angle which was a wonderful and awful way to spend time. As I looked at the torture and mistreatment He bore it broke my heart.
I never really abandoned any stories once I started them because I usually was in character and playing them out in my head before I started to write. A reader once asked me how long it took to write one of these stories, and I answered honestly, I thought, by saying – about two hours. Later I realized I had greatly misrepresented the truth, since I had been ‘playing the part’ in my head for two weeks before I ever started writing.
FC: What’s next for you, Ben? Any other books in the works?
BN: I’m toying with a retelling of the story we usually call the Prodigal Son. I love the fiction of Orson Scott Card, in particular his “Ender” Series. He tells his stories in multiple voices. He wrote “Ender’s Game” first and then came back and wrote “Ender’s Shadow” which takes a minor character from the first book and retells the whole first story from his point of view. What if I wrote the prodigal son from the perspective of each of the characters? I’m not sure it will work, or if there is enough there to stand on its own, but that’s my current project.
Thanks so much for your time, Ben.
Readers: Here are some items we mentioned for further exploration:
Ben’s blog: http://anotherredletterday.com
To purchase the book in paperback or on Kindle: BUY
Ben’s Editor Susan Hughes: http://myindependenteditor.com
Helen Murray’s blog: http://hmarewenearlythereyet.blogspot.com