Monica Sharman, author of “Behold the Beauty,” calls herself a left-brained person who has learned to be a right-brained person. She studied physics at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology. Let’s call that her left-brained side, the side that wanted to write textbooks.
“I never did turn into a famous author of science texts, but during my Caltech years I started reading the Bible,” Sharman writes.
Sharman had always loved reading. So much so that she cannot remember not knowing how to read. Once she became a mom, she read to her children, a habit that has stuck even though her boys are big now. Meanwhile, Sharman started to write children’s books, which led to trying what she called “artsy things,” like poetry.
“Now I’m a right-brained person, but I still retain my old nerdy engineer person,” she said.
Sharman approaches Bible reading in unusual ways—some more left-brained, some drawing from the right side. That’s what “Behold the Beauty” is all about.
The inspiration for Sharman’s book was, of course, another book, Karen Swallow Prior’s “Booked,” a memoir told through Prior’s favorite works of literature.
“Because of that book people started reading the classics,” Sharman said. “So what if I did that with the Bible?”
Like Prior, Sharman employs a memoir-like approach to “Behold the Beauty.” The beginning of each chapter is a moment in her life — such as her reading history as a child or her time at Caltech — and the end of each chapter she calls an “invitation.” Each one is a particular way of approaching reading the Bible along with suggested Bible passages.
Memories, invitations, suggestions.
“It’s initially subtle, indirect. If you read the chapter and wonder, ‘What does this have to do with Bible reading?’ that’s intentional. Subtlety shows a certain respect for the reader,” Sharman said.
“Behold the Beauty” started as a Bible study Sharman taught at her church. She called it “a heart approach to Bible reading.”
“I wanted to make it really different,” she said. “I would play music, or we’d act it out.”
Sharman found that in a traditional church group setting, adults were afraid to answer questions, even easy ones.
“One thing you see a lot is they skip the straight observation. They feel like they have to come up with some deep answer,” she said.
But straight observation, Sharman believes, is a valuable tool. It’s one she learned through reading poetry.
“It helps me slow down. It helps me savor the words and notice the words. Sometimes I think, ‘I don’t know what that means, but that is a cool phrase.’ I appreciate the words simply for the beauty,” Sharman said.
One woman who came to Sharman’s Bible study told her that she liked the title “because a lot of churches don’t emphasize beauty in the Bible.”
Slowing down is a discipline Sharman continues to cultivate, especially when reading Christian articles or books or even blogs that contain Scripture.
“They quote a Bible verse, and I think, ‘I already know that,’ so I skip it. I have to back up, reread it. That’s where the slowing down helps,” she said. “A warning light comes on when a familiar passages comes around — let’s see if I can notice something I haven’t noticed before.”
Often the details stand out to Sharman. She mentioned 1 Samuel 6:12, when the ark of the covenant is being returned to Israel on the backs of cows: “Then the cows went straight up toward Beth Shemesh, keeping on the road and lowing as they went; they did not turn to the right or to the left.”
Did you notice anything interesting in that sentence? Sharman did: the lowing.
“Maybe it’s the detail of the sound, ‘lowing as they went.’ I keep laughing every time I read it,” she said. “It’s where poetry and children’s books come together. When I’m reading, I have a picture, and when I read the Bible, I have pictures too. You get the picture of the cows, and then I heard the sound in my head.”
Another way Sharman notices is by doodling or sketching a Bible passage, especially a difficult one.
“It helps, if I come to a confusing part. I can just draw a diagram, kind of like a flow chart. Family trees help. Sometimes I really like diagramming sentences because it can make a confusing sentence more clear,” she said.
Basically, Sharman just likes paper, an obsession she describes in chapter 4. She likes to read on paper, write on paper, sketch or diagram on paper. And she likes to fold paper. Origami.
“Paper remembers,” Sharman writes. “Origami is possible because paper has a memory. Every crease remains.”
Sharman says she first found the word “memory” used in conjunction with paper in an origami book.
“That’s what it is—you can’t uncrease a paper. It’s a permanent memory,” she said.
Sometimes Sharman comes to the Bible using what she calls a “filter,” looking at a passage the way a journalist or a movie director might. She has a list of suggested filters in chapter 5. Number 9 on her list is “Discoveries About God.” It’s also the one she says she uses most often.
“Sometimes I’m having a hard time that day, say with a relationship with a friend or a relative. It’s always on my mind. I lose sleep because of it,” Sharman said. “I keep going back to what can I know about God, or what do I need to know right now? How is that going to fit into that relationship problem I’m having?”
In between her introduction to Bible study at Caltech and now, as a wife and mother of three boys, the stories resonate in different ways.
“I’m not the same person I was 15 years ago. The hurts I’ve received and given, all that comes into play every time I come to the Bible,” she said. “It’s like when I first read ‘David Copperfield,’ this friend, [James] Steerforth. I thought, ‘Why are you befriending this guy?’ It was actually annoying. Then when I read it later, I’d had close girl friends for the first time, and I thought, ‘I understand why David [Copperfield] did this, why he pursued and maybe even idolized Steerforth.’”
What Sharman has learned about God through reading the Bible, through paying attention to the details, is the simple truth that God loves her.
“To feed my excitement over God’s love for me, and to be more and more convinced of His greatness, I look carefully into the details of His Word,” Sharman writes.
The chapter in which that statement occurs is called “Food Love.” It’s about a time Sharman catered a women’s retreat. She describes what she cooked and how, with loving detail. At one point a mistake turned into a scrumptious dessert. Those 32 attendees might not have realized it, but they were tasting love — love from Sharman, love from God.
Sharman is not the only writer in her family. Her husband, Charles Sharman, is the author of “Through the Bible with my Child.” He is also the inventor of Crossbeams, a building toy and prototyping system for advanced children and adults.
The Sharmans live in Colorado with their three sons.