Bringing Immerse into Angola Prison

Angola Prison, nicknamed “The Alcatraz of the South,” is one of the world’s most notorious prisons. Located outside Baton Rouge, LA, it’s the largest maximum-security prison in the country, with the property bigger in area than Manhattan. It began in the mid-1880’s as a slave plantation, named “Angola” after the African country from which most of the slaves came.

When Angola was converted to a state prison in 1901, the inhumane practices from the slave plantation carried over. Convicts were frequently abused, underfed, and subjected to unregulated violence. Prisoners were often worked to death under the harsh conditions.

In November I was invited to Angola to present Immerse: The Bible Reading Experience to the 28 Protestant churches that operate inside the prison. Thanks to a partnership with New Orleans Baptist Seminary, there is a seminary program within the prison that has trained and ordained over 100 prisoner/pastors.

Our relationship with Pastor Jim Cymbala at The Brooklyn Tabernacle opened the door at Angola. After Immerse was successfully launched to 5,000 people at BT, Pastor Cymbala caught a vision for Immerse in Angola. BT has a long partnership with Angola, with groups traveling there every year to visit the prison hospital and minister to the men on death row.

Louisiana has one of the strictest penal codes in the country. Nine out of ten prisoners will die there, either by execution or by natural death. Many of the men I met committed crimes when they were teenagers and will never taste freedom again.


There is a long history of violence and abuse at Angola. I talked to men who told me how before going to bed, they would stuff magazines under their T-shirts and into their shorts to keep from being stabbed to death in their sleep.

We toured a housing unit referred to as “Red Hat” after the red paint-coated straw hats that its occupants wore when they worked in the fields. The building, located next door to the execution chamber and electric chair, consisted of 30 cell blocks. Each cell measured 5 feet by 7 feet, with a cement bunk and no mattress. Dinner was served in stinking buckets splashed onto the floors. During times of overcrowding, fifteen prisoners, often naked, were pressed into a single cell. Red Hat officially closed in 1972.

In 1995 a work of redemption began with a new warden, Burl Cain. Cain adopted the posture that if you treat people like animals, they’ll act like animals. He built several dormitory-like units where inmates could move for good behavior. He started a rodeo where prisoners could become cowboys for a day, and where artistically-gifted inmates could sell their creations to the 10,000 spectators who come for the rodeo. It was Warden Cain who invited New Orleans Baptist Seminary into the prison.

The presence of Christ’s church in Angola has been palpable. The most violent prison in America went from 1,387 assaults in 1990 to 371 assaults in 2012.

Immerse immediately captured the imagination of lead chaplain Jim Rentz. A Bible in the New Living Translation that was easier to read, with no chapters & verses, with the books in a better historical order. He also liked that Immerse is more of a book club than a Bible study.

Chaplain Rentz told me there’s lots of good preaching in the churches, but structurally it’s always been very top-down. Immerse provides what’s been missing: the invitation for the inmates to simply read and dialogue together. Another chaplain, Liz McGraw, is excited. “The churches have been pretty siloed,” she told me, “but Immerse offers us the opportunity to come together as one, all different denominations, to read God’s Word!”

But how would the pastors react? I was able to present and explain Immerse to them for about 90 minutes. During my presentation I sensed they were tracking with me, but then came the moment of truth. With some trepidation I asked for a show of hands: “Who is interested in taking this to their church?” Without hesitation, all 28 hands shot up. We’re all in.

Later that night, to a packed house, I shared the Immerse vision with a larger group of 400-500. The meeting ended and I was swarmed with inmates, full of questions, wanting to know when the Bibles would arrive. There were tears. The hope of the gospel and the power of the Scriptures has shone a light into the darkness at Angola.

Beginning in February, all 28 Angola churches will begin reading the New Testament together with Immerse: Messiah.

This is a powerful story in the making, but it needs your prayers. Already we’re seeing the domino effect. A large state prison in Michigan, upon hearing about Angola, has decided to launch Immerse to 300 inmates in January.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. ~ The prophet Isaiah

What We’re Reading: December 2018

From time to time we’ll share some of the interesting and thought-provoking content from around the Internet that we come across during our work. Enjoy!

*Note: Sharing doesn’t necessarily imply 100% agreement with the article or endorsement of the author.

Tiny Books Fit in One Hand. Will They Change The Way We Read? by Alexandra Alter, NY Times

Research proves time and time again that most people prefer reading print books, but the convenience and portability of cell phones has led lots of people to start reading books on their device. This fun article outlines how one publisher is still tinkering with print design to meet modern needs of portability while pushing for the best possible reading experience.

Fiction Writers and The Church by Jason Link, Multiply Magazine

Living in the Age of Information tempts us to reduce the Bible to a trove of information that must be parsed and analyzed. In this interview with Joel Green, Dean of the School of Theology at Fuller Seminary, Green shares how reading fiction like The Lord of the Rings shapes how he reads the Bible. There’s a lack of imagination within the evangelical church, he says, and it’s been replaced with logic and propositions and syllogisms. Reading fiction and fantasy opens up a different part of our brains and unlocks our imaginations to experience wonder and emotionally respond to what we read. All of which are valuable skills for reading the Bible.

Ask N. T. Wright Anything Podcast hosted by Justin Brierley of Premier Christian Radio

In this brand-new podcast, renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright fields questions from listeners on a variety of topics from the atonement to the historical Jesus to the reliability of the gospel accounts. Wright is able to explain complex theological concepts at a very accessible and non-technical level, and takes listeners into the world of ancient Judaism and the first-century church. Here’s a small sample, and you can view a few more video samples of the podcast here.

How We Receive Guidance From the Bible’s Story

We talk a lot here about reading the Bible as a story.

We believe that’s good and appropriate, because that’s what the Bible actually is—a library of books that come together to tell a story and invite us into the big, beautiful drama of God’s redemption of all things.

But how exactly is something like a story useful? Is a story the kind of thing that can show us what to do? Can a story somehow have authority?

The “reference book” model of the Bible had an easier way to answer to these questions. How is the Bible useful? Well, you simply look up the topic you’re interested in, find the right passages, and there it is! Put a list of those texts together, add them up, and you’ve found your answer.

We can discover God’s wisdom on everything from marriage to money by doing topical searches.

So let’s take slavery, for example. Since slavery was a fundamental part of the ancient world, the Bible mentions it a lot. We can track down every reference, add up the teaching, and get the Bible’s message on slavery, right?

No, actually.

In his book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, historian Mark Noll describes the intense argument 19th-century Christians had over the Bible’s position on slavery. Those advocating a biblical defense of slavery had the easier time defending their position. It’s not difficult to produce a long list of Bible verses that explicitly endorse or assume human slavery. So . . . the Bible teaches us that slavery is okay?

No, it doesn’t. But it takes reading the Bible a certain way in order to rightly discern what the Bible does teach.

It takes reading the Bible as a story. In particular, it takes reading the Bible as a story that moves in the direction of greater redemption, greater flourishing, greater life. The full revelation of God’s purposes for humanity can’t be simply lifted from a page just anywhere in the Bible. The Torah regulations on slavery are not God’s final answer on that question.

The Bible is a narrative that unveils more and more of God’s intentions over time. The story is heading towards the full realization of God’s intentions. To be specific, the story is heading towards Jesus. It’s in the coming and work of the Messiah that we find the clearest and most definitive revelation of who God is and what he’s doing in the world. As that beautiful opening to the book of Hebrews has it: “And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. . . . The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.” (NLT)

The life, death, resurrection, and powerful ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, now with authority over all things—this is the centerpiece of the whole long and winding tale of the Scriptures. In the work of Jesus—sent by the Father and empowered by the Spirit—is where the story finds the redemption and restoration it’s been looking for.


But wait. Doesn’t the New Testament continue to assume slavery in its teachings that come even after Jesus? Well, yes. The letters from the apostles to the churches do continue to give instructions to both slaves and masters within that relationship.


The Bible clearly shows us a God who insists on working within our ongoing story to bring more light and more life over time.

Here’s the thing: the creation’s restoration in the Messiah is indeed the crux of everything. But as always, God does not simply intrude into human history in artificial ways. The Bible clearly shows us a God who insists on working within our ongoing story to bring more light and more life over time. That is, God has committed to us—humans—as his creation-ruling partners. This was decided at the beginning, when God made us to his image-bearers, reflecting his good rule into the world. As decisive as the Jesus event was, it didn’t fix everything overnight. The implications of his kingdom-launching still have to be worked out by those who join his world-transforming movement. The kingdom has come and is coming, but it has not yet fully arrived. The kingdom of God is like a seed that is planted.

Let’s stay with our slavery example for a moment. After the coming of Jesus, slavery did not simply disappear. Not even among God’s own people. But then there’s Paul’s letter to Philemon. This one very short and simple letter to one slave-owning Christ-follower shows how God’s story with us does its work. Paul here shows us where the redemptive movement of the Bible’s narrative is headed. At the end of the day there is no place for one brother in Christ to own another brother in Christ. In the new humanity brought to us by the Second Adam we are all equal, members of one single worldwide family.

So don’t read the stories of the great patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to get the perfect picture of God’s intention for marriage. (No, really, please don’t.) Don’t read the Torah to get God’s final answer on slavery. Don’t even read Paul’s letters to first-century churches to get the final word on church practices for today. All of the Bible was directed first of all to its original audiences. We find ourselves in a different place, later in the story, listening in on earlier conversations.

So the way a storiented Bible tells us what to do is to give us a deep, long look at a God who is slowly working to bring life to the world. He begins where people are, and then starts to bring them to a new place. The fact is, for example, that the Torah’s instructions on slavery were a redemptive advance over the common rules for slavery at that time. Slaves in ancient Israel had more rights and more protections. God’s story had begun to move things in a better direction.

Our job, then, is to discern where the redemptive story in Jesus is headed. This is more nuanced, and a bit more work, than simply looking up reference book answers like definitions in a dictionary. This requires mature, big-picture reading. This means Spirit-led reading in community as we work together to discern how to live this same redemptive story in our very different late modern setting.

Our job, then, is to discern where the redemptive story in Jesus is headed. This is more nuanced, and a bit more work, than simply looking up reference book answers like definitions in a dictionary.Click To Tweet

The Bible invites us to look for gospel trajectories and redemptive endgames and then work to implement them in our own world. In the light of a dawning new creation we live as people of the coming Day, showing people what the future of the world looks like, not it’s past.

Grown-up Bible reading means asking: What stays the same in the biblical story? But also: What changes? The Bible gives us the light and revelation of God’s truth. It just doesn’t do it in a childish, simplistic, or artificial way. The only way this works is if we know the Scriptures deeply and well.

The Bible tells us what to do by telling us the Jesus-shaped story we’re a part of.

For further reading, see: Scripture and the Authority of God by N. T. Wright; Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by William Webb

“Eat This Book” – What Eugene Peterson Taught Us About the Bible

Eugene Peterson didn’t give us the Message per se. The Good News itself preceded him.

But Eugene did grace us with a rendering of the Bible that woke us up, causing us to take notice of the startling, disruptive power of these holy words all over again.

Eugene knew from teaching Sunday School in church that we are all susceptible to the Holy Bible doze. He was teaching Galatians and folks were stirring their coffee, nodding off. He was astounded. Galatians! Paul is so angry he’s swearing, and people are bored and mentally wandering away?

Eugene was like Anne Lamott, reminding us this gospel thing is actually like dynamite, while we come into church and sit calmly, oblivious, worried about wrinkles in our pants. “Hey, hey people! Have you actually read this? Do you get what it says?”

So, yes, The Message was a gift. The God-given words of grace, gracefully written. A presentation of the Bible to make us think again about what we thought we already knew. It helped us feel again what words with power can do. It made the case for the Bible not by arguing for it, but simply by embodying the Scriptures as a speech act—words that do more than stand around shuffling their feet on the page. These were words to accomplish things, executing God’s own actions in us and for us by promising, convicting, healing, and restoring.

Eugene Peterson gave us back the Bible, made fresh.

Living and active, fully in the present tense.

But there’s more. Eugene also wrote about the Bible and our reading of it. The point, he said, is not just to read it, but to read it for living. “What I want to say, countering the devil, is that in order to read the Scriptures adequately and accurately, it is necessary at the same time to live them.” In Eat This Book, which he subtitled A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, we find all the elements of good reading laid out plain and clear.

Realize what’s at stake, he said:

“The opening page of the Christian text for living, the Bible, tells us that the entire cosmos and every living creature in it are brought into being by words. St. John selects the term ‘Word’ to account, first and last, for what is most characteristic about Jesus, the person at the revealed and revealing center of the Christian story. Language, spoken and written, is the primary means for getting us in on what is, on what God is and is doing.” (3)

and this:

“I want to pull the Christian Scriptures back from the margins of the contemporary imagination where they have been so rudely elbowed by their glamorous competitors, and reestablish them at the center as the text for living the Christian life deeply and well. I want to confront and expose this replacement of the authoritative Bible by the authoritative self.” (17)

Receive the Bible, don’t merely use it, he said:

“C. S. Lewis, in the last book he wrote (An Experiment in Criticism), talked about two kinds of reading, the reading in which we use a book for our own purposes and the reading in which we receive the author’s purposes. The first ensures only bad reading; the second opens the possibility to good reading.” (30)

Read big, not piecemeal, he said:

“Meditation is the aspect of spiritual reading that trains us to read the Scriptures as a connected, coherent whole, not a collection of inspired bits and pieces. . . . What is surprising today is how many people treat the Bible as a collection of Sibylline Oracles, verses or phrases without context or connections. This is nothing less than astonishing. The Scriptures are the revelation of a personal, relational, incarnational God to actual communities of men and women with names in history.” (100-101)

Read it as a story, he said:

“Story is the primary verbal means of bringing God’s word to us. . . . Unfortunately, we live in an age in which story has been pushed from its biblical frontline prominence to a bench on the sidelines and then condescended to as ‘illustration’ or ‘testimony’ or ‘inspiration.’ Our contemporary unbiblical preference, both inside and outside the church, is for information over story.

“. . . Spiritual theology, using Scripture as text, does not present us with a moral code and tell us ‘Live up to this’; nor does it set out a system of doctrine and say, ‘Think like this and you will live well.’ The biblical way is to tell a story and in telling, invite: ‘Live into this—this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-ruled world.’” (40-44)

Enter into the drama, he said:

“As we cultivate a participatory mind-set in relation to our Bibles, we need a complete renovation of our imaginations. We are accustomed to thinking of the biblical world as smaller than the secular world. Tell-tale phrases give us away. We talk of ‘making the Bible relevant to the world,’ as if the world is the fundamental reality and the Bible is something that is going to help it or fix it. . . . What we must never be encouraged to do, although all of us are guilty of it over and over, is to force Scripture to fit our experience. Our experience is too small; it’s like trying to put the ocean into a thimble. What we want is to fit into the world revealed by Scripture, to swim in this vast ocean.” (67-68)

Eugene Peterson gave a good portion of his life’s work to bringing the Bible to us in “American”—in distinctly American language and addressing particularly American ways of misconstruing the world. For him, pastoral work was always local, but we can be thankful that the size of his parish increased over time, benefiting us all. Eugene exerted himself greatly, deploying his love of language and the Scriptures to invite us all back into the bigger, grander, hope-filled world of the Bible.

Rest well in peace, Eugene. We’ll express our gratitude to you properly when we all rise together at the great resurrection.

“Words—spoken and listened to, written and read—are intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness, wisdom and hope. Yes, eat this book.”

Watch: Immerse at The Brooklyn Tabernacle

Earlier this year we shared a video of Jim Cymbala, Senior Pastor at The Brooklyn Tabernacle, describing his experience leading the congregation through Immerse: Messiah.

Check out this brand new video featuring Pastor Cymbala along with four new perspectives from BT members.