That’s the Book for Me!

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Credit: George Bannister on Flickr via Creative Commons

 

If there is a single aspect of my Christian faith that is both unwavering and constantly changing, it would be my relationship to the Bible. I have at times felt inspired, imprisoned, stifled, freed, frustrated, enlightened, grieved, and relieved by its words. During my early years as a Christian I had the typical experience of devouring all the crazy, amazing stories and poetry. I had color coded highlighter systems, indexes, concordances, commentaries. I had devotionals and bible studies and study bibles. With a mind that was always anxious and searching and spinning over every little thought, this book of rock-solid answers was a gift. Finally there was a single source to which I could turn with every conundrum, struggle, moral dilemma, self-esteem issue, and worldview discrepancy.

Over time and as my familiarity with it grew, that certainty faded. How could it not? The gospels, these four authoritative (and only historical) accounts of Jesus were full of contradictions with one another. I was never able to believe I had to pit science and the bible against each other, which meant I already had to admit to reading huge sections as poetic or mythological. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get it to speak to certain issues facing the church and myself in a modern context. Christians across the spectrum also disagreed about what it said. Then there were the historical impossibilities it reported as fact. This all resulted in a serious conflict, because I’d also had so many experiences of healing and growth and challenge through the texts I’d studied. The Bible had been and continued to be a rock on which I was attempting to build a relevant and honest life. I was teaching bible studies myself, leading groups of people in knowing a book I was becoming less confident I understood.

Eventually I decided to go back to school after completing an Associate’s Degree and moving directly into the workforce. At twenty-seven years old I returned to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Bible and Theology. As I toiled away for the next three years I grew increasingly angry. Through studies of language, archaeology, interpretive skills, historical document analysis, and other tools suddenly so many of those pieces began to fall into place. It turned out there were very simple answers to so many of those contradictions and conflicts I’d wrestled with, but those answers were fairly dry and academic and well, not sexy enough to sell series’ of fantastical books on the rapture. Understanding that Augustine, who was the father of our spiritualized understanding of Song of Solomon, was known for outrageously over-spiritualizing very simple parables and other poetry made a difference. Realizing the doctrine of the trinity comes from a creed written 300 years after Jesus and was nowhere expressly communicated in the words of the bible made a difference.  Finding out that we could with some accuracy know what the original intended message of a particular letter or document was to its original specified audience mattered. I’d spent a decade, logged literally thousands of hours, in conferences and church services and retreats and bible studies and sermons. Why was I suddenly paying hundreds of dollars an hour to learn these fundamental tools and ideas? What were preachers and teachers doing?

For a while my questioning subsided as I absorbed the bible anew with all of this acquired knowledge. More recently, the fact and history questions mostly resolved, the philosophical friction took on more weight. I understood where the books came from, how to approach older more allegorical sections, what to do with many of the textual inconsistencies. Yet there were still present, and ever more glaring, ideological issues. More and more I saw how much interpretation comes into play:

    Eastern vs. Western philosophies

    Cultures and times in history

    Monotheisms (Jewish, Christian, Muslim)

    Branches of Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant)

    Denominations and splits within each

    Individual communities, churches, parachurch organizations

    Personal experience, history, abuses, passions, empathies, prejudices, pain

Hearing a Mennonite pastor talk about using Jesus as the lens through which his people read all of scripture helped. Reading Peter Enn’s For the Bible Tells Me So gave me permission to accept the bible for what it intends to be rather than what I need it to be was key. In a world of, as Rollins would put it, idols of certainty I think we often need the Bible to be more comprehensive, more solidly informational, more absolute than maybe it ever meant to be. Maybe the bible is the story of humankind’s evolving understanding of God, not the autobiography o a schizophrenic deity. Maybe we are seeing the epochs of God – understanding God as tribal father, dutiful son, and finally universal spirit.

I still teach the bible. I have a weekly bible study, a monthly discussion group, and scattered other avenues. Now that I know I don’t actually have to make it all fit, force it all make sense, I’m free to admit what I do know. I know that the bible is the scripture of my faith, Christian spirituality as a whole. I believe there is mystery in how it came to be, that men and maybe a woman or two were in some way inspired to write what they did, and that it is a source of mystical revelation. It’s the story of Jesus, who is the reason I continue to chafe and wrestle and fight for my faith. I believe it works in harmony with my community, logic, reason, science, experience, and other sources of revealed truth to remain a channel of connection between myself and god as the source of love and beauty and creation and justice and hope. It’s still a foundation in my faith and my life.

Perhaps most importantly, what I’ve come to believe matters most in how I read the bible is this: what kind of person does my interpretation lead me to be? If I read the bible and my understanding o its texts lead to increased hatred for others, voluntary ignorance, promotion of injustice, ugliness in my thinking, or most importantly fear, the problem lies with my interpretive lens. I don’t believe I was ever meant to check my brain, my conscience, or my sense of beauty in order to experience the bible in all the ways intended.

However, if I read or study or meditate on biblical scripture and it leads me to create hope, beauty, love, justice, freedom, expanding borders, or peace, then in those moments I believe I have best understood it in all its inspiring, disturbing complexity.

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