I give more time to my Netflix queue than to Bible study. My comic book collection has exceeded my devotional one. I still tear through Harry Potter books with an appetite that I’ve never had for the Bible.
Even though I attend a local congregation and am in seminary to become a pastor, I still struggle to practice spiritual disciplines and read my Bible regularly. When I open my Bible, I still think of the past Bible studies I attended in which everyone arrived at the same neat, non-debatable answers. When I sit down to meditate, my brain races with thoughts I think I “should” be thinking and ones I actually am thinking.
But I don’t feel this conflict when reading my books and comics or watching my favorite TV shows. Instead, I feel free to imagine, interpret, and enjoy the story in front of me, free from the boundaries of doctrine, theology, and orthodoxy. These stories don’t demand that I come to a certain conclusion; instead, they invite me along with the characters to see something new.
I don’t feel the same way about the Bible, or at least how I’ve been taught how to read it. For so long, Bible study has contained a number of unspoken rules: Don’t stray from orthodoxy or the theology of our group. Any new insight must conform to what we already believe. Use your imagination, but don’t be too imaginative. This is what the text definitely means, and this is what it will never mean.
This type of reading drives me nuts. I love a good story. A good story allows for plenty of different interpretations. A good story doesn’t settle for a comfortable ending, but challenges the reader to look at the world in a completely different way than they did before. I want to find something in the story I didn’t notice before, like seeing a part in a movie I’ve seen several times but didn’t notice until this particular viewing. If I can read the Bible like that, it will seem bigger and less safe, but it will keep me coming back to it instead of repelling me.
This is why, while I love tradition, I find it problematic when we use this same gift t0 ignore storytelling. And I get very worried about the future of the Church every time I hear someone say or imply, “We’ve always done/thought of things this way, and therefore it is always right.”
The stories I’ve loved, from Harry Potter to Doctor Who, from Ms. Marvel to Sandman, have taken me to a world I never knew existed. They taught me about the pain and beauty of this world in a way more honest than I’d ever heard it described in the Church. When the Church insisted on teaching me about a dreamworld of black-and-white perfection, these stories put me face-to-face with complicated, colorful reality. When the Church only seemed to offer hope in a “world to come,” these stories gave me hope that was tangible and present in the world today. These stories both took me away from my world and kept my feet grounded in reality.
I love The Sandman comic series by Neil Gaiman. I love mythological tales of beings with a lot of power who sometimes look out for humanity yet also make some less than right choices. But more importantly, these comics showed me how to have hope in life when all hope seems lost. When I couldn’t see that hope in the biblical story, Neil Gaiman showed it to me in a whole new context that resonated powerfully with me.
I love Fahrenheit 451, not only because I love dystopian novels that end with revolution, but because I love hearing about truth that will not be kept in the dark. The prophets proclaimed a word that was fire in their bones and couldn’t be kept shut up. Jesus came proclaiming a truth that couldn’t be killed. Guy Montag risked his life to read more books instead of burn them. This is the Gospel to me.
I love Harry Potter, because I would love it if I lived in a world where Hogwarts was I real school, but only if I wasn’t a Muggle. More importantly even than that, though, I love the story of a child who is both a very human friend and the savior of his people. It is a tale of sacrifice, love, community, and resurrection.
I love my favorite books, movies, and shows, not in spite of my love of the Bible, but because of it. The messages from the stories of the Bible are alive and present to me in the stories I love today.
The Church needs to remember that this collection of stories which we call the Bible is extremely powerful and more full of color and paradox than we will ever realize. The Bible cannot be completely bound by tradition, doctrine, or anyone’s theology; it is both too big and too small for that. It is the Word of God but not God. It is inspired yet very, very human. It offers guidance, but the Spirit makes this Word alive.
And for that, I am thankful, because its origins remind me of my own humanity. The Bible, and the stories it has inspired, remind me of the truth that, as a human, I am both very significant and very small. Everything in God’s Creation can testify to that truth, so why should we stand in its way? Why should we say that it is only present in one medium, and how can we say that the truth we find in the Bible can’t be found in other tales?
Someday soon, I hope I find that life, not just in the Bible, and not just outside of the Bible, but in the eyes of the God who looks at me and reminds me, through these and other stories, that I am both so significant and so small.