I’m Reading the Bible Again, and I’m a Little Nervous About It

RadicalChristian.com

I’ve started reading the Bible again.

Only 6 years ago, I wouldn’t have taken out time to craft a blog post about this. I would have just done it, because reading the Bible regularly was what I did.

Sure, I’d go through spells in which I fell behind for a couple of days, or maybe even a week. But otherwise, I was a devout Bible-reader, a lover of devotions and daily quiet times, back when getting up before the sun was (slightly) easier than it is now.

By the light of my desk lamp or under flickering fluorescent in the dorm basement, I would read, journal, and pray for at least 30 minutes a morning, devoting the time with all the gusto I could muster in those pre-dawn hours. I looked forward to these quiet minutes with God’s Word. I used to see so much truth, hope, guidance, and love in those stories and verses, whether I proof-texted them or did amateur exegesis on them.

I felt God’s presence in a way I never have, before those times or since.

Then the faith crisis hit.

Before my eyes, the Bible transformed from a story of hope inspired by God himself into a text of manipulation, fear, and lies. My faulty foundation had been built on those words and how they’d been taught to me, and they had been found harmful and lacking.

The devotions grew more shallow. The regular quiet times ceased. Eventually, I stopped reading the Bible altogether.

After all, how could I trust something that had deceived me so much?

Instead of reading Scripture, I focused on service and worship. I connected with God through hearing peoples’ stories, in regular conversations and through blogs and books. I felt God’s presence when I mentored children, gave and partook of communion, gleaned food for local pantries, and helped people get free groceries for the month.

These became my devotions and daily readings, the living Word with me, and in many ways, these practices saved my faith from certain death.

Eventually, in fits and starts, I started to read the Bible again. I would halfheartedly begin my devotional practices but drop them once life became too busy. This changed a bit during seminary (for obvious reasons), but I read Scripture in an academic context.

However, contrary to popular belief, seminary didn’t further damage my relationship with the Bible. Instead, it helped me learn to love it again by allowing me to study and deconstruct it, to see how verses turned into ideologies and how context could upturn all of them.

In short, seminary taught me to love the Bible for what it is, not how I or any culture want it to be.

Now, after all that time of study and with a Master’s of Divinity, the idea of reading the Bible for my own spiritual health still freaks me out.

What came so naturally all those years ago feels like lifting an Olympic-sized weight after I’ve regressed to 5-pound dumb bells. And instead of allowing myself to simply practice studying again, I’m asking myself a million questions.

How do I read this now?

How do I read these texts after I spent a lifetime learning they only had one interpretation?

How do I read the stories of divine healing after I have seen and experienced unhealed pain?

Will the Bible push me deeper into the beliefs I already have, or will it make me become the person I once was, who I have fought so hard not to be anymore?

Will the Bible teach me to become a quiet and submissive woman after working so hard to be bold and confident?

Will I find myself chanting “All Lives Matter” and “America is a Christian nation” and “Love the sinner, hate the sin” in spite of everything I’ve learned about racial inequality, the brutal politics of our nation, and harmful notions of sexuality?

Will I care about any of the things I care about now, or will I cast those all away like I did my past ones?

Will I find God’s voice, or my own, or my culture’s, or some messed up combination of all of them?

Who will I become as I let this text shape me again?

I’m afraid to find out, because I fear the past me, the one who got so much out of those quiet times and turned a blind eye to the people God loves most: the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

I fear becoming the person who feared learning new things would make me “too worldly.”

I fear becoming the person so affected by the warped concept of purity thrust upon me that I spent nights crying myself to sleep because I had sex before marriage.

I fear becoming the young woman afraid to take on leadership roles because I was taught my desires to usurp the authority granted for men alone violated God’s will.

I fear becoming the person who would not embrace my LGBTQ friends as they are.

I fear that Bible-loving girl, and while I want to love the Bible, I don’t want to love her. And I sure as hell don’t want to be her.

But that girl and Bible-reading are so tied up in each other, I’m not sure how to do one without becoming the other.

In short, I don’t know how to read and love the Bible as I am.

I’m trying to figure that out, though. I can’t properly explain why. I don’t know if it’s the Spirit’s prompting, or because I re-read The Unlikely Disciple and felt nostalgia for my old evangelical devotion days, or because I feel like I “ought” to.

All I know is I’m doing it. And I’m praying, in fear and trembling, for it to change me, but I’m not sure how I want to be changed.

Now What?

SPOILERS for anyone who somehow hasn’t finished the entire Harry Potter series yet. If you haven’t, please get on that. You’re missing out.

Harry Potter was my gateway drug to geekdom. Before I knew what fandom was and before I could even admit that I liked fantasy, I fell head over heels for JK Rowling’s Wizarding World.

I can’t remember exactly when I started reading the books or from whom I got the first one. I do know that when the first movie was announced, I was 4 books in and madly in love with Daniel Radcliffe.

And I definitely remember attending the midnight release of the very last movie: Deathly Hallows Part 2.

I went with Bryce and my college friend Betty. We stood in line, me with my Dumbledore’s Army T-shirt, Betty in her plain white T with a Hogwarts crest stitched on, and Bryce with his wizard’s hat. A photographer snapped a photo of us in the long line from the theater balcony, and we made it in the local newspaper.

Movie

I remember the excitement and dread at the thought of this being the end. I remember cheering when Ron and Hermione kissed and when Neville killed Nagini the snake. I remember being disappointed in the portrayal of the final battle between Harry and Voldemort and the lack of Dumbledore’s story. I remember smiling through (possibly) teary eyes when grown up Harry, Ron, and Hermione watched their own children roll away from them on the Hogwarts Express. But most of all, I remember the film ending, holding Bryce’s hand in the stillness that comes with the blank screen just before the credits begin to roll, and thinking to myself, “Now what?”

HP

moviemansguide.com

After spending so much time with Harry and his friends, in their lives and adventures, I felt a jolt as the screen went blank and the lights came up, blinding in their harsh reminder that story time was over, and the world was waiting for me to go back.

And from the blank screen through the car ride home and even while I drifted off to sleep that same evening, I asked myself a number of questions:

What happens next? Do the characters really live happily ever after? Will more troubles befall them? How do I go back to reality? What did this story teach me about life and the world around me?

Isn’t this what stories are supposed to do? Not simply entertain and remove us from the world, but to put us back into reality with a new perspective and lots of questions? Isn’t that what good stories do to us?

The Old and New Testaments have similar endings which, if read well, simultaneously unsettle and excite us. 2 Chronicles, the last book in the Hebrew Bible, ends with King Cyrus’ cliffhanger order for the Jews to return home to Israel. John’s Revelation at the end of the New Testament offers us a vision of the future, in which the powers of darkness are defeated, and we are invited into the new kingdom to dwell with God.

Both endings inspire hope and wonder in their readers. What will happen when the Jews return from exile? Will they renew the covenant with God only to break it again, or will they remain faithful? Are a new heaven and a new earth really possible, and when will they happen?

Then when we look at the world as it is, and we feel another jolt.

After we close our Bibles, we see that heaven and earth are as separate as ever, and we are still in exile. 

After we close Deathly Hallows when Harry says, “All was well,” we return to the world around us, where things may or may not all be well. 

We finish hearing or watching the story, but the story is not finished with us. And we may ask, “Now what?”

What do we do with a proclamation of returning home when we are still in exile? What do we do with the promise of a new heaven and new earth in a broken, bleeding world? What do we do after the evil lord is defeated in one story but others loom large in the lives of others?

Sometimes, these questions push me to love God and others with a renewed fervor, hoping that through these efforts, the exile will end, and the world will get better. Other days, these questions overwhelm me and make me want to retreat or join the “bad guys,” who seems to have more efficient ways of getting things done. Either way, the stories are not finished with me, nor am I finished with them. 

Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be for now.

Why This Story?

As I’ve shared before, there have been times in which participating in the Church is difficult. There have been times in which I am less engaged due to everything from boredom to fear of being and expressing myself. But through engagement with theater, TV shows, and comic books, I’ve discovered my desire for a connection with God and others through story.

An instrumental story in this process is The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman.

sandman

http://comicsalliance.com/

In September 2014, I began reading The Sandman at the recommendation of a fellow comic lover and survivor of the Bridgewater College Philosophy and Religion department. I bought the first issue online and lost myself in the world of Morpheus, the lord of dreaming.

One of my favorite Sandman stories is in issue 4. After an occult leader imprisons him for 70 years (as depicted in issue #1), Morpheus/Dream escapes and begins searching the world for his lost totems of power. One of these totems is a helmet, which a demon is Hell withholds from him. Dream enters hell and finds the demon, and the demon agrees to hand over the helmet only if Dream defeats him in a battle of wits, or what they call the “oldest game.” They start with small forms (hunter defeats wolf, hunter defeated by horsefly which harms his horse, etc.) and begin building until the demon declares himself as the form Anti-Life, “the dark at the end of everything.”

Everyone in hell thinks Dream is beaten. After all, what can defeat the Beast of Judgment, “the end of universes, gods, worlds…of everything?”

After a brief pause, in which all the demons of hell wait with baited breath, Dream replies, “I am hope.”

And the demon has no retort.

Dream leaves Hell with his helmet and a little more power, and I move on with the flicker of faith within me burning a bit stronger than before.

This small line has saved my faith more times than I can count. I am anxious and pessimistic about the world around me and the Church to which I pledge my allegiance. It is easy for me to look at world and Church and lose hope in them. In these times, I tell myself to look into the Story which I  say I am a part of, but all I see are stories retold so often and in such dry ways that I see little life remaining in them.

Yet this one line, this tiny sentence, written by a man who many in the Body of Christ would claim is not “one of us,” is sometimes the spark which keeps my faith alive.

Why, when I claim to be part of the Greatest Story Ever, is this story the one which keeps me going? What has happened to our Story, and how can it come back to life?

 

True, But Not Real

I have struggled a lot with my reformed Christian identity, a transition from certainty to an openness to doubt and questions. One of the hardest parts of this transition has been engaging with the biblical text. After two decades of being taught that the Bible is an infallible textbook, a major faith crisis blew all those assumptions out the window. After that, it was hard for me to pick up the Bible I had lovingly and consistently read for guidance. It didn’t have anything “real” anymore, so how could any of it be “true” to me?

So, instead of pursuing the Bible, I’ve been engrossed in books, movies, and TV shows. I know that these stories I love aren’t always based on real events. I also know that I can learn as much, if not more, from a work of fiction as I can from a textbook. Because I don’t worry about whether or not these stories really happened, I focus on their messages.

I witnessed an alien’s adventures through time and space, the love he felt for his companions, and his heartbreak over their later losses. I read the stories of a man traveling cross-country with gods and of a child meeting the cosmic beings who lived in the farm down the lane. I saw a family travel across a war-torn galaxy to be reunited.

In these stories, I listened to these fictitious characters explain real-world experiences: life involves love and loss, pain and joy; we are capable of tearing each other apart and bringing each other together; people will go to great lengths for their loved ones to know love and safety.

I didn’t know if I’d ever find stories like this in the Bible. After viewing the Bible as a textbook for so long, I didn’t believe I was allowed to see it any other way.

And then, unexpectedly at worship one Sunday, I finally heard such a story.

It was a story about the people of Israel crossing the Jordan River. The priests walked before them with the ark of the covenant, and in a parallel to Moses crossing the Red Sea, the waters of the Jordan parted so that everyone walked across dry land. Then, 12 men, one from each of the tribes of Israel, took a stone from the dried up river bed. When they reached the other side, they formed the stones into a makeshift monument. This would remind them of how they came to the Promised Land, given to them by God. It would be a story passed down to their children, and their children’s children, as a testament to the God of Israel’s provision for the people. It would be a story to give them hope in their most difficult times.

Normally, I struggle with miraculous stories like this. I’ve seen them used and abused by proclaimers of the Prosperity Gospel, and their use in this way has caused me and others to stumble. Because of this abuse, I find them hard to believe, and as a result, I tend to immediately discredit them. But this one Sunday, I wasn’t concerned with the seemingly impossible physics behind parting an entire river. This Sunday, I heard and listened to the story differently, because I didn’t worry about whether or not this story actually happened, whether or not it was “real.” Instead, I thought about how true this story was to the people of Israel.

All I could think about was what the stones in this story meant to the Israelites, who would endure falls from grace, exile, and persecution throughout their history. I thought about the truth this story told these people, and what it would continue to tell them time and time again.

They were not alone. They were chosen and beloved by the Creator of the Universe. They would always be known. The Name would always have a plan for them, so that maybe the world would remember their Creator.

And I think I was able to accept this idea of a story being true, but not real, because of all of the “non-biblical” stories I’ve been absorbing. I think because of the Doctor, Neil Gaiman, A Wrinkle in Time, my comic book heroes and anti-heroes, and so many more, I’ve learned that something doesn’t have to be an accurate account to carry a true message.

https://thebiblehistorybooks.wordpress.com

Could these stories have truly happened? Could it be that the power of God physically parted the Red Sea and the Jordan River? Yes. What keeps me going, though, isn’t the certainty that this literally happened.

What keeps me going are the stones by the river, that remind me and all God’s people of the Lord’s provision. What keeps me going is the meaning of the name Emmanuel, God with us, which reminds me to be God’s presence in a broken world. The truth of God’s love, mercy, and guidance that I find in these stories and many others are what keep me going when nothing else seems certain. These truths, not their “realness,” are what matter the most to me.

We don’t need more certainty. We need more faith that the stories are true.