My two sabbatical book projects have, without my explicitly planning it, turned out to be in rhythms that compliment each other well. The first draft of my teaching memoir is in the hands of two trusted colleague friends, probabably for the next two or three week at the very least. My attention has turned to my other book project, one that I have mentioned less often on this blog. Tentatively titled The Freelance Christian’s Guide to the Liturgical Year, this book is my attempt to show, within the structure of the liturgical calendar from Advent through Ordinary Time, how the ebb and flow of liturgical worship and lectionary readings have deepened and enriched my spiritual growth over the past four decades. I sent a full draft (minus introduciton and conclusion) to a couple of close friends during the summer; they sent their very helpful comments and insights to me in early September, just as I was in the midst of the first draft of the other book.
Although I’m hoping that this book will be of interest to all sorts of people, I’m aiming it first at people whose religious pedigree is similar to mine, namely those who were born into and perhaps remain in faith traditions for whom concepts like “Advent,” “Epiphany,” and “Lent” are foreign. I am working on the introduction this week (I always write the introduction to a book last). As I do so, I am reminded of just how formative my early exposure to sacred texts has been in my life.
I come from a very evangelical, fundamentalist Protestant world, where I learned that when the Bible is referred to as the “Word of God,” it means that every word of it is literally true. Before the time I hit double digits in age, I was pretty sure that didn’t make sense; my Sunday School questions about how everything in this book could be true when it contradicts itself regularly were greeted first with “just believe it,” then with an invitation to leave the Sunday School room.
Part of being a young person in my Baptist church was memorizing Bible verses. From the time I was six years old, I spent twelve to fifteen weeks per year memorizing verses, then reciting them to my “hearer” (who was usually my aunt) on Sunday. At age six, I memorized four verses per week. By the time I was in high school, I was memorizing as many as fifteen verses per week, often one extended passage. All of the young folk did this; we earned various prizes throughout the process, capped with a week at Bible camp in the summer (I despised Bible Memory Association Camp, which went by the name “Miracle Camp”).
My brother did it, my cousins did it, my church friends did it, the girl to whom I would be married for eleven years in the future did it. I don’t remember anyone particularly complaining about this forced memorization; neither do I recall that anyone enjoyed it. It was simply a rite of passage—one that left hundreds of Bible texts in my memory files by the time I went to college. And by the way, I also read the Bible through each year from cover to cover, following a “Through the Bible In a Year” pamphlet provided by the church at the beginning of the new year, from when I was around 10 until I graduated from high school.
It truly wasn’t until I was in my early thirties and entered the college classroom as a newly-minted professor for the first time that I began to realize just how deeply the Bible had shaped me. I had stopped believing that the book is the literal “Word of God” years before, but its stories, lessons, quirks, contradictions, rants, genealogies, wild and crazy prophecies, and moralizing were part of my DNA. I’m a philosophy professor, not a theologian or religious studies scholar, so I wasn’t using the Bible to preach, proselytize, or convict. I was using it to illustrate the best and worst that human beings can be, the various ways that different cultures over time have sought to understand and describe what is greater than us and our relationship to it. I still do this—there are few classes during which I don’t pull something out of my memory banks from the Bible that is relevant to whatever is on the table for discussion.
When advising incoming freshmen to my college concerning how to best prepare for the large interdisciplinary humanities program that is the centerpiece of our required core curriculum, a program required of all freshmen and sophomores, I always say the same thing. “Know your Greek mythology, and know your Bible. Not as the ‘Word of God’ to be handled reverently with kid gloves, but as arguably the most influential book in the Western literary tradition. You will not be able to understand the literature of the West if you don’t know the Bible well.”
Away from my professional life as a teacher, my relationship to the Bible is a challenging one to describe. It is not my moral touchstone or guide in the way that many persons of faith might describe it. It certainly isn’t my go-to source for answers to tough questions. My relationship with the Bible is more like my relationship with the weather—it’s both as familiar as the air that I breathe and as unpredictable as the wind. It truly is part of me, not always in ways that I appreciate. I frequently am asked, particularly by readers of this blog, whether I believe that the Bible is “the Word of God.” I used to answer “that depends on what you mean by ‘Word’ and ‘God,’” which didn’t turn out to be a very effective response. Now I tell a story, one that I have told occasionally on this blog.
One Sunday evening over forty years ago, I heard a well-known and much-loved Baptist minister, a family friend and the godfather of my firstborn son, say something shocking from the pulpit. He lifted his well-worn Bible above his head with his right arm and said in a loud voice: “This is not the Word of God!” Gasps filled the sanctuary, followed by an uncomfortable silence. After a dramatic pause of several moments, he continued. “This is just ink on paper between leather covers. This is just a book. This becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit makes it so to each of us individually.”
My son’s godfather was right. The divine word changes and grows in each of us, often in apparent conflict with what we thought was already fixed and settled. When temptations arise to find security and safety in inflexible interpretations of scripture, it is worth taking the words of Paul to the church at Corinth to heart: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”;