I like how safe words are.
I like how words string together and make puzzles, and how those puzzles can be untangled if you can link the words together in particular ways. I like how words and math are so close to each other, logical magic that obeys certain rules. If you say things properly, with the right flick of your wand (winGARdium leviOsa!), there will be a consistent result.
This is always why I loved the Bible. I want to do justice and love mercy, and it’s confusing to figure out how to. Everyone says that justice is something different! Every culture defines mercy in a different way! Here, though, is a book that promises to make it all crystal clear, if only we arrange these words properly and understand them in their exact context and link the right words from different sections together!
Christians call this magical process “exegesis,” and I’ve rested my spirituality on it for my whole life – starting in high school when I worked as Christian camp counselor, right through graduate school with my concentration in Scriptural interpretation.
The Bible has been hard for the last few years, though. Ever since I left Biblical literalism behind, Scripture is messy. I spent the last year on this Patheos blog writing every single week on the lectionary text like an itinerant internet preacher, and while sometimes I rediscovered my old joy in the words, sometimes I felt lost. Sometimes my five open commentaries, old sermons from the 5th century, a quote from Augustine, and my notes from Hebrew Bible 401 couldn’t shake the disorientation of a former Biblical literalist, watching old ways of knowing God turn to ashes in my open hands.
I still love it the Bible. But I’m not always sure how to love the Bible.
…I kind of liked literalism.
I don’t know if I always like the other ways of reading Scripture, no matter how much more accurate they are.
Those new ways of reading Scripture are only new to me, not to to Christianity. Literalism is a modern way to study the Bible, and the Church Fathers and Mothers of the past have done a lot of legwork that modern literalism ignores.
But I didn’t grow up in the tradition that talked about tradition. We had literalism or nothing, inerrancy or bust. And these “new ways” of reading Scripture are are unclear. They are nebulous. They’re more like understanding art, or interpreting music, or reading a novel, and less like interpreting a math problem. While I do love art and music and stories, I needed the Bible to be a math problem because I want the answer. The idea of swimming through this murky swamp of being human without unyielding and clear guidelines is terrifying. I hung on to Biblical literalism longer than any other belief from fundie land, not because I thought it was true, but because the idea of it being false meant that I would slide down that slippery slope into a dark ocean with no life raft. How will I know who God is? How will I know what is moral? How will I know anything?
It was hard to acknowledge that I was holding on to the belief about Biblical literalism out of fear, not a holy commitment to truth.
I knew that Biblical literalism wasn’t true. I just was scared that I couldn’t survive without it. If I don’t have an inerrant book anymore to tell me how to be a perfect person, how else will I know?! How else will I know how to be good, right, true – how to do justice and love mercy, how to experience God, how to love my neighborhood, how to have sex, how to affirm the sacred personhood of those I encounter – how to vote, for God’s sake! It’s a scary thing to be adrift in a complex world full of complex problems, full of things that I don’t know a damn thing about.
Believing that the Bible was literal used to protect me from what I didn’t know. Now? I bump up against someone’s lived experience and I have to deal with it.
“I gave you milk, not solid food,
for you were not yet ready for it.
Indeed, you are still not ready.”
This is my last week writing for Patheos as I move on to other projects, and I couldn’t ask for a better Scripture to finish up a year of Scripture then last Sunday’s text from Acts. Peter, God-fearing Jewish man who had never messed with dietary restrictions in his whole life, has a dream where his God tells him to go ahead and eat those unclean animals.
Starting from the beginning,
Peter told them the whole story:
“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision.
I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners,
and it came down to where I was.
I looked into it,
and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds.
Then I heard a voice telling me,
‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
This text is often used these days to talk about LGBTQ inclusion in the church, about how we are allowed to re-interpret Scripture in light of new revelations, and through a broader understanding of the inclusive God of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. This is the God of not just Sarah but of Hagar. This is the God of Isaiah who wants all nations to be brought in to the new heaven and the new earth, the God of Naomi and also of Ruth, the God who in Christ speaks with women and lepers and Roman oppressors.
This God, who presides over an ever-widening table, is a God of words but also a God of visions. Scripture itself records those moments when God demands that we read Scripture in light of a new revelation. Read Scripture in light of a new vision. Read Scripture in light of what you see with your eyes, taste on your tongue, experience in your relationships.
Scripture itself reminds us that we can’t read Scripture outside of our experience, logic, revelation, and community.
Peter has this vision, and “while Peter was still wondering about the meaning of the vision,” he gets a knock on the door (Acts 10:17). It’s the men sent from the Gentile Cornelius, who coincidentally also had a vision that afternoon. These two folks, Peter and Cornelius, compare notes on their visions, and then suddenly Peter knows exactly what it all means – “I now realize how true it is,” Peter blurts out, “that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right!” (Acts 10:34). It all makes sense now!
Peter learns something new about God, not just by linking together the words on a page in a new way, which the early Church did a lot, but also through the personal experience of God in prayer, compared with the experiences of the community. The individual revelation can’t be separated from the interpretation in community. The communal exegesis can’t happen without the two individual revelations. And none of this makes sense without the broader context of Scriptural interpretation, which Peter had – the Scripture that tells us, again and again, that God is a God who moves out to the edges of the world to draw more and more people into the family.
This way of reading Scripture – in the context of community, experience, revelation, science – isn’t new or radical. The Episcopalians have the three legged stool (Scripture, Tradition, and Reason) and the Methodists have the Wesleyan quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience). The evangelicals and fundamentalists, though – the tradition that I grew up in – worship the words at the expense of bodies, worship the words without the context of the Word, and end up worshipping our own ability to be entirely clear about what those words are saying.
It’s really hard to let go of that, and step into a mature faith that brings our whole body, and the bodies of our community, into conversation with the text, and with tradition, and with the Holy Spirit.
This new way of holding Scripture is difficult. It requires risk, trust, and faithfulness. It requires humility, to discover that we’d been wrong (and, like Peter, discovering again and again that we’re wrong, because Peter makes some errors about how he interprets this vision later in the story, and Paul has to snap him out of it). It requires openness to the Other, and risking being shot down when our experiences and the experiences of the Other seem to be in conflict.
This way of holding Scripture means we don’t get to be kids, hoping for a magical solution to our moral and religious problems. We have to be adults, holding Scripture in light of lots of other considerations.
I’m not always sure I want to grow up.
But as I get to know Scripture more, and get to know my own body more, I don’t have a choice.
The idolatry of Scripture, which is really an idolatry of our ability to understand Scripture, rises up when we get scared of ambiguity – which is just another way to say that we’re scared of growing up. Biblical literalism flourishes when we confuse our desire with control for a desire for holiness. It grips our hearts when we realize, in a panic, that we have to be Biblical literalists because otherwise it is a slippery slope, and we don’t think God will catch us on the way down.
But if you’re holding on to Biblical literalism because you’re scared of the drop down that hill into the unknown – friend, fear isn’t anything to build intimacy with God on. If you let that fear run you, you’ll either emotionally disengage from a faith that you’re holding disingenuously, or you’ll get louder and louder as you shut down the voice of your neighbor as a substitute for listening to your own growing doubt. These aren’t great options.
Leaving behind the old ways is the worst! It’s the actual worse. But that’s the necessary iconoclasm of mature faith – as we mature, we keep letting go of old ways that have becomes idols in order to see God more clearly. And then, inevitably, those new ways become old ways, and those get smashed, too. A healthy faith keeps letting go of old symbols to re-encounter what the symbol was pointing to. If Scripture stops pointing us to grace, to the Source, than Scripture is just another stumbling block. If the word overtakes the Word, it’s time for some idol smashing.
It takes bravery to admit that the old ways aren’t working for us. It takes a helluva lot of trust in God to let go of our trust in the inerrancy of the Bible. But y’all – I really want to know God, not just God’s book. I really want to experience Jesus, not just hear what people have said about Him.
I want to taste and see, not just hear about.
The Bible can be a sacred way to bring us into the Presence, and I hope that it becomes that for me again one day. As long as the Bible is a substitute for trusting God and listening to our neighbor, though, it’s one more hurdle to jump over before we come to the throne of grace. And sometimes you have to leave things behind for a bit before you can find them again.
I pray courage over all of you who are on the edge of that slippery slope, scared to let go because you don’t think there’s anything but atheism and relativism at the bottom.
I pray courage over everyone yelling at others instead of dealing with their insecurity.
I pray courage over everyone who is scared to open the door because who knows what’s on the other side.
I can’t promise you anything about what’s on the other side. But I do know that the Bible is full of stories of a God who comes for all the confused, worried, uptight, and lost people. And I do know that Jesus even came to the scribes and scholars and priests who preferred the letter of the law over the person in front of them, who preferred the safety of unambiguous applicable rules over the murky ambiguity of grace. Jesus came yelling and table flipping – but He was always ready for a midnight conversation with any one of them who was brave enough to show up.
The slope is slippery and the road is ambiguous, but your fear will kill your faith if you don’t let yourself slide down this hill and feel yourself caught by God.
Be brave, Beloved.
It has been a wonderful year wrestling the word with you all. Opening the Bible every Monday morning (or Tuesday… or sometimes Thursday…) to listen to the Spirit, in this online community, has been the most life-giving spiritual discipline. I’m excited to stay connected with folks at laurajeantruman.com, as I transition back to regular writing on my personal blog! Make sure you pop your email address in to subscribe to get my latest posts in your inbox every week! – Laura Jean