In a previous post, I complained that the Bible is wack. I wouldn’t describe it that way now, because I’ve calmed down a bit. Here’s why:
I’m a half-semester into an Old Testament History class offered through Yale Open Courses (nerd alert!) and it’s been nonstop Roman candles in my brain for weeks. In preparation for a trip to the Holy Land, I’m also reading a book about the history of Jerusalem and have watched countless documentaries about ancient Israel, who they really were and where they really came from—as far as historians and archeologists can guess. I’ve learned a lot about how the Bible became the thing it is, and the thing we’ve misunderstood it to be.
In short, I’ve been geeking out pretty hard.
At first I was sort of mad, though. Scholars have learned so much—and have known for such a long time!—things no one ever gets told in church. In fact, anyone who attends seminary is taught how and when and why the text was pieced together. I felt like I’d uncovered a huge conspiracy, designed to keep me ignorant and caught up in rituals to appease a stern and exacting God.
But then I realized just how easily I’d accessed this deeper understanding. (Hello, free online class I discovered with a five-minute internet search.) The truth had been hiding in plain sight my whole life. All I had to do was lift the cover and peek under.
That I’ve begun the peeking-under process probably has something to do with being in “the second half of life.” The disassembling part. The re-conceiving part. The part you can’t get to without first passing through the part with all the rules and codes and exclusiveness and certainties.
I assumed I was already deep within that land, but now I know I’m still the outskirts of a vast wilderness, without a destination. My anger showed me I only thought I’d stopped seeing the Bible as Everything God Wants Us to Know. The whole reason I called the Bible “wack” in the first place is because I was still subconsciously challenging an old and singular authority.
How could I not? There are still a lot of very basic, foundational beliefs I need to examine, things I’ve never looked at. Things I’ve never really wanted to look at, because they’re ugly and painful.
For example: I grew up in the Baptist church, in a small southern town, during the 1980s. If you were around then, you may remember the Satanic Panic. The Devil was everywhere in those days. Several times a year, a rumor would ripple through my town that a group of local Satanists was looking for a young virgin to sacrifice. No one ever knew who the Satanists were, they could be anyone, anywhere. The neighbors were potential Satanists. The grocer was a potential Satanist, as was my dental hygienist. All my teachers. My school bus driver.
Combine this national mania with a church doctrine heavy on End Times and hellfire and Original Sin. Mix in being a little girl with no frame of reference for evaluating what my parents and Sunday school teachers told me. Add a dash of instruction about women’s ideal conduct (quiet, industrious, unobtrustive), and a pinch of being told that my hair (and not my heart or intellect) was my “crowning glory.” Stir gently for a decade or more, and voila! A hot mess of spiritual anxieties and mixed up ideas. The pie crust, if you will, that holds the custard of everything else.
I’ve known for years that something was wrong with my spiritual upbringing, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it. My parents aren’t bad people; they themselves are products of the culture that spawned the Jesus Movement. They were doing what they thought was right, however misguided. I’m learning to hold the tension between these truths: my parents took my spiritual formation very seriously and had the best intentions. And they, along with the church, did a great deal of damage.
I pretty much need to raze everything in my soul and start over. And where I’ve started, it seems, is with the Bible—which I am learning to appreciate for the first time as an epic, mythic, literary masterpiece that beautifully describes the very human, timeless, search for meaning and identity. The longing for security in an unpredictable existence which invariably ends in death. It is a book of myths. It is the record of the construction of a collective identity.
Does that mean it isn’t scripture? What does the word “scripture” really mean? I have a good friend who’s in seminary right now, and she said that she believes scripture is still being written–a thought I found so lovely, and liberating and…alive. If all truly inspired works are “God-breathed” then, yes, the Bible was produced by God. In the same way God has wrought great poetry through Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson. And maybe even you.
And maybe even me.
My main point is that the Bible, as an ancient work of literature, is by its nature going to have some elements that are bizarre to us, three thousand years into its future. But the books do not comprise an “instruction manual” or any of the other corny things I heard as a kid and internalized. Realizing this has opened up in me another, deeper level of appreciation for the Bible as a masterfully constructed spiritual epic.