Friday, May 10, 2013

Building on Sand

I was about six when my parents gave me my own copy of the The Living Bible and encouraged me to begin reading in Genesis. I loved the illustrations and the crinkly sound the thin pages made. And I listened to the dramatized audio version of the New Testament by the hour. The book of Acts was my favorite: I learned most of the lines and all the voices by heart.

My family read through the books of Psalms and Proverbs every month for years and years. On the 5th of any given month, for example, we'd read Psalms 5, 35, 65, 95,  and 125, plus chapter 5 of Proverbs, taking turns reading our share aloud.

Following breakfast, Mom would read to us from a children's devotional. We might sing a hymn together. Then she would set a timer for 15 minutes and each of us went to our rooms for our own "Quiet Time", reading our Bibles or Bible storybooks.

In addition to mere reading, I started Bible study young. There was a Navigators' study I did with my parents, a couple of correspondence courses for young people, a discipleship study at the Quaker church. There were topical studies, Sunday School classes, Baptist and Mennonite vacation Bible schools, and family foreign missions camp with New Tribes missionaries who taught the Bible in jungles far away. When I was older, I participated in Bible studies at the local jail.

I had my own Strong's Concordance, and studied New Testament Greek. The phrases of the King James version permeated our family's speech, and our humor. The Picture Bible was our comic book, the judges and David's mighty men our superheroes. The Old and New Testaments--revered as true in every detail--  not only determined our theology and ethics, but also our understanding of science, history, relationships, diet, and sexuality.

Mom and Dad had us memorizing passages from the Bible before we joined ATI. It only got more intense when we started the Wisdom Booklets. Dad paid us to learn chapters, or entire books, and urged us to recite the Christmas story in concert at holiday gatherings, like a Peanuts special. Knowing the challenge of memorization, I looked up to men who were said to have memorized the entire New Testament.

In our household, the Bible trumped all other arguments. We learned to wield scripture like the ultimate weapon. We knew it backwards and forwards and could use it like lawyers for defense or prosecution of any position.

As I grew older, I came to view our scripture obsession as a kind of idolatry. It was as if our Bible was an extra person of the Godhead.

I felt we'd confused The Word that came from God (Jesus) with "The Word of God" (the Holy Bible). On the other hand, everything we knew of Jesus was revealed to us only through the scriptures. How would we have heard of him otherwise? I decided the secret was to read the Bible more simply, with less commentary from "experts", less interpretation, less wrangling over application.

While I sorted out my own theology, I spent a year living among a group of missionary linguists who labored year after year to express the words of the Bible in other languages and with strange alphabets for villagers who lacked schools, jobs, hospitals, toilets. Sometimes I got to help out, as when I helped type a manuscript of the Gospel of John.

One of my friends there had completed a New Testament, yet the fruit of her labors sat in boxes; many people of that region practice a folk Islam and have little interest in reading it. Another woman described her feelings when she finally completed her translation. Releasing it to be published and distributed to people as the word of God "traumatized" her, she said. Though the New Testament was the main priority, a few worked on translating the Old Testament with its stories of ancient battles, instructions about nocturnal emissions, and abecedarians for the Hebrew alphabet. An elderly translator spent her days refining the book of Job for a rural ethnic group with its own gods and folklore beliefs. (Thinking about it now brings to mind Samuel Wesley's Latin commentary on Job.)

Still, I believed that giving anyone the Bible would offer them Christianity in its purest form, guiding them to all the benefits of faith with the fewest glitches and hang-ups. Rather like the reassuring note the pharmacy prints on my prescriptions: "Remember that your doctor has prescribed this medication because she has judged that the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects."

Then I got married. After the wedding, we were faced with the daunting task of finding a church that fit the two of us. We spent months visiting different services, listening to pastors and interim pastors and guest speakers, trying out small groups. Even when we settled on a church, our loyalty was not exclusive. Each fellowship and each denomination seemed to have unique strengths, and I figured the clearest, most faithful image of God's would be a mosaic formed from contributions across all of Christendom.

So in spite of our freakishly encyclopedic Bible knowledge, we took numerous opportunities to learn from other angles. I did Bible studies at a conservative Lutheran church ("You should see how Baptists do baptisms. They have a hot tub up behind the altar!"), a megachurch with an awesome ladies' brunch every Tuesday, a tiny Christian church with no other text than our Bibles, a Methodist church with video lectures and graduation certificates. And the more I learned about what how other people interacted with this book, the more questions I had and the less impressed I became.

I was teaching the Bible to my kids by this time. Helping them memorize its most famous passages. Taking them to AWANA clubs. Rewarding them for reading "God's Word". Giving them their own children's editions.

But eventually, the questions caught up with me. What made this book different from other texts? Was it more reliable than other writings held sacred by other faiths? Was it a superior guide for morality? Surely its characters were no more virtuous than other ancient heroes.

And the God it described gave bloodthirsty orders that horrified my children. It was a stretch to connect this God of Genesis, Deuteronomy and Judges with the Jesus in the happy little board books of their toddlerhood.

Did the prophets really hear God speak? Or were they like my anxious friend who would hear God telling her she shouldn't eat more granola for breakfast?

How did these books come to be compiled? Who decided what God had said, and when? The eminent Bible translator Martin Luther, architect of the "grace" theological model, thought the author of James' epistle "mangled" and "opposed" scripture. "I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books," he wrote.

Why did some of my Bibles include Matthew 6:13 ("For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever") while others left it out? The more I researched about translation, texts, and manuscripts, the less confident I felt. If God had intended to make his character and desires clear to mankind through a book compiled over many centuries, he could have done a lot better.

The paradoxes in scripture had never bothered me much before. Some passages just had to be read metaphorically; sometimes you had to count fractions and not whole days or nights; sometimes you had to use your imagination, other times some common sense. Photosynthesizers could use some other kind of light before God made the sun. The writer of Hebrews meant that Sarah was "as good as dead". Or maybe he meant Isaac. A miracle here and there could clear up a lot of the seeming contradictions.

Thing is, I didn't much believe in miracles anymore. Oh, I might still pray in my head while searching for a missing library book, but it was more a habit than an expression of faith. Something akin to saying "gosh". Parenthood had given me a lot more experience with biology, and the laws of nature seemed pretty immutable.

And I was losing patience with everyone who had given me half-truths, exaggerations, well-meant deceptions, and bald-faced lies. My God was above that kind of thing. He was the Truth. He wasn't the author of confusion. Well, I was confused. His whole church seemed confused. They were confused about what it meant to be a believer and how God wanted them to treat other people and how to find mates or raise children. My God didn't manipulate, so why did I find myself invoking his name to make my kids feel guilt and shame?

Turns out I was still pretty fucked up. The one influence that had been consistent for 30 years of my life was the book I was devoted to. The book that taught me about my god, about relationships, about my self. A book that contained the most shocking and disgusting stories I'd ever read. A book used to promote both benevolence and abuse. To defend the weak and to subjugate them.

To quote from that troublesome book of James: "Out of the same mouth proceeds blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh."

Jesus taught that a wise man built his house on the rock, and it did not fall when the rain came down and the streams rose and the winds blew and beat against it.

"But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."  --Jesus

Strangely enough, what I thought was rock-solid turned out to be sand. I see lives built on it collapsing all around me.

I tried to build a life on Jesus' words, but became exhausted repairing cracks in the wall every time the wind picked up. Eventually, I fled for firmer ground to build a life that I hope will be happier for me and a whole lot safer for my children.


  1. I too had/have a "freakish" knowledge of Scripture, a fanatical idolization of it above all the things. Thank you for once again putting my experiences into words. XO You rock. :-)

  2. "Behold, I stand at the door and yell"