For twenty years I loved the Bible. And then, one day, I didn’t.
I don’t think you can explain to a non-religious person what it is like to spend your life steeped in a single book. Or even to a committed religious person for whom Scripture is secondary; a hyper-devoted Trekkie or Harry Potter rereader might be better able to understand how a text can become a part of you, how bits of it might pop into your mind at any moment and how the grand sweep of its narrative becomes the ordering principle for your own life.
I don’t mean this in a rigid, dogged way. Yes, I gave that leather-bound book a lot of authority in my life, and I cared deeply about following it just as I cared deeply about being a good girl in every other way; but I also recognized fluidity, mystery, discernment in the translation of these ancient texts to today’s world. The more I grew familiar with the Bible, the more surprising and inspiring and convicting it became. Since thirteen or fourteen, maybe, I had learned as much about myself as about anything else from its pages. It asks you to ask questions, and then it asks them right back at you.
And so, when I started the required Bible classes for my college degree, I thought I was ready. Even when I realized Biblical scholarship wasn’t going to be a bag of tricks that put a new spin on every verse, I still knew that context would make my understanding of every verse deeper. And even when my teachers demolished my beliefs about the Bible’s origins and authorship, I took a few days to regroup but easily felt that this book was still fundamentally trustworthy.
I graduated with ten Bible classes under my belt, despite infamously bad relationships with both of my Greek teachers; one of my most profound encounters with the Bible happened through a fifteen-page paper in my final semester of senior year. I was as enamored as I’d ever been. My studies had made my grasp of these texts infinitely more careful and nuanced, yet I still heard the Holy Spirit through them. And I still felt that there was a unifying message in all of it, something comforting and challenging and inspiring that I could offer to myself and others in any situation.
Then life happened.
Over the next four years, I would experience betrayal, and those Psalms would just lie flat on the page instead of bringing comfort. The people and places I met would challenge my overdeveloped sense of morality, and the Bible would only sow more confusion. Yet more Bible classes would force me to sit with the ugliest parts of the scriptures and deal with the terrible oppression they had engendered throughout history. Reading the Bible for personal reasons during seminary felt like when you’ve planted too much squash in your garden: pretending you really love eating zucchini as a snack when you’ve already had it for breakfast and lunch every day this week. I could not listen to sermons and devotionals and blog posts without involuntarily annotating them in my mind. Well, when you look at the Greek, what you’re saying about this word doesn’t make a lot of sense… I suppose you could say that about God in this instance, but I bet you’re going to skip over the part three chapters later where he does the opposite…
A couple of times in my life, the process of “growing apart” from a certain friend, however natural it was that we’d both changed, has brought me immense pain. This was one of them. I didn’t know how to be Christian without the Bible, but after a few years of these frustrations I could no longer handle the exhaustion of trying to wrestle meaning out of these words.
Into this mess came a great gift: the gift of silence. After so many collapses under the Bible’s weight, God (who generally seemed absent in those days) came by to say, Here. Let me hold that. I was left with an embarrassingly cliche realization that I am starting to think I will always continue to have: I couldn’t have believed, let alone admitted it, but I was still treating life as a puzzle and the Bible as an answer key. I thought I was OK with not knowing, but I hadn’t really learned to live without certainty. Meanwhile, my calling had never been to love and honor the Bible, but that’s what my priority had been. It had now come between me and God, between me and other people, and I had to let it go for a while.
It is two or three years later and I am only just resuming a steady relationship with all those ancient stories of God. I can only now hear a sermon on its own terms before interspersing layers of criticism and corroboration. And if you are worried about my soul after so long keeping Scripture at arm’s length, here is a thing I read this morning.
18 Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”
19 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”
20 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.”
21 Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22 And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
See, for so long, there were crowds in my mind, all telling me who Jesus was. They came to church with me and to bed with me, telling me how to categorize Jesus in order to make sense of him. But that was never going to be the way to know Jesus; there was only the way Peter took. To follow in his footsteps, day after day, not really knowing where we were going or why. To whisper about him sometimes with other disciples. To ask him questions and receive cryptic replies. To watch him in prayer. Because if your answers come too easily, you have to wonder if you’ve really been paying attention. Because your answer might have to haunt you for a while before you’ll admit that it could cost you your life. Because you know, in the end, that you will not possibly be able to truly understand your own answer, no matter how many other things you think you comprehend.
I think I am not done here. I want to be more practical and specific about how I navigated all this, and I expect I’ll do that in next week’s post. If you want to receive a handy email when it’s live, go on over to form in the sidebar, check both of the little checkboxes, and sign up!