9.18.2005

Bibliophile

I have spent the greater part of my life disliking the Bible. I managed to get through eighteen years of good Methodist upbringing, two years of youth ministry, a Bible as Literature class, and three years of seminary without once feeling affection for the Good Book.

The first time I read a whole book of the Bible, from start to finish, was in seventh grade confirmation class. We read the Gospel of John. (I'd like to go on the record and say that I think the Gospel of John is the worst possible book to teach 12-year-olds, because Jesus comes off a lot more surly and wise and real in the Gospel of Mark.) The only thing I remember vividly from that class was the day the teacher had all the boys leave the room so the girls could learn the definition of the word "circumcision" without having to blush. At the time, I really really wanted to be a good born-again Christian, so long as I didn't have to read the Bible any more than absolutely necessary to get confirmed. As it happened (and this is a major confession to make in such a public venue), I did not read the Bible enough to get confirmed. When it came time for the big Bible memory test at the end of eighth grade, I was absent. So I got to do a make-up exam - written - and with no supervision. Not having read my homework, let alone memorized it, I discreetly copied verses straight from the New International Version to my notebook paper, conveniently bypassing my brain.

I'd say a melange of disinterest and guilt would pretty well capture my relationship with the Bible throughout the next decade of my life. At first the guilt was related to that whole confirmation no-no, but then once I started delving into baptismal waters again, I became acutely aware of how unorthodox it is to be a Jesus-loving Bible-hater. But any interest I might have cultivated in the scriptures during that era was quickly dismantled by my growing distaste for Bible-thumpers – former Junior High Bible Bowl champions who knew exactly how to find and interpret scriptures to support social and religious conservatism. Learning about the concepts of hermeneutics – the lens through which scripture is interpreted – helped, a little. So did developing a rudimentary grasp of biblical criticism. But only to a point.

In seminary, I learned that feminist and liberationist hermeneutics are just as valid as the conservative evangelical hermeneutic. I learned that the gospels were cobbled together from oral tradition decades after the death of Jesus, not by eyewitnesses. But not even rose-colored glasses could have made me stomach the books of Judges and Revelation. I broke into tears in Hebrew Bible class during my first year at Claremont, dumbfounded and appalled at the story of the concubine who is gang-raped and cut into twelve pieces (Judges 19). My question to the class: how can we call this book "holy?"

Once I discovered these so-called "texts of terror" (there’s an excellent book by that name written by Phyllis Trible), I became mildly obsessed with the sorts of scriptures that didn’t make it into the lectionary. My first sermon at FCC Pomona was about Jephthah’s daughter, a victim of human sacrifice. I led a Bible study on troubling texts during my internship. I still think this kind of study is deeply important. There are so many people who have happened upon the violent stories of the Bible and haven’t known what to do with them. All too often the church just blithely pretends they don’t exist, leaving people without resources or a framework to process why the coming of the Prince of Peace engenders cities coursing with blood in the Book of Revelation.

And now. I have preached ten sermons over the past two and a half months. When I preach a text, an intimacy develops between the words (the Word?) and me. As I shape and reshape the gospel into the space of a sermon, I find myself shaped and reshaped in turn. The guilt and disinterest have dissolved. This change has happened imperceptibly and dramatically, if that isn’t too much of a paradox.

I still respond to certain biblical texts with shock and grief. I will never pray Psalm 137 in its entirety; no matter how lovely it is to lie by the rivers of Babylon, the concluding image of dashing the heads of the captors’ infant children against rocks is appalling. As well it should be. But I am finding holiness in this odd library of poems, myths, prophecy, and gospel. I am finding kernels of truth spread generously throughout its fallible pages. And I am praying that those kernels may be planted in me.

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