Reading, Scripture, and Change.
How the Bible's role in my life has changed from childhood to today.
I love reading. It’s what I do the most of, whether it’s scrolling Twitter, following the news, or reading a book or comic. It’s how I relate to and make sense of the world. This love was fostered in the church, because it is (ostensibly) a religion of The Book.1
What I had not been prepared for in those formative childhood & adolescent years was how my own relationship to the Bible would change. When you’re a child, everything feels eternal, and when your religious tradition teaches you that your Scriptures are “the unchanging and inerrant word of God,” those notions become intertwined, forming a bedrock of identity. That these ideas inform our early world is important, because as we grow they become almost mythic. Frederick Buechner put it this way in his book The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days:
“How do you tell the story of your life—of how you were born, and the world you were born into, and the world that was born in you? “Once upon a time,” you might say because all beginnings have a legendary quality about them, a promise of magic, but Dylan Thomas uses a different phrase abou this childhood which strikes me as a more accurate one. “Once below a time,” he says in his poem “Fern Hill,” meaning, I assume, that, for a child, time in the sense of something to measure and keep track of, time as the great circus parade of past, present, and future, cause and effect, has scarcely started yet and means little because for a child all time is by and large now time and apparently endless. What child, while summer is happening, bothers to think much that summer will end?”
In retrospect I’m not sure anyone can be prepared for things like one’s relationship to a sacred text to change. What I do think, however, is that evangelicalism’s focus on biblical inerrancy & its presentation of modern doctrines like complementarianism as “eternal” utterly fails those raised in its traditions, and has failed them for generations. Us, our parents, our grandparents.
My first faith crisis was Scriptural and political. My undergraduate level courses in biblical literature were enough to rattle me and question the authenticity of this claim to scriptural inerrancy—an assumption that I hadn’t even realized I’d had. The complicating factors of millennia of translation and interpretation and handmade manuscripts by fallible humans made inerrancy and untenable doctrine. Meanwhile, my history courses were hawkish and conservative, and I could not reconcile those impulses with Christianity.
Over the ensuing years, my relationship to the Bible has changed time and again.
There were years (years!) I couldn’t open the texts without scribbling questions—questions about ethics, the meaning of words, questions of relevance. The Bible was supposed to be central to my understanding of God, but I didn’t know what to think, let alone understand, about it.
I’d find avenues back, here and there. I was drawn to Creation Care theology, and its emphasis on the ecological narratives that can be unearthed in the scriptures. It was a hermeneutic of care, of a concern for all things that felt true to what I understood God to be. Then came a difficult break with a church, and Trump, and a subsequent re-imagining of the role of Scripture in the Episcopal tradition.
Which brings me back to reading. I never read just one book at a time; I bounce between texts regularly, and I’m in the midst of two books that engages scripture in ways that are, to me, a radical reframing that are departures from what I had learned in evangelicalism—visions of Christ and the church that are more affirming, more expansive. And yet, my soul was not stirred as it has been in the past. Not by the new-to-me interpretations at least. I wrote about it in the moment on Twitter:
But I still remain thankful that this sort of work is being done, because it is necessary work. It’s just not mine. Not right now.
It makes me sad that they are necessary, but they are vital. Because there are people for whom these new interpretations will mean the world. And that is what stirs my soul today.
Evangelicalism does not prepare you for change. It is an ossifying, stultifying faith that expects you or allows you to grow in a certain way. It’s why what we now call ‘deconstruction’ is so disorienting. Yet change is part of life, and change comes even for our understanding of God, self, and the texts we read.
Thank you for reading this one.
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I’d come to learn through my own education that this assumption belies the fact that for much of human history, most of the population could not read themselves and relied on orality. This is not a value judgment, but does emphasize the importance of communication mediums & how they shape us.