(is it just me, or is it you too?) pt.2: when reading the bible feels like killing the living word (if we want to find it true, maybe we have to find it beautiful)
Sometimes I think when we get to Heaven, God will look at us with affectionate exasperation and say something to the effect of, “You know, I didn’t think even you guys could make the Bible that boring.”
I recently told a friend that I had read through the book of Esther the day before because I knew that if I didn’t start finding the Bible beautiful again, I would never go back to finding it true. Reading the book of Esther, with all its elements of a good story, was enough to remind me why I missed the Bible, and so I’ve been reading through the Epistles lately.
This morning, as I read slowly through Philippians, I realized once again that the majority of the New Testament is letters. Sure, it contains theology and rules and admonitions, but first and foremost, we’re reading the letters of Paul to the people he loves. Sometimes I think our reverence for Scripture, while assuredly appropriate, actually detracts from our understanding of what we’re reading; a modern Bible would likely look less like our devotional materials and more like our private wrestlings in our journals or our letters to our friends. Does that amaze anyone else? Does it make anyone else wonder why we read the Bible the way we do?
The Bible is a collection of narrative histories, poetry and songs, stories, memoirs, and letters; in other words, it is a book of creativity and relationship. It is, when it comes down to it, the story of how God chose the most pathetic, humiliated, laughingstock of a nation and chose it for Himself, and how even though that nation spit back in His face over and over and over again, He condescended to establish covenants with them until the final covenant was to incarnate Himself into a person so that they really could spit in His face and He could feel it and die for them and kiss them in response. It is also the story of how God created the first Adam, and the first Adam screwed things up big time, but God sent another Adam to be effectively the person we know in the mirror, lifting arm for arm, leg for leg, but this time doing it right where Adam went wrong, so that while our lineage is in the first Adam of dust, our inheritance lies with the second Adam of Heaven. It is also the story of how, through relationship with the most beautiful man who ever existed, we get to adopt ourselves into both of these scandalous and gorgeous stories, creating one giant meta-story that will one day finally end with a beginning.
I believe in the Truth of Scripture, whatever exactly that’s supposed to mean, but I also believe passionately in the subjective truth of Scripture, or perhaps I can call it the experiential nature of stories. The Bible has always seemed to me to be more about beauty than truth, more about plotline and paradox than creeds, and rather than being so grand as to exclude my sense of self, the way I so often feel when I listen to sermons or attend bible studies, it is so intimate that my very nature, my personality, my interests, and my memories, are entirely necessary for me to understand it. It’s a book that is indeed “living and active,” but that seems to me not just to mean application but relationship–that when I open the Bible, it takes a deep breath and asks to know me as much as it asks me to know it. Take Ecclesiastes, for instance. It’s a book basically telling me that everything is meaningless, that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never truly accomplish something lasting, and that I might as well do whatever I want with my life because by the time I die, I’ll be forgotten anyway. This is Scripture, and I absolutely love that it is because I think those same thoughts at least four times a day, and when I read through Ecclesiastes, I don’t feel that I know God so much as that He knows me, that his “living and active Word” has indeed re-membered me because it knows me so well. And sometimes I worry that our modern approach to the Bible is to try to exegete and apply and dissect all the life out of it (ex: the popular inductive bible study, where one finds the sole objective truth of the passage and applies it one’s life), so that what remains is some dull book with super thin pages and tons of little numbers that are supposed to somehow help me make it to the next day, except it’s so boring that the very reading of it feels like it might do me in.
Here’s the thing: when I wrote my previous blog post on why I’d rather go to the opera than church, I thought I’d anger a few people and maybe hear some thoughts on why people disagree. Instead, more people read the post and responded to it than anything I’ve previously written on this blog. It made me realize that other people feel the same way, ask the same questions about why we do Christianity the way we do, and I find that realization utterly life-giving. Because it is tiring to be tired of how we do faith these days, and it’s also lonely, and the fact that this is a shared feeling means something. And maybe if we can all be a little more lovingly critical, we can start making Christianity compelling again, not in an effort to make Christianity relevant to our culture but in an effort to make Christianity relevant to Christianity. I don’t believe in the Gospel, the Church, or Scripture because I find it true; I believe in the Gospel, the Church, and Scripture because despite the fact that I so often don’t find it true, I cannot help finding it staggeringly beautiful, in a way that claims my aesthetic nature before it claims my moral or rational nature. And not only do I think this is okay, but I think it’s a far cry more interesting to the world out there. The beauty helps me to believe, not the other way around. And if we want to show a hurting and broken and exploding world a true Christianity, maybe first we need to show them a beautiful Christianity, and from there let them navigate their way from appreciation to confession–as a lifelong journey, full of mystery and stories from the road, the way it was always supposed to be.