Thursday, February 22, 2007

Wrestling with Scripture

Part of my Lenten discipline this year is to spend some time reading scripture and writing about it.

I’ve had a rocky relationship with scripture as an adult. I was immersed in the Bible as a child. I attended a fundamentalist Christian school, K-12—which meant Bible class every day, chapel every day, and the expectation that you would appear at your local Church of Christ three times a week. I know the Bible a lot better than your average Episcopalian, because it was part of the fabric of my everyday existence during my formative years.

But that Bible was often used as a weapon to bludgeon, frighten, and shame. Proof-texting was a favorite sport in my church---we could always find a verse to condemn anyone who was Not Us. You will not be surprised to learn that a good bit of time was spent on verses prescribing the proper (i.e., subordinate) role of women.

Much of the rest of the time was spent telling us (I was a teenager, remember) that sex was dirty and sinful, and should therefore be saved for the person we were to marry...

When I left that church behind, I pretty much left the Bible behind too. It was only when I enrolled in the Education for Ministry (EFM) program (in my late 30s) that I was forced to take the Bible seriously again.

The first two years of EFM were really difficult for me. I was 38 years old before I realized that there were two creation stories in Genesis, and I was knocked for a loop by the discovery that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch. We won't even get started on the New Testament...

I thought I had left my fundamentalist baggage behind me, but I hadn’t. Finding that what I thought I knew about the Bible was wrong was deeply unsettling---and even worse was the realization that, unconsciously, I still carried so many literalist attitudes about scripture.

Biblical criticism was tough for me to accept because a voice in the back of my head kept saying "But what if it's wrong?!" I hadn't even known there was such a thing, and I was stunned to learn that there were whole libraries full of it.

I know, I know. Seems crazy, doesn’t it? Especially when you think about the fact that I have a master’s degree and am ABD in political science from Vanderbilt---which, perceptive readers will note, has a well-respected Divinity School.

Let’s just say that my particular department frowned on forays into any other disciplines except economics or statistics. (The director of graduate studies once denied me permission to take a graduate history class because it focused on women, and he felt it was a waste of time and money.)

So what I did, once I discovered this Brave New World, was to focus on the biblical criticism and stay the hell away from the Bible itself.

That was useful for a time---a necessary corrective, I think, to the long years of a fundamentalist approach to scripture. But I’m feeling the pull of the Bible again, so I told myself that I would “wrestle with scripture” this Lenten season.

My main project for myself is to write a reflection on the Gospel reading for each Sunday in Lent, but I’ll probably write some other things too. I’ve already started a reflection on the story of Jonah (inspired by the readings in the lectionary for Morning Prayer), and I’ll post that soon.

I should note a few things as I begin this project:

First: I have very little training in theology (basically what I got through EFM as student and now mentor and lots of extracurricular reading), and I make no pretence to being a biblical scholar. As I have noted in a post below, I am a Happy Little Heretic—but, if you feel it is your mission in life to argue with me, I am willing to be persuaded that my interpretations are wrong.

Second: If you are a biblical literalist/inerrantist, save your breath. I spent most of my life with those folks, and nearly gave up on God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit forever as a result. I cannot go back to that way of thinking, and any argument based on the presupposition that God wrote the KJV and dropped it out of the sky is not going to carry any weight with me.

Third: If you are one of those people who gets your knickers in a twist over the use of a female pronoun for God, my advice is...get over your precious self. Jesus prayed to the Father and referred to himself as Mother, so I alternate using He/She as the Spirit moves me---because I’m comfortable with both and find meaning in both.

Since God is neither male nor female (according to Christian tradition and every reputable theologian I’ve ever read), I doubt very seriously that God minds whatever pronoun we decide to use. And if God is that easily offended, we are all screwed anyway.

Finally: Given my Disclaimer#1, my musings are likely to be puerile, vapid, uninformed, and biased in the extreme. Whether or not *I* am spiritually edified by this process remains to be seen...but, in true Lemony Snicket fashion, I will tell you that you are much more likely to be spiritually edified by reading the phone book.

You have been warned.