Literally

I’m fairly certain the least consistently redeemed aspect of my personality is the part of me that feels a compulsion to correct things–primarily people’s grammar, spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, and general word usage.

Example: recently a professional peer of mine sent me some glowing feedback, at the end of which she said, “you have literally gifted us your pearl of great price.” As soon as I read it, I had an internal clash of emotions. The better part of me felt awed at her kind and affirming words, grateful if even a part of them were actually true, and humbled that she felt the way she described. But then the other part of me said to the rest of me, “Augh! Literally? I haven’t literally given anyone a pearl–greatly priced or otherwise!” I do have this really pretty black pearl which I pulled out of an oyster tank at the Norwalk Oyster Festival in 1996, but that was only $15, and I don’t think there’s enough of it to go around.

At that point it became pretty clear to me that no matter how sincere she was, the objective truth of her glowing accolades for me might only be skin deep and I am a horrible person.

Be that as it may, one of the biggest word usage peeves I have is the non-literal use of the word literally. I therefore have a really conflicted relationship with using it to refer to how I (or anyone) reads, understands, and interprets the Bible. I have lived, worshiped, and worked with people who call themselves Christians who say with pride that they take the Bible literally. I have also lived, worshiped, and worked with people who call themselves Christians who say with pride that they don’t take the Bible literally. I suspect both sorts of self-identifying Christians (including myself, at one time or another–maybe recently) have also, more or less consciously or overtly, assumed that those people at the other end of the Scriptural literalness spectrum may not really be Christians, or at least not very good ones.

This leaves me and I suppose others like me in something of a predicament if we are trying to talk about the way we read and understand the Bible. I mean…I don’t have a word for it. I believe the Bible is inspired by God unlike any other book is or isn’t inspired. I even believe the specific words used in the original writing of the original books of the Bible are inspired (though I don’t believe God put people into a trance or in any kind of automatic writing as part of the process). Intervening millennia, manuscript fragments and/or variants, and countless translations notwithstanding, I believe that we can still know true things about the real God and about the state of humanity from the Bible that we can’t learn as truly and as thoroughly anywhere else. Tell me I have blind faith, and you may be right, but that faith has been tested in many areas–including in taking the Bible seriously as an authority over my life–and still holds up, even when some of the times I didn’t want it to.

But I can’t literally say I take the Bible literally. Do I believe Jesus’ miracles literally happened? Yes, I do. Do I believe Moses and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and that said Sea was something more than a puddle? Yep. Do I believe Noah’s flood covered the entire globe? I’m agnostic about that one. I think it could have. I don’t think it has to have, in order for the story to have meaning in both human history and my own life, or for it to tell us something about the progression of God’s relationship with humanity. Do I believe the world and the universe were made in seven 24-Earth-hour literal days? I mean, God could have done it that way, but no, I do not believe He did.

So how do I (or how does anyone with a similar perspective to mine) decide which parts to take truly literally, and which parts not to? How do we decide which rules and laws recorded in the 66 books of this sometimes daunting tome are still applicable to life now, and which ones no longer are? Isn’t it intellectually inconsistent (and maybe reflects inconsistent principles) to pick and choose?

Well…yes.

Here’s the thing, though. We all pick and choose. No one is fully consistent–not the most literal reader of the Bible, and not the least. It would take too much time to give examples, but please trust me on this one. I’ve seen it. Those of us in the middle may be in the most danger of all of inconsistency–but maybe (not necessarily, but one would hope) we have some other ways of “getting at” what we’re meant to “get out of” Scripture that might be more accessible to us than if we were bound by the literal versus non-literal dichotomy. I won’t claim that I have “the right” understanding or interpretation of anything in the Bible (although I certainly try to), but I will tell you that there are two main approaches that help it make sense to me, and actually help me to love that Book, even when I am seriously not loving a particular segment I’m reading at any given moment.

The first approach is to try not to think of it as a Book that fits into any one genre of writing that we as humans generally have. I have another entire post (maybe rant) about that, but for the moment let’s just say that although I believe the Bible is a very unique unity in itself, it is full of numerous genres, some of which we don’t even have anything like, anymore. The biblical genres that match ones we do still have 2000 years after the last bit of it was written, aren’t quite like the way we write those genres now. If I can come to the Bible with an open mind, instead of demanding that it fill my expectations as A History Book, or A Rule Book, or A Science Book, or A Storybook–if I can let it be itself–let it self-identify, as it were–I think I am able to get a better sense of what any given part of it is about or for. At the same time, if I can recognize that it has elements of all those genres, and let those genres be their genres, I come closer to understanding the words and why they’re being used the way they are in any given section. Because (big surprise!), I believe the genres were inspired by God, too.

The other approach that helps me is approaching God. If the Bible really is God’s book, then God must want me to meet Him through it–otherwise, why go to the trouble of inspiring it? If I come at the Bible as a way to grow closer to God, open not just to what the book itself says, but to what God wants to say to me through it–if I ask Him, well, I may still not always get it right, but based on my experience, it seems like I’m more likely to “hear” from God Himself, in what I read, and from there in many other moments of my day.

After all that, I’m still not sure there’s one word to sum up my approach to, or understanding and experience of, the Bible. Maybe you could say I understand the Bible “literarily.” That’s probably not quite right, either, but it seems like it would be easier to have a conversation around what I mean. Or maybe you could say I understand it as an important message from Someone who loves me, and who–partly because of the message in this book–I am growing to love, too.

Word Down*

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Photo found on Pinterest. I’d credit it if I could.

This post is a continuation of a train of thought that left the station (and has been chugging along subconsciously for quite some time) over here.


The thing I keep wondering is…what if Jesus did write something? Something more, I mean, than whatever He famously mysteriously wrote in the dirt before and after He offered a pack of self-righteous men a chance to chuck rocks at an adulterous woman–if they could honestly claim sinlessness? What if maybe He didn’t literally write something else, but actually wrote something, all the same?

Last year I went to this six-day leadership training retreat for college students–not as one of the college students but as one of the staff. On the first morning we were all sent off to engage in some “personal quiet time,” and I found a dandelion-studded hill, sat down under a tree, and began to ponder. We were supposed to focus on John 1.1-18, where John the Evangelist tells us that Jesus is the “Word of God” and that Jesus was not only with God but was God. It’s one of my favorite passages, so I was assuredly contemplating it, but I was also contemplating the elective I would be teaching later on, which was called “Hide and Seek with Jesus: Finding Jesus in Every Part of the Bible.”

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I contemplated the dandelions. I thought about creation. I thought about how John 1 intentionally riffs off of Genesis 1, which describes God creating all there is with a word (a Word?)–“Be.”

I thought about a quote I once read in a book by Donald Miller. I think (but don’t have the book with me to verify) the quote was from a biblical scholar named Tremper Longman III. (If I’m wrong about this, I’ll fix the reference once I have access to the book again. I’ll probably also have to fix the quotation.) He said something to the effect that the most loving thing a perfectly loving Being could do, would be to create other beings on which to lavish that love.

I thought about how much love that must have been, since, as a Trinitarian Christian I believe God doesn’t and can’t get lonely, because God is, God’s self, a community of perfect love which we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I thought, “God must have really been overflowing with love to create a race of beings in His own image, and then try so hard to communicate with them.”

 

So first, He created a world–which He also loves, and was an expression of His love–and through which to communicate Himself to us. Us? Seriously. But…well, we might’ve missed the point a little bit–gotten confused about who was God in the equation (ourselves? the rest of creation?) and done quite a number on creation itself.

So next, God got a little more specific, communicating with and working in and through specific people, inspiring specific people, over centuries and even millennia, so that the end result was not only His Word infused through the now-marred creation, but His Word written down in a book. Now we had something a little more clearly delineated, helping us get a glimpse more specifically of Who God is, what God is like, what God’s hopes are for His beloved image-bearers and the rest of creation. Most of us continued to miss the point (same confusion–or we might more honestly say rebellion), but through His written Word, God began to communicate with more and more people. And then…

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children.

–Galatians 4:4-5, NLT

Or, as it says in that John 1 chapter,

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

–John 1:14, NIV

God couldn’t get more personal–enfleshing Himself, His Word. As Jesus, God showed us exactly how deep His love is, how far His love will go, and what love really looks like. He showed us in real life what His intention for us is, and how humans were supposed to be.

Just as we humans have ravaged creation, just as we misinterpreted and misapplied both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, so we denied His Word–Jesus the Messiah–and slaughtered Him. God knew we would. But He showed up in person anyway, because He loves us.

You may have noticed I quoted two different Bible passages using two different translations, above. There is a lot more to say about the Bible, regarding translations and versions and original copies (there aren’t any), regarding how we read it, how we understand different sections and the different literary genres within it, and how we take it into our lives. All of that aside for now, I think the Bible as a whole is pretty consistent in describing itself as the Word of God, and the New Testament at least (the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, too, depending on how you look at it) is also pretty consistent as describing Jesus as the Word of God, and as God.

And so I guess, even though I couldn’t tell you how God inspired the original writers of that book, I believe He did, in such a way that you could more or less say He wrote it Himself. This is why, though I believe we get it wrong often enough and that different passages in the Bible have (sometimes vastly) different purposes and implications for our reading and incorporation of them–and it’s necessary to discern these different purposes and implications through the “lens” of Jesus (with the help of the Holy Spirit in all of it)–I can’t quite bring myself specifically to weight the words of Jesus as recorded in the Bible as more valid than the other words in the Bible. Because in some way or other, I believe the whole Bible reflects Him. I believe it’s all His words–His Word. I guess I believe in some way or other, Jesus is the Word, who wrote a Book.

*I know. “Word Down” isn’t–and never has been–a thing, but it’s part b of the other post, and…I think you know what I mean.

 

Word Up*

One time, when I was doing kind of a test run of the OSFGroups separate from the church where I “invented” them and before the Pilgrimage was a thing, a friend of mine who was also one of the participants asked a question that I have been mulling over ever since. (That’s about two years, by the way.) Here, more or less, was the question:

If Jesus is God the Son of God, doesn’t it make sense to give more weight to the words that the Bible tells us He actually spoke, than to other parts of the Bible?

Yes and no. Maybe.

When my friend first asked the question, it quite appealed to me, as did the concept of Red Letter Christians–the movement that promotes a similar perspective–when I first heard of it. You may or may not know that in various ways and various times, and maybe now more than ever, Jesus has been kind of an obsession of mine. Naturally I would be drawn to a movement that takes His words extra seriously. I agree with much of what the Red Letter Christian movement presents, in particular this second item from their statement of values:

Jesus is the lens through which we understand the Bible… and through which we understand the world in which we live.

As I’ve mulled this over for the last two years, however, I realize I believe Jesus is a bigger lens–on the Bible and the world–than simply the words He spoke (sometimes printed in red) as recorded in the Bible. The reason I think this is because of something that has been impressing itself on my mind and heart for even longer than my questions about Red Letter Christianity, and that is the mystery we encounter when we contemplate that both Jesus and the Bible are described as the Word of God.

In the pre-my-Paul era when I was regularly discussing (arguing?) theology with agnostics (usually single men; I didn’t really date, I theologized), I was once or twice presented with the argument that maybe I should calm down about this Jesus guy, because let’s be honest–He may be a major character in the Bible, but He didn’t even write one page of it. I don’t know that that’s a particularly weighty argument for or against Him, but if you want to get technical about it, it is admittedly clear that Jesus didn’t ever sit down with a stylus and a piece of parchment and start writing His ideas down–He simply lived them.

I think this attempt at an anti-Jesus argument, while not so effective at its intended goal, ends up working pretty well instead as an argument against giving Jesus’ words, per se, more weight than any others in the Bible. Because, if there’s even a hint of some of the parts of the Bible being somewhat more or less “errant” than others…well, how do we really know which is which? We can talk about Jesus’ words being the most important, but if He Himself didn’t even write them down–well, I mean, then we have to have faith that the Gospel writers recorded them correctly. We have have to have faith specifically that the Gospel writers were therefore more inspired than, say, the apostles Paul, Peter, or than Jude or James.

I guess some of us truly might like to say that, but how do we really know? I’ve a hunch (even though, if we looked at some of those “red letter” words we might find some, no matter what side of what aisle we’re on, that make us squirm, if not outright run out the door) such an assertion really comes down to the fact that we like the Gospel writers’ presentation of Jesus as a character better than the apostle Paul’s interpretation of the implication of Jesus’ life–in which case, it’s probably better just to be honest about where we’re coming from. And while we’re being honest, we might also add that in that case, we may well be putting our personal preferences at a slightly higher level of authority than Scripture itself.

There is, of course, another side to this coin, and more to the idea of Jesus as a lens to the Word and the World, and more to unpack about the written word/living Word mystery, and  more to say even about the “Jesus never wrote anything” argument. But we’ll flip the coin, and “clean” the lens, and unpack the mystery, and say some more on another day. For now I’ll leave open the uncomfortable suggestion of honesty, above. I’d hate to prevent any of us from “wrestling with the angel” if we have the chance.

*Apologies for the title. Clearly I am a middle-aged American white woman, from that segment of the middle-aged American white demographic which continues to appropriate outdated slang from the African American community, and will not let it rest in peace. I would have tried to restrain myself, but it seemed like the right title for this content–and it will lead in well to the title and further content of the next post.

 

 

Yes, That’s the Book for Me

I’ve gotten in trouble for my views on the Bible before.

It turns out that it’s no longer very popular to think of the Bible as a book fully and perfectly inspired by God, unlike any other book, no matter how awesome any other book may be. It’s not very popular to use words like inerrant or authoritative when you’re talking about the Bible. (Maybe it’s not so popular to use those words ever, because we don’t believe in the concepts themselves anymore–especially the first one.)

I guess I can see why, too. First of all, there are plenty of people who describe the Bible using those words who are scary jerks. I would like to think I’m not one of those people, but maybe I have been, or maybe I still am some of the time and don’t know it. If scary jerkitude is the automatic and inevitable result of believing the Bible is inerrant, authoritative, and uniquely divinely inspired, then those beliefs themselves must be wrong, right?

But also, while the Bible contains many passages of strength and comfort, it’s a pretty good bet that every person on the planet (including the person writing this) is into something that the Bible says we shouldn’t be into. I don’t know too many of us who like to be told what to do–or what not to do. The Bible communicates some pretty uncomfortable standards and “preferences” no matter what perspective you’re coming from. It would be much more convenient and easier if I could say that the Bible is a book like any other, maybe a notable example of world literature, maybe with some interesting characters and some glimmers of great wisdom, but also largely outdated and humanly flawed as all books are.

It would be, but here’s the thing. I just don’t believe it. It might seem like more of a stretch to assert what I do assert–that the Bible is a book God intentionally inspired a whole bunch of people a long time ago to write, over the course of centuries and even millennia, and that it still has a bearing on my life, and all life, now. But I do believe that. As time goes on, I believe it more strongly than I ever did, in fact.

I think and I hope, though, that the more deeply I am coming to see this as truth, the more gentle and gracious I am becoming as God’s Holy Spirit uses His Word to transform who I am from the inside out. I know others who hold this belief in the unique truth of the Bible, whose lives are also being transformed into a beautiful expression of who they were really meant to be all along. So maybe scary jerkitude is not necessarily the automatic and inevitable result of believing the Bible is inerrant, authoritative, and uniquely divinely inspired. To be sure, we might still not prefer everything that is communicated in that book’s pages. But maybe the true implication of those ideas (inerrancy, authority, and inspiration) is something entirely different–love- and life-giving. Maybe we’ve been using the words wrong. Or the Word wrong.

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I think we should talk about this some more. What do you think?

Hide and Seek with Jesus

I used to have this friend who said,

“You know, you don’t have to try to see Jesus in everything all the time.”

He didn’t like Jesus very much.

He was right, though, in a way. I didn’t have to try. I can’t help it. I “see” Jesus everywhere. Where most people might see a bucket of broken, potentially dangerous, shards of glass, I see beautiful colors coming together to make a sun-catcher in a vase. Then I see people I know–myself included–who are also broken and potentially dangerous, but through whom the light of Jesus can shine so that together we’re beautiful. And so is He.

I don’t think this way of seeing makes me anything special. I don’t think I’m the only person who sees Jesus everywhere. But I also know that some people don’t, or can’t. The Pilgrimage might be the culmination of a middling-length life of noticing Jesus more and more, in the mundane and the extraordinary, and the desire of that life (seriously, I’ve wanted this since I was a little girl) for all people–myself included–to see and know and experience and love Jesus “in everything all the time.” Maybe the Pilgrimage is a work in hope, an attempt at gathering more and more of us broken and dangerous pieces of glass into the sun catcher, so Jesus can shine through us and show that we are beautiful. And so is He.

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