A really weird thing happened to me a few months ago and I’m still a little shook.
I was planning a “branding” photoshoot and decided a Bible might be a really good prop. I could take one of those oh-so-Grammable-coffee-shop pics. Journal, Bible, and my monthly Bitch Media magazine with the hashtag #morningdevos. But then I realized
Holy hell. I don’t own a Bible!
There was a time in my life where I owned like seven different Bibles all at one time. Now, I was raised a cool Evangelical Christian, so we knew our Bible and Bible translations. We weren’t like all the other “lukewarm” Christians who just listened to whatever their pastors told them on Sunday. Oh no! A real Christian researches which translations are the best and most accurate Word of the Lord (I don’t really understand why Christians didn’t just do like the Jews and Muslims and learn to read and write in their Holy Book’s original language so as to avoid all these translation issues. But what do I know. I’m just a New York liberal).
Questions like “Does God care if I wear a bikini?” and “Did my dog go to Heaven?”
After our very thorough individualized translation research, we all collectively bought the Bible our pastor used: The New Living Translations (NLT).
I received different Bibles for various occasions. I honestly can’t keep track but I feel like everytime we went to Hobby Lobby, we bought a Bible from the Bible store next door. Or maybe we were just getting my mom school supplies, I don’t know. But I had a lot of Bibles! I even had this one Bible that was fashioned like a magazine, complete with little blurb questions from tween girls like “Does God care if I wear a bikini?” and “Did my dog go to Heaven?” THE ANXIETY.
I had an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) Bible, A Teen Bible, NIV (New International Version), ESV (English Standard Version), The Message (not a real translation but rather a 21st century paraphrase. But it reads pretty). Once I got to college everyone was reading the New American Standard Version, so I got me one o’ them (For the record, the NASB is very hard to read and there is absolutely nothing “standard” about it). I was a regular Bible collector! But in a totally normal, “I just really love Jesus” kinda way.
By 10th grade I’d read the New Testament many times over, and the book of Proverbs far more than I could count. Proverbs has 31 chapters, so it’s a perfect daily read.* Every month my Bible study groups did scripture studies which was extra homework we were all totally amped to do because this homework “brought us closer to God.” The best way to do that, of course, is to read His Word. Study His Word. Live His Word.
*Can you imagine if Ecclesiastes had 31 chapters? Evangelicals would be running around with the rest of us saying “You know what, we all die. Just live a full life and eat yummy food. And have all the sex!” This is a loose translation, ofc. But King Solomon (author of Ecclesiastes) really was a regular existential polygamist. Anyway, God really fucked up the whole Ecclesiastes/Proverbs chapter count thing. No thanks, God! And if all of this is lost on you, go read Ecclesiastes.
The Bible wasn’t just this thing I heard people talk about at church or discussed with my grandparents on Holidays. The Bible was part of my DNA. Written on the “tablet of my heart” whether I liked it or not.
Reading the Bible every day, studying it in weekly groups, memorizing scripture, etc...really was totally normal in the culture in which I grew up. In fact, it was expected. Because the Bible is “God-breathed” and therefore, infallible, so you gotta know what it says! I totally appreciate this “better know what you’re following” approach to being a Christian. However, just because I was reading the words didn’t mean I actually knew what any of it meant, where it derived, or how those specific words landed on a coffee shop table amongst 5 sorority girls.
Upon moving to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my relationship with the Bible and what it said became...strained. For one thing, if the Christians are right, I’d say roughly 89% of the UWS is going to Hell. They’re Jews, after all. And despite being a people of way better character, family values, and financial responsibility than really anyone I’d met in the Midwest, their lack of belief in the New Testament was sending them straight to the bad place. I couldn’t get down with this idea.
However, I did know one thing: basing my entire life on every nuanced detail of a book in which I had not spent DILIGENT effort researching (not in church. Like, real academic, historic, even archeological research) was a bad call.
So due to my deep concern for the souls of my Jewish friends (and my soul, really), I relentlessly began studying Biblical textual criticism. I dabbled in textbooks, religious studies YoutTube panels, and interviews with theologians. I needed to know if I could trust what was in that damn book.
Before long, I was exhausted. My findings led to more findings which led to more questions I didn’t have the energy to pursue at the time. This book that was supposed to contain very explicit and “clear” instructions for life, turned out to be not at all explicit or clear! I had a headache most of the time, beginning with how we even got this so called “infallible” canon to begin with. I.e. why the Catholics got a different infallible canon than us? Which came first? Are they both infallible? I recently had this conversation with THREE pastors and none of them could give me a clear answer. Or maybe they did. I was a little drunk.
However, I did know one thing: basing my entire life on every nuanced detail of a book in which I had not spent DILIGENT effort researching (not in church. Like, real academic, historic, even archeological research) was a bad call. Furthermore, insisting others commit their life to such a book and if they don’t they will suffer for eternity is also probably not a great call. Growing up I was told this is where faith comes in.
“At some point you just have to choose to believe” they said. Right. But choosing to believe means I have to believe anyone who doesn’t believe how I believe is going to Hell (did you get all that?). No thank you please. Can I be a Rob Bell Christian?
"You're in for a lifelong pursuit of the question. Try not to wear yourself out."
I once asked a religion professor of mine (who actually happened to be a Christian),
“How can you believe? Knowing everything you know, how can you fully believe all of the Jesus stuff is true?”
“I’m not sure I’ll ever fully believe it’s true, Mattie Jo. But I don’t need to have all the answers, I just like asking questions. I’m addicted to the journey of learning. And you’re the same, I can tell. So you’re in for a lifelong pursuit of the question. Try not to wear yourself out.”
You’ll be happy to know I did recently buy myself a Bible and I’m enjoying the heck out of intensely studying it with the help of a fancy textbook. I’m two Gospels in and let me tell ya, I’m still writing “WTF” in the margins probably too much.
I just don’t know if I’ll ever 100% believe a guy from 2000 years ago was born of a virgin, avoided mass genocide of babies, and due to raising from the dead managed to convince a lot of people he was God incarnate. But I’m going to keep searching, partly because I like to be pretentious with my Bible knowledge and partly because I think I’m still a little scared I’m going to Hell if I don’t figure this whole Messiah thing out. Old habits die hard.
But maybe it’s okay that I may never “fully believe.” Maybe the world needs a few more people admitting they don’t 100% know much. Perhaps my role is to relentlessly ask questions to make sure we don’t fall asleep in our own brains. To keep us thinking and growing and challenging all kinds of “truths.” Maybe being addicted to learning isn’t the worst addiction one could have. And hopefully learning addicts don’t get sent to Hell. **
**Or maybe it is cuz as King Solomon says “...he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 2:18b). Seriously, Solomon is the Eeyore of Jew Kings.