I had a difficult conversation a couple of days ago and I’m still processing it. One of my children asked me about the Bible and how I feel about it, sharing with me that it makes him feel happy and sad. I, too, feel those same emotions when I open it. I have such a challenging relationship with the Bible that I don’t like treating it as a proper noun with a beginning capital letter. I almost feel that writing “the Bible” versus “the bible” gives the former more weight, more authority. In my personal experience throughout much of my life, the Bible was carried and used, in many ways, like a person with an open carry license walks with a gun in a holster, clearly visible, displaying firepower so that all around knows it’s there and will be used if necessary. It was not viewed as a book of stories, a historical record of a group of people throughout centuries shared through narrative, shaped and molded and altered with each new telling, authored by numerous contributors, but instead as the exact word of God.
As a voracious reader, I struggled with the Bible at an early age. Unsurprisingly, I wanted to read more about the characters presented as heroes in my Sunday school classes. Again and again, I would read on my own and discover that these heroes were not heroes, but humans experiencing life during a time and place I knew nothing about. For every exciting biblical adventure shared, there was some sort of brutal before and after. As a girl and an animal lover, I didn’t want to believe that the Bible was the ultimate, final, infallible, and inerrant message from God. How could it be? How could the God who sent Jesus, the same Jesus who healed people and reminded those around him that children mattered, the Jesus who spoke to women and with women, the Jesus who was sad in the garden and lonely like me, how could the God who sent him be the same God who asked a man to kill his son, took countless animal slaughters, ordered the killing of thousands of people, allowed women and children to be taken as war prizes to be used as slaves for any purpose, and encouraged a system that made women the property of their husbands. In other words, if the Bible was truthful and correct in its entirety, then I had no worth other than that which was dictated to me by the men surrounding me.
As a somewhat suspicious child by nature, it was hard for me not to question, and sometimes I didn’t bother with restraining myself, that the adults in church would scoff at the creation stories of other religions and cultures. Nearly all of the stories in the Old Testament feel like tall tales. They felt that way then, and they still do now. If another culture were to suggest that a man was swallowed by a giant fish and vomited out days later, most Christians would say it’s just a story. If another faith suggested that a boy knocked out a giant with a slingshot and a river rock, they’d likely say it wasn’t really a giant. “Donkeys can’t talk” and “ghosts aren’t real” are sentences I’ve heard adults say to kids and to each other. But these examples and more can be found in the Bible and many children, like myself, grow up being taught that these were real, factual events with no creative elaboration employed during the writing process. We are taught that our stories are the right ones, the real ones, and all the others are just fiction. Imagine my heartbreak when, years later, I learned that my skepticism was indeed warranted and my beloved Noah and all the animals he saved were very possibly just a story to explain a terrible flood. Stories about an enormous flood with catastrophic damage and loss of life occur in multiple religions and in the histories of many people. Noah’s story is but one telling, one version of this event, and we have no guarantee that it is the one true form other than the assurances we give ourselves that we’re correct and others just aren’t reading the right book.
Much like Santa Claus isn’t really real, but is based on a person who was real, and we’ve continued to thrive on the spirit and mirth that the idea of Santa brings, maybe all my biblical heroes were real, but not who Christianity has made them to be. Maybe the value they bring to my life, the good they help me strive for, is still worth my contemplation, in spite of the atrocities that often bookend their various adventures. I set out carrots for reindeers and make cookies every Christmas Eve, knowing all along that I’ll be eating cookies and hiding carrots in the woods behind my house, in the middle of the night, because believing in Santa is something that ties me to my myself, to my family, to these feeble attempts at traditions that help us cling to each other in the midst of the ups and downs of the life we live. I wonder if I’m being somehow disrespectful in suggesting that the power of Santa Claus and that of the stories of the Bible that are enshrined in stained glass all over the globe are related, but denying the reality that we respond similarly seems disingenuous. Not only does devotion to the ideas and customs of Christmas, secular and religious, both comfort and alienate people, so does the fervor around the Bible and its characters. They have the power we give them and deep down, maybe that’s why I’ve always disliked the focus on the Bible being treated like a sacred bullhorn, the chosen method of communication, and the only method of communication from God.
By suggesting that the Bible is perfect, you’re also suggesting that all the terrible events in the Bible are perfect. You’re suggesting so many things that would baffle a child, baffle a person who wasn’t raised in church. No wonder many people look at Christians and think we’re hypocritical. We use the Bible to defend our own sin and we use it to attack the sin we see in others. We need the freedom to look at the Bible like we look at other pieces of literature and critique it. No one would think it reasonable for someone to pick up a copy of Romeo and Juliet and use it to prove the existence of hell. Why do we give the Bible that power? More importantly, why do we use it that way? Why do we look at events from long before our birth to decide who is in and who is out? Are you as in as you think you are?
We also need to move toward being comfortable with the idea that God might change their mind from time to time. If God is capable of doing all things, then God is surely capable of deciding that maybe something needs to be different. The reality that many emotionally cannot accept is that though God may indeed be real, until we acknowledge that we’ve given more authority to a book than to the God that supposedly inspired that book, we’re missing the point. The book was never the point. The point is that God loved a chosen people for centuries, stayed with them, and then extended the idea of chosen to everyone. Sure, one could argue that God didn’t change their mind, that it was always the plan. But, we don’t know God; we know our perception of God, and if God is who we say God is, then making a plan and changing it is just as plausible as making a plan and keeping it. God is God and we are not.
When my children begin to make the connections that Santa might be somewhat elaborated, I won’t dismiss their observations. I will encourage their belief in holding tightly to those things that bring them joy and help them love themselves and the people near them. Likewise, I won’t tell them that all the events in the Bible happened exactly as it is written, nor will I excuse away the harm they will eventually uncover as they read and explore the Bible on their own. I will ask them for their thoughts and their feelings. I will ask them how these words impact them now and what they mean for them today. I will tell them they can be happy and sad. Jesus used stories all the time and the scriptures made him happy and sad too.