50 thoughts on turning 50: #21 Reading the Bible

Judges 19 and 20 - one of the stories in the Bible that still haunts me.

I used a daily devotional Bible and kept a journal of notes and questions. Judges 19 and 20 – one of the stories in the Bible that still haunts me.

Religion, faith and spirituality have played a large part in my life – both good and bad. So it only makes sense that I address the issues as I muse on 50 years.  There’s no way I can tackle them all in one post so I’ll break them up.

Today? The Bible. Or more specifically, reading the Bible.

A few years ago, author John Marks interviewed me for his book, “Reasons To Believe“.  He had introduced himself to me as a former evangelical and he was writing a book about religion and faith. I can’t remember a lot of the questions he asked, because years later I still dwell on the first one: “Do you believe everything in the Bible is true?”

Of course, I told him, but as the words came out of my mouth I felt this check in my gut. Wait, I said. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it like that.

Turns out that a lot of my answers to his questions were “I don’t know” or “I hadn’t really thought about it.” How he managed to actually find enough to use for the book is amazing.

I met John in 2005; over the next year or so we talked many times but his questions challenged me. So I set out to read the entire Bible, cover to cover, to find out if, in fact, I believed everything in it was true.

My answer to that question today: I still don’t know. But I can tell you this. After reading the whole Bible, I have a heck of a lot more questions than answers.

I used a daily devotional Bible, which broke down the readings into an Old Testament, New Testament, Psalm and Proverb. They went in order of the books, and as I read each day I noted in a journal questions and observations, things that confused me, struck me as beautiful and kind of pissed me off. I wasn’t judging, necessarily, but more realizing how much I didn’t understand about this Bible I had always said I believed to be true. Some of my questions:

1) What was once called a seer became a prophet? Why are we instructed to listen to prophets but not consult seers? What’s the difference between rolling Urim and Thummin for divination and seeing a fortune teller?

And on that same note, if we’re supposed to believe in a God we can’t see, and speak to spirits (who apparently can hear our thoughts because we pray in silence), and believe that supernatural forces outside of our human understanding affect our physical lives – why is it wrong to believe in ghosts or life on other planets?

2) If Jesus was a Jew and he abided by the dietary laws, and we’re to emulate Jesus, why are we eating shellfish and cheeseburgers? Why are we not insisting that all of our meat is kosher, which is more humane for the animals and much healthier for us? (Read “Holy Cow” by Hope Eagen for a great discussion about the Bible and the food we eat.)

3) Christians tend to sanitize their entertainment choices – no “R” movies, video games, etc. Some even eschew the TV altogether. But have you read the Bible? Murder, war, torture, adultery, sex, rape, slavery, child sacrifice, horrors galore. How can you read and understand the Bible without talking about the gory stuff? I never knew how disturbing a lot of the Scriptures were until I sat down and read it for myself. Why don’t we talk about the disgusting parts of the faith?

Read Judges 19 and 20 for a horrifying story about two men who offer up their virgin daughter and concubine to an angry mob – the concubine is sent out to be raped, tortured, and murdered by the mob. That story haunted me – after being abused “all night until morning”, the woman makes her way back to the house; the man finds her dead on the doorstep the next morning with her hands on the threshold. The man didn’t even let her in the house after sending her out to be tortured? Who’s the evil one in that story, I ask? (There are parts of the world where women are still treated like less than livestock. Watch the movie “The Stoning of Soraya M“.)

4) Modern Christianity focuses a lot on the debate over homosexuality. But if you read the Bible, you find that references to sex are very few – but instructions to care for people are numerous. Care for widows and orphans, reach out to those in need, love, forgive, give. I finished the year of reading with the belief that if we majored on those instead we’d be arguing a lot less and the world would be a better place.

I have a whole journal of questions, mostly wondering about how people felt or what they were thinking. I wanted to know about Jesus’ siblings and his extended family. I was fascinated by the genealogies in the Old Testament; if you plot out on a timeline the “so and so was born and lived x number of years”, I think I figured that Adam was alive when Enoch was born. (You know how I am with math, but I started with Adam a zero and computed from there; here are my notes.)

I plotted the births, deaths, and life spans of some of the people in the Bible. It gives the stories a new context when you realize who was still alive at the time.

I plotted the births, deaths, and life spans of some of the people in the Bible. It gives the stories a new context when you realize who was still alive at the time.

I fell in love again with Jesus and the disciples – I mean, Jesus was a total rebel who, rather than handing out orders, gave people food for thought. Ask him a question, he replied with a question that made you figure it out yourself. And the disciples were a rag tag bunch of rough talking, unmannered, bickering, pains in the ass. I can totally relate to them.

I love the poetry and imagery of the language of the Psalms, the beauty of Creation, the mystery of God.

I made a lot of notes where I wanted to learn more (Psalm 24: 17, 18 – wait, so we want God to be wrathful to our enemies, but we’re just not to rejoice in it, and if we do rejoice then he’ll stop being wrathful, which we don’t want?), about customs or  social practices, about the treatment of women, and what words meant in the original text vs. the translations.

Believe it or not, I had zero clue about how Bible history fit into actual world history. It was really interesting to put the stories in to historical context.

What you may find interesting is that reading the Bible didn’t dampen my faith in God. In fact, quite the opposite. Challenging your beliefs forces you to peel away the layers until you get to the core. You start to sort out what is an actual belief, and what is just stuff you added on yourself.

To this day, you won’t convince me that there is no God. I see God everywhere. I believe he loves me. I believe Jesus was the supernatural prophet he said he was. But organized religion? Well, that’s a post for another day.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

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