Saturday, July 12, 2014

a light unto my path, but not a laser beam

I spent the 4th of July weekend in East Texas with my beloved family. My aunt and my older sister threw a party for my uncle's 80th birthday, and just about all of his kids, grandkids, nieces and their families arrived for the occasion. There were about 40 of us, and we had a wonderful time.

I was there for four days, including a Sunday, so of course we went to church. It was a little odd. About halfway through the service I realized I was clenching my jaw so hard that it hurt. I made myself relax but I've been thinking (of course). The whole Evangelical mindset is so firmly embedded in that culture. The town where my mom and my sister live is right in the middle of the Bible belt, and there's not much room for alternative views.

It's the most bizarre feeling--on the one hand, I don't feel at home anywhere in the world like I do in that particular region of the country and with that particular group of people (who don't all live in East Texas, but they are all family). The combination of those people in that place left me feeling at home and accepted in a way that I haven't in a long time.

But on the other hand, I completely and utterly don't fit in. If we sat down and talked theology--which is supremely important to almost everyone there, we are a group that approaches our faith through the intellect--even though I and a few of others would be fascinated to hash it all out, the strict evangelicals among us would be horrified to find out that we don't all agree. At least a few of them would not be OK with what I believe these days, how I think. (although perhaps they wouldn't be as surprised as I think they would be.) There are many things that are absolutely non-negotiable for them that have been untrue in my mind for decades. And to be fair, that I don't believe that way any more is non-negotiable for me.

It's a bit depressing. Evangelicals think they are completely and utterly wedded to the idea of the Bible as the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit and thus just as applicable to you and me today as it was when it was written. Really they are just completely and utterly wedded to the way they have been taught to think about the Bible. The Bible contains and yields myriad interpretations. wait--stop. I should re-word that and say that they way I used to think about the Bible was more about how I had been taught than anything else. I can't speak to what's going on in anyone else's mind.

So restricting this to my own changes: I don't believe in the inerrant, absolutely authoritative Bible anymore, but it was a long journey. I started out slowly thirty years ago--first recognizing some of the Bible's obvious contradictions and repetitions, then learning more about the historical context, then starting to see how my reading had been slanted by certain assumptions that were based in Evangelical sub-culture rather than any ultimate truth. Finally I've come to see it as a huge, sprawling, colorful, fascinating, inspiring book of wisdom and spiritual advice, entirely worth studying, but not authoritative in the way that I used to think it was. It wasn't written to me, it was written to the Hebrews, the Corinthians, the Christians in Rome, the Galatians.

But it was a scary trip, leaving that traditional, ingrained view of the Bible behind. I was several years into it before I could say with any confidence that I was OK with my new point of view. Now I can say that the further away I am from that old way of seeing scripture, the more irrelevant that it seems to me.

From my current point of view, the way I used to read the Bible seems almost like idolatry--worshiping words on a page instead of the living God. A living relationship with the Divine Being is completely different than measuring my thoughts and actions against words written a couple of thousand years ago in another time and place. I've been trying to think of an analogy--maybe this: if you found a box of your grandparents' letters written over the course of their long marriage, you might find them inspiring and moving and instructive for your own marriage, but it wouldn't even occur to you to worry about disregarding things that were no longer applicable to your own time and situation.

But that would be completely wrong to most Evangelicals. That belief in the universal, absolute authority of Scripture is the cornerstone, the bedrock of their belief system. For most of them, it's non-negotiable.

There are some beautiful things about that. Many Evangelicals take the study of scripture very seriously, which means they have ready familiarity with some of the greatest wisdom literature ever written. I'm the direct benefactor of that one--I passed my first Master's written exam back in 1985 in no small part because there were 4 (out of 15) questions in the short answer section that were about the Bible. I knew the answers without even thinking, while others of my classmates were despairing afterward (who the hell are Ruth and Naomi?).

Also, Evangelicals' sincerity, faithfulness, and devotion are rare in a culture that more and more tells us we should just do whatever we want, believe whatever we want, be cynical about anything other than cycnicism.

But even though I see things to admire, I can't go there anymore. It just doesn't make sense to me, and as I've said a gazillion times before, I can't agree with their opinions about many issues.

That's all. We have company coming (yay!!) for the next two weeks, and the day they leave, we are headed to Italy, so it will probably be a month or more before I post again. Hope you are all enjoying summer.


  1. I am certainly enjoying it more now that the temperature has dropped below 90!

    1. Hi, Julie! I know, it has been a hot one here, too. But it's gorgeous today, hope you are enjoying it.