By Steve Beard
“My new Bible study is really testing me. I have never studied the Bible or read my Bible and I really have no idea how to do it,” confessed my friend Tiffany on Facebook. “The language is still confusing and I feel like I’m not really getting the messages.”
The 24-year-old roller derby girl, saleswoman, and mother recently began attending a new church with her husband and she joined a women’s Bible study. “No matter how you word it, the Bible still has very confusing parts. I promise you it is not the version I’m using that is the problem. It is that I am just new with this whole studying the Bible thing. I feel like a freshman that just finished basic math and got thrown into senior calculus.”
As you can imagine, there was no shortage of responses to her post. Tiffany’s Facebook confession was made on the same day I received Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani (Jericho Books). In their introduction, the two editors describe the contributors as nonconformists and oddballs, comparing them to the characters on the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Do you remember the cowboy who rides the ostrich or the toy train thunking along the track with a square wheel on its caboose? The imagery is strangely fitting for this collection of ruminations on the Bible from a wide variety of faith traditions.
With nearly 50 different contributors, this isn’t an authoritative text on biblical interpretation. Instead, it is more like a funky theological jam session – no sheet music, brother riffing off of sister, guitar solos, tooting of the horns, banging of the drums, thumping of the bass – testifying about both estrangement and enduring love for the Bible.
As I delved into the book, faces popped into my mind of people in my life who could relate to certain chapters. My son and nephews would howl at the offbeat but serious treatment of the use of “dung” in the Scripture. My mom would probably choose to skip over that chapter.
In all honesty, there is much beauty and brokenness and vulnerability in Disquiet Time. The easy endeavor would be to collect testimonies of those who’ve left the faith because of disillusionment with the Bible, hypocrisy at church, and unanswered prayers from an invisible God who is often difficult to understand. Instead, Disquiet Time lassoed up writers in the throes of wrestling with the challenges that thoughtful faith provokes. Many of them lay out their struggles with great honesty.
Describing a crisis of faith while on a Christian retreat, Anna Broadway confesses to changing lines to songs they were singing “(such as ‘I’m so grateful’) to something that felt more honest (such as ‘I’m so confused’). When I sang the more truthful refrain, I almost wept.”
Jennifer Grant flatly admits that she feels more “at home with the doubters and the skeptics than with those people who march through life with unblinking certainty, whatever their faith practices, convictions, or ideology may be.”
“What used to seem so clear cut and focused now feels murky and muddled,” writes Bill Motz. “It’s like being in a love-hate relationship with a dear old friend: some parts of the text fill me with joy and an overwhelming sense of truth, others anger me and make me feel that there’s no way God could ever have intended them to be included. Though I try to keep the discipline of daily study alive, I’ll admit to more than a little trepidation when I reach for my Bible.”
At different points in my life, those could be my words.
For other contributors, it seemed as though the Bible was standing between their faith and their calling in life. “I am grateful that I grew up in a church that revered the Scriptures; but sometimes it created a wall between God and me,” writes Susan E. Isaacs. “I’m a comedienne: I’ve always seen life through the skewed lens of humor, but there was no room for levity in my church. My mom suggested I write Bible skits. Seriously?” As to be expected, she delivers a hilarious and insightful chapter.
For the Rev. Sarah Heath, a United Methodist clergywoman, the issue was slightly different. When she felt the divine nudge to becoming an ordained minister, it was one of her friends from a Bible study group that said, “But you’re a girl. And that’s not okay.” Heath’s chapter on dealing with her ordination pursuit is the kind of wrestling with Scripture that is so magnificently redemptive.
“The ongoing ‘disquiet’ I’ve felt when reading about Saint Paul’s admonition that ‘women should be silent’ has been vital to my faith,” she writes. “It causes me to question, look deeper, and not just glaze over what I read. Study is a deep form of worship, and even when I question God I am drawing closer to God. My faith is growing and being stretched. In the great rabbinic tradition of midrashic reading, asking questions – even the toughest, thorniest, most disquieting ones – deepens my faith. And for that, I am thankful to Saint Paul.”
One of the most engaging chapters springboards off the text in Genesis 1:2: “And the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” David Vanderveen interlaces his journey of faith with sailing and surfing. You can almost taste the salt water as he makes the point that it is deep and powerful experiences that transform our theology.
“Riding a wave fueled by an energy you cannot see, except for its effects, can be compared to Saint Peter stepping out of the boat and walking across the water to Jesus,” he writes. “You know it should drown you, as it does so many, but if you put your faith in the power of the universe and align yourself with its demands, miracles happen as tangibly as if Christ were standing next to you in human form, making the blind see and the lame walk.”
Another contributor, the Rev. Kenneth Tanner, is an old college buddy of mine. Many years ago, he gave me a small peculiar icon that has been replicated from one hanging in the chapel of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. It is believed to have been given in the mid-sixth century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. The uniqueness of the icon is that the right and left sides of Christ’s face are noticeably different, and one eyeball is larger than the other.
“The more time I spent in prayer looking at this unique image of Jesus – the Pantocrator [“Almighty”] – the more the asymmetry of the eyes troubled me,” Tanner writes. “I pondered why the artist would paint Jesus with a physical ‘imperfection.’ Eventually I realized this was not a problem with the artist or the image but rather a limitation of my imagination, a failure to see everything there is to see in Christ. After all, the word became flesh in Jesus (John 1:4) and was made like us in every respect (Hebrews 2:17).”
My icon is kept next to my computer so that I might remember to try to see everything there is to see in Christ.
“God wants to be in a relationship with us, and in order to do that, we have to keep talking,” writes Cathleen Falsani. “The Bible is one of the ways the dialogue continues. And unlike dining etiquette, polite conversation with God puts no topics off limits. Go ahead and put your elbows on the table. Use the wrong fork. It’s okay. (Who are you trying to impress?)” God knows you, after all. There are no veiled secrets before the Almighty. “God loves us,” Falsani concludes. “Madly. Just as we are.”
In the midst of all my questions and gripes about the complexity of the Bible, I was taught to find the redemption in the midst of the chaos and disarray and mystery.
“It’s true that if you haven’t stood before God and been confused, you’re probably not standing before the real God,” observes theologian Steve Brown. “But it is also true – and far more important – to realize that if you haven’t stood before God and been loved unconditionally and without reservation, you’re not standing before the real God, either.”
Make no mistake about it, not everyone in Disquiet Time is where I am – or where you are – on the theological continuum. With such a wide array of perspectives, that should be no surprise. Part of my faith is respecting the authentic testimonies, biblical insights, questions, and doubts of those who are also trying to reach the other side of the river Jordan.
We need to welcome the challenge of roller derby girls like my friend Tiffany when they venture into the sanctuary. Questions must be taken seriously, guidance needs to be offered with grace, and flashlights should be made available during dark nights of the soul.
Tiffany got a lot of feedback from friends on Facebook. Some of it was trite, but some of it was helpful. “I am so glad to hear you are muddling through it,” wrote one. “That’s pretty much what we all do, and believe it or not, the fact that you have to work at it is actually what makes those nuggets that reach your heart priceless.” I wouldn’t argue with that.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.