Monday, December 6, 2010

Adventures in Reading the Bible

That's my Dad's Bible - the one he had with him during WWII, along with the red Shakespeare volume.  Oliver and I found it over Thanksgiving, clearing out an old box of my Dad's.  I realize now that finding it triggered yet anew my growing ambivalence about the kids' religious education.  Sometimes I marvel that this ambivalence has grown as much as it has. I was raised Protestant in Geneva, Switzerland, making me pretty solid Protestant stock. Mac was raised Catholic in Chicago, making him pretty solid Catholic stock (the priest that married us stuck with Augustine for the homily). But that's not the ambivalence (no, no, that would be too easy).  No, it's an ambivalence about Christian religious education period.  And no, I'm not ambivalent about all of the horrid idiocies that have been promoted under Christianity's name (the exclusivity, the condemning to hell of complete innocents, the condemning to hell period, the hundreds of years of oppression and the millions of deaths). Nor am I ambivalent about the strange, soft beauty of some of Christ's pronouncements (the helping of the weak and helpless, the forgiveness of those who have hurt you personally, the call for social justice, the hope for those suffering right now). I love those. It's the relationship to all that we know about Christianity, the good the bad and the ugly that I'm ambivalent about.  At some point (and really, I need to nail this down), Christian teaching traded in critique for acceptance.  The point now seems to be to accept what is in the Bible, and accept it uncritically. There's so little struggle, so little questioning of the text or of its authority, so little asking about the historical period in which it was written, so little wondering about the uses over time of an idea.  So little doubt. So little room for being perplexed. The sources are right. Jesus is always right. Paul is always right. And the interest is not in saying they're wrong - the interest is in asking about the anxieties and challenges that follow from these ideas. The interest is in not being preached at, but talked with. And recognizing the utter hybridity and general and utter strangeness of this text we call the Bible - its arbitrariness, its struggles to capture a sense of divinity, one that people can live with, its losses in translations, its manipulations, its history, its shortcomings, its silences, its borrowings, its unwitting contributions.  One of the wildest things about the Middle Ages is that there was no Bible - there were lots and lots of holy texts, but those didn't become consolidated into The Bible until the 17th century and the King James Bible.  What gets called the Bible in the Middle Ages is the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) - everything else existed in bits and pieces, each explored, tested, stretched, tried, extrapolated on its own.  What we call The Bible today was always already incoherent in the Middle Ages, always already in pieces that sought each other out through resonances and references.  The Bible was not a material entity - it was an ever-shifting and re-interpreted and used assortment of texts which themselves produced hybrid texts (liturgies, books of hours, meditations, and more).

So all this to say that the children have never been to church around here. We go when we're in North Carolina and they're generally interested in the pageantry and the stained glass windows (one of which bears my grandparents' names) and the awesome barbecue and fried chicken and pie afterwards. (And I do know that one of the great benefits of religion is community, but that's not the discussion here, the relationship to the text is).  But there's not a whole lot more engagement for them.  And I do want more for them.  But how? And then (who knew?) I discovered the Bible App on my iPhone. I'd been looking for access to an on-line Bible for the trip to Israel, and lo and behold, there was one for free with not only 23 English translations and 46 overall translations, but various and sundry Reading Plans (the Bible in 90 days! the Essential 100 passages!) including one entitled Rediscovering the Christmas Season. And there it was: the framework within which I would be eager to talk about the Bible with my children. A dematerialized text, one lifted out of ritual and community and what clearly is for me a consequential amount of baggage - a dematerialized, digitized, serialized text. That was the answer.

And so we threw ourselves into it with gusto.  Too much gusto.  For it turns out that one is only to read a very few select verses from the chapter for that day. And when it came time to read Mark 9, I was only supposed to read verses 33-37 (which are really cool and about Christ lifting a child up on his knees and telling the disciples that to be first you must be last and a servant to all - it has the "welcome the little children in my name" line). But like a fool I kept reading and in verse 43 Jesus tells the disciples that if their hand causes them to stumble, they should cut it off, because it's better to be maimed than to go to hell.  (The kids got quiet.) Verse 44: if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, because, well, better than hell.  (Good grief, I'm thinking, what is this text doing to my kids? It's ok, we're going to talk about it, but what the Christmas message is here, is lost on me.) Verse 45: if your eye... yep, pluck it out.  There's a total silence at the table at this point, and Oliver ventures "Maybe this is the Halloween reading."

So what's the lesson here?  Read bits and pieces of the Bible? This is not a coherent text (how do you emotionally follow helping the helpless with brutal self-mutilation, even if it is metaphorical?) (and then that really weird passage about salt losing its saltiness in verse 50) and one of the hardest discussions about the Bible is how all of these parts are meant to relate to each other.  Once you start reading there's nothing simple and coherent about it. And that's what makes it interesting. That's what makes the struggle come. And so we've kept on reading, past the maiming bit, and on to Christ as the light of the world, to the idea of a light of the world, of hope - the very cool and demanding concept of hope that humans have come up with. Do animals hope, or just desire? Is hope more painful than desire?  What can hope push you to do? to endure?  We talked. We talked about Biblical text, and it didn't necessarily make sense, and there was no one message to walk away with, but there they were my little ones talking about it all.

I feel like Oliver at breakfast yesterday morning whose first words of the day, completely unrelated to all of this, were: "I'm overwhelmed. There's just so much to say."

So here's a pretty nice picture of the snow everywhere.  I love the observatory under snow - makes its attempts to see the stars that much more audacious, so heavily does the snow blanket the entire sky.  The kids played out there every day - snow angels down to the grass below they flapped their arms so hard.  They bounded out the door within minutes of the "Halloween reading" incident.  They are resilient and eager for the next thing.

Which is my segue to this fantastically absurd image of Iris and my Dad.  Why she chose to wear sunglasses and a purse with her outfit, I don't know, let alone why she is staring at my Dad with what, by all appearances, is a stony stare.  He was explaining this tiny piece of paper that Oliver and I found (cleaning out the same box) folded into a tiny ring box with a pearl and diamond ring within it.  It turns out (most probably) to have belonged to my great-grandmother (widowed two years after the Civil War - that's some incredible genealogical math!) and, like her wedding ring which is now mine, fits my finger perfectly.  My dad used to be very sentimental, and had a hushed and loving awe for his family and its past - it's different now, of course, but I could tell he was satisfied that the ring had come to light, that it would get some life now. No use hiding your light under a bushel.

No segue here, just Eleanor and Iris in front of the fantabulous Christmas display at my Mom's retirement home, before we went to The Nutcracker.  And now to work, and then somehow to bed, and a final brutal week of university life - with nothing resolved and that's ok.


  1. Oh, my friend! There is indeed so much to say... To me it is about the struggle with the text and the various possibilities it entails. It is also about community. It's about the past and tradition. But mostly, to me, it's about finding a home for the soul. Does that sound crazy? Sentimental? Palliative? I don't know. But it is important enough to me to make sure that Alex knows that it's there. That it's real. Hmmm. A lot to say, indeed!

  2. A home for the soul sounds so nice - right now, it seems to be with this little family around the dining room table, prompted by the glow of an iPhone. i would have never thought it (a medievalist?!) - but it makes its own weird, dematerialized sense. we'll see what tomorrow brings!

  3. I'm not an etymologist, but "Bible" and "Babel" seem eerily related.... Perhaps one needs to approach the confusion that the Bible presents (to someone who is looking for a consistent picture of God, or guidance about whether or not to sacrifice your son, for example) with an eye to Babel, and the obligation to have to do a lot of work to make sense of what is being said.