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Monday, December 28, 2015

Why on Earth Did I Ever Expect the Bible to be Anything Other Than Incredibly Weird?

Tatooine, a planet with two suns. Scene from "Star Wars: A New Hope." Image source.
So last week I thought, hey it's Christmas, I should read the Christmas story from the bible. (I don't read the bible regularly, and I don't feel guilty about it.)

So I go over to Luke chapter 1 and I start reading.

So we meet Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Luke says they were both "righteous" and "observ[ed] all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly." Hmm, that's interesting, because in church it was very much emphasized that NO ONE is righteous and you should NEVER EVER think you're anything other than thoroughly bad and sinful, or else you'll be on a slippery slope that leads to pride and thinking you're so great and you don't need God. So what's this about Elizabeth and Zechariah being righteous? Did they earn God's approval through their good works? Because that's also a huge red flag in evangelicalism. Er, wait, is it only a red flag when in the context of anything related to salvation? Because the church does preach that we will be rewarded for obeying God. So, hmm, what would the "Real True Christian" view on this be? Is it at odds with what Luke says about Zechariah and Elizabeth? And how do I interpret it now that I'm not a "Real True Christian"?

And what's going on here when Zechariah is on duty burning incense? Chosen by lot? So, they just randomly picked one priest out of the group? Did they believe God influenced the "random" choice? And what was the meaning of burning incense? Pretty ceremonial and public, right? Not so much on the personal-relationship-with-God side. But it involved praying, I guess? Luke says "all the assembled worshipers were praying outside." Like, all individually, or like one person leading a prayer? Worshipers? Who were they? Yeah I have a lot of questions about this ritual.

Let's skip ahead to where the angel talks to Zechariah. Does anybody think it's a little odd that this angel is dictating what John should and shouldn't do before he is even born? Doesn't John have any choice in this? I guess in that culture, the family unit was more important and it was less individualistic, so maybe it was normal for parents to decide their kid's vocation? So this isn't that weird? I guess? Are we okay with that? John's never going to be allowed to drink alcohol, and he has to be a prophet and do all these things for God, and he won't even have any say in this?

And then the angel makes Zechariah unable to speak until the baby is born. Wow, that is not right. That is an abuse of power by this angel. Not cool.

And I come to this point and I'm like, geez, I have more questions than answers. I keep getting stuck on all these little details and I can't just appreciate the story. I can't just relax and let God speak to me through it. I'm just so rebellious and messed-up, I can't even read the bible like a normal person. How can I even be a Christian if it's this confusing and stressful to read the bible?

But wait a minute.

This was written 2000 years ago, in a different language, in the Middle East, for an audience whose culture was completely different from anything I've experienced. Any type of communication, any language, speaking, writing, etc, relies on shared knowledge of what these words mean and what are their connotations and what kind of situation is this and what would be normal, etc etc etc.

There are so many things that are literally impossible for Luke to communicate to modern American readers, without some kind of massive appendix much longer than the original text. Written by someone who understands modern American culture and can catch all the ways that what Luke means might not be obvious to us, and clarify them. (Living in China has taught me all about this.)

Of course the bible is going to be incredibly weird to me.

Like, why did I ever expect that I could just sit down for 15 minutes and read a passage and think oh isn't this nice, I learned all about morality and the nature of God, how wonderful. Like, why would anyone ever think it could be that simple?

Like, what the heck?

It's an ancient book from a foreign culture. Sure, I guess I believe it's "inspired by God", though I don't actually know what I mean by that. The bible is special, but that doesn't mean it's unaffected by cultural differences- that doesn't mean it's magically able to be understood by any random passerby who has a good heart devoted to God or whatever.

Back when I attended bible study groups in college, we would read a passage and ask all kinds of questions, and then work together to answer the questions and find some life-applications from the text.

All questions were okay- I never bought into that "just have faith and don't question" stuff, no matter if I was a Real True Christian or not.  But what wasn't okay was, after an hour of discussion, saying "no, I'm still not okay with this." We could ask anything, but we had to believe that there were answers- that there would always be an answer to "this thing in the bible seems really messed-up, so could someone explain to me why it's not?"

So back when I did "daily devotions", I would carefully write down all my questions and analyze them. Maybe I wouldn't be able to find answers on my own, but I trusted that everything the bible said (or "affirmed") was good and right and true. And I would move on from the questions and discover how the passage applied to me. And I "got closer to God" and all that.

But now, I can't even read the bible, because the questions are overpowering. I can't just ignore them and find a nice tidy life lesson. And I feel like that means there's something wrong with me.

But, seriously?

Like, why did I ever think it would be that simple?

The bible is just SO WEIRD, and the church carefully trains Christians not to notice that. As a kid, I read the little children's bible, which tells the PG version of selected stories (seemingly selected based on how cool the illustrations would look. Noah's ark with 2 of every animal? Adorable, draw that for the kids! Isaiah warning people to repent? Nah skip that). Kids are taught one specific lesson from each bible story. Esther is about courage. Joseph's coat of many colors is about forgiveness. Abraham is about obedience and faith. Adam and Eve is about temptation. David and Jonathan is about friendship. Ruth is about loyalty.

So now, I find myself reading the bible, and I know what each passage is supposedly "about", but there's just so much WTF that it's impossible for me to see it as a story "about" that.

What's wrong with me?

And then I realized, it's not something wrong with me.

There's something terribly terribly wrong about the way evangelical culture views the bible. We expect it to be a "guidebook for life", a source for inspirational quotes, a collection of lessons about ethics, stories with characters we can relate to and follow as role models. We're supposed to not notice that the bible is full of foreskins and genocide and locusts and stories where the bad guy wins.

And since I've lived in this culture my whole life, now when I read a chapter and there's just so much WTF that I can't ignore it and find a nice platitude about faith and then go about my day, I feel like I'm not a real Christian.

I see the emperor has no clothes, and it feels like there's something wrong with me.

I mean, how ridiculous is that? Like why on earth would anyone expect an ancient religious book from an extremely foreign culture to be a bunch of simple lessons about life, rather than a continuous series of completely weird passages?

So now, I think it's better to view the bible not as a "guidebook for life" or a bunch of simple stories about right and wrong, but more like the Star Wars universe. So complex and amazing, with levels of meaning that go deeper and deeper and deeper. You could spend your whole life studying and analyzing and developing fan theories.

Start with simple questions, and move on to more and more obscure ones:

[there are no spoilers for episode VII here- spoilers are the path to the dark side]

Did Han shoot first?

Who exactly was at the tomb on the morning of the resurrection?

In the prequels, the Jedi have an organization with a council of Jedi masters which plays a role in politics- is this a good thing? What kind of organizational structure should Jedi have? What is their role in society?

What if Abraham had said "no" when God told him to kill Isaac?

What if Luke had joined the dark side, because the emperor said that was the only way to save his friends' lives- like his father did?

There's an interpretation that says Jephthah didn't kill his daughter- instead, she was dedicated to serve at the temple for the rest of her life, sort of like Samuel.

There's a fan theory that says Yoda died sometime before episode V, and Luke interacts with Yoda's ghost. Because, anybody think it's suspicious that Luke is the only one (besides Obi Wan's ghost) who can talk to Yoda? And Yoda can't leave Dagobah?

(If someone says to a Star Wars fan, "I think the Sith have a way better outlook on the Force than Jedi do," they respond with "what? Tell me why! Wow, what a cool fan theory! Let's talk about the evidence and see if it holds up!" They're so happy to find someone who cares about the canon as much as they do. They don't say "...how could you say such a thing? How can you call yourself a fan and say that?")

The bible presents a universe which is rich and amazing and full of truths about what it means to be human. But the problem comes when we are required to believe that everything the God character does is right and good- that the God character is 100% good and loving and just. And when we are required to believe that the universe described in the bible is the same universe that we live in, and the God is the same God that exists in our world. 

The problem comes when, because we are required to believe those things, our research into the bible and development of fan theories is limited. We can't venture past the simple, black-and-white morality lessons that we were taught as little kids in Sunday School.

And then we read the bible, and it's incredibly weird, but we're not allowed to see it. The goal is to just have a "daily quiet time", to "get closer to God", to "get fed by the spirit."

But that's not what the bible is at all. And I can't believe I never noticed that before.

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