catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 15 :: 2004.09.24 — 2004.10.07


In the beginning was the Word

My first and most continuous recollections of faith came from my maternal grandparents who have attended the same Lutheran Church for their entire married life. On visits to my grandparents, who always lived two or three hours from us, regardless of where we moved, my grandmother would always have ?church clothes? as part of the gifts for my older brother and I, and later for my younger siblings, as well. I can remember yellow, blue and white dresses, brown or black Mary Jane buckle shoes, coordinated ruffled socks, and of course, no respectable toddler could go out in public (much less to church!) without a lace covered (itchy) slip. The slip, however, provided little modesty when I was constantly looking underneath my clothes to find the new, ruffled ?church? underwear that I had also received.

But the best part about receiving church clothes was the hats! I have a handful of pictures of my brother and I ready for church—Brent in a light blue polyester suit with a brown and pink paisley vest and me wearing a yellow baby doll dress, white socks, black Mary Janes, a matching purse (what every three-year-old needs) and an absolutely marvelous straw hat. There is nothing that can so quickly spark an imagination like a hat. Unfortunately for the minister, there is also nothing as good for distracting attention away from what seemed like an eternal sermon. When I was young, I looked forward to church, when I could wear my hat, tilt it to the side, flip it back over my shoulder, swing it from my neck by the band, pull it down over my eyes or fit it on the head of a hymnal. I?d braid the page marking ribbons of the nearest Bible and flip through the pages as adults opened to the text for the day, pretending to read along, my finger following the lines. I could ?read? that Bible for a long time as long as my grandma would keep tickling my back and feeding me Tic-Tacs. In my young life, Bibles were always synonymous with grandmas, candy and straw hats.

It was in my grandparents? home, as well, that I first remember someone reading the Bible. For a long time, a Bible seemed like something that lived at church that was opened only when someone at the microphone told you to. But I can remember walking by my grandparents room one night and seeing my grandfather?s pajama?d back curved over his Bible, reading it through, as I?d later learn, night after night, year after year. I could count on that sight from that earliest memory to the most recent visit just before he died. The Bible must have taught my grandpa how to pray, I used to think, as I recited with him the meal prayer in my head over every lunch and dinner, ?Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts to us be blessed…?.

I cannot recall the Bible being pulled off of the shelf in my own home for daily use, but I do remember seeing it and recognizing what it was. The first story I can remember is that of Moses being put into the basket and sent down the river. I read it at a doctor?s office. It had a blue cover, the color of springtime forget-me-nots and an image of Jesus, too, I think. Remarkably, I have seen that same book in occasional doctor and dentist offices throughout my life and wonder now if it wasn?t part of some evangelical (apparently effective) literature movement. I also remember receiving my very own illustrated, large print Bible when I must have been in first or second grade. I might have received it for completing something at a church, a vacation bible school session or a Sunday school class. My parents took me to a Methodist church for brief spurts where I can recall learning a song to memorize the books of the Bible, the Pentateuch of which still resides in my brain. At that same church, I participated in two musicals: God with a Capital G

about the story of Elijah and the other, We like Sheep, about Jesus the shepherd. Even today, nearly twenty years later, I can sing most of those songs, ?Oh, Elijah, Elijah, praise be to God! There?s a little cloud coming from the ocean side. It?s about the size of a hand of a man. Oh, the rain is a-coming; it will soak the land.?

My later encounters with the Biblical text were not as pleasant, marked often by rigid dogma and fear-inducing scripture references. Guilt often emerged as the order of the day and biblical text lost its liveliness over time. Stories turned from fascinating narratives to prescriptions and formulas. Characters turned from familiar faces on the page into tools for self-involved introspection about personal sin, repenting for sin and staying clear of sinful activities. There was a brief period in early adolescence when I spent two summers attending and working at a Baptist Bible camp. I received a King James text with my name imprinted in silver on the cover. But Christian t-shirts and Christian boys don?t speak Old English, so that copy sat virtually untouched in my bag and among my book collection, while songs and cliques and trendy fashion provided snippets of Jesus. Understanding was replaced with a WWJD bracelet and a boy holding my hand at prayer time.

When I married my husband, I hadn?t touched a Bible in well over five years. I thought that I knew what was inside and had glibly experienced too many people who wanted to share their obvious mastery of the content with me, as well. I received a copy of The Life Application Study Bible: New International Version, my name embossed in gold, this time. Newly wed to a pastor?s son, I thumbed through from time to time, reading, not only the text, but the footnotes added about the significance each verse had in our lives, each one a mini-devotional unto itself. In the parables found in Matthew, I would read Jesus? words,

The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: ?Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.? (13:11-13)

Trying to decipher what this meant, I could conveniently look at the corresponding footnote and discover,

This phrase means that we are responsible to use well what we have. When people reject Jesus, their hardness of heart drives away or renders useless even the little understanding they had.

Perfect! The mysteries of the Kingdom were secret no more! Clearly I was part of the ?you? and not part of the ?them?. Just as I suspected. Clearly I could see, hear and understand. Phew. This particular Bible began my earnest and engaged disappointment in contemporary Western Christian faith. I would read the riddles of the Christ and see them answered in footnotes. I would be reading literary enigma only to be handed non-fiction exposition. I?d be scratching my head, while the study group moved on to the next passage.

In the last two years, my faith in the value of scripture has begun the slow process of redemption. The New Oxford Annotated Bible text has started filling in pieces for me that are reflective and often open ended, revealing a more holistic interpretation, even as it recognizes the many gaps that remain. The process of dissecting history and geography of the Mediterranean, examining the different writers and cultural climates of antiquity, understanding more the connection between Judaism and the various religious and ritual practices of tribes and communities in the region has renewed my hope that the Bible may, in fact, be a viable piece of literature. The stories have regained the nuances of humor and irony, surprise and suspicion. Words have begun the shift from monotone to emotive. And I find myself fed by this. I find myself longing to recite the passages in the Hebrew tongue, to become a poet again. I find myself believing that the language on the page came from the pens of real people with doubts and influences and selfish motivations. I find myself discovering that the time and space of this book is utterly human in so many ways, its writing a reflection of people?s often harsh and confusing reality.

It seems a long distance from straw hats and Sunday school songs to the place where I sit now. It seems that much of what I enjoyed in the simple stories of rain clouds and lost sheep has been replaced with human cynicism at misguided discernment and superficial explanations. And while I acknowledge the very real motivation that needs scripture to be simple and concise, such simplicity does not seem concurrent with the complex realities of our world, or of the world in which a Messiah can be envisioned or in which the story of Christ is established. How ironic that my personal perspective of scripture is not so much shaped by the narrative itself, but by the credibility I can lend to the human writing of these many accounts. Despite its apparent lack of reason, my attitude toward biblical content becomes more trusting as the answers subside. When I can imagine writers and witnesses scratching their own heads, I begin to feel that there might actually be a place for this world to rest in the midst of what sounds utterly absurd—the creation of the world, the covenant of Abraham, the Ark and the flood, the whale and Jonah, the fiery furnace, a burning bush, the walking on water, the rising from the dead. I pray that in a culture of absolutes I might cling to the ambiguity of grace, so that one day I might find that by trusting the earthly circumstances of the story, I might truly glimpse—and believe in—the divine.

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