A year and a half ago, I embarked on a project of reading all the way through the Bible. I didn’t make plans to do it in one year or even two years, but decided to go about it at my own pace. I don’t read every day, and I don’t read the same amount of chapters. I read however much I feel like reading--sometimes it’s a lot, sometimes it’s very little. Right now I’m in the book of Psalms.
There’s certainly a place for discipline when it comes to reading scripture--after all, there are plenty of places in the Bible itself that exhort believers to study and read it. But I don’t need to convince anyone of the guilt the average Christian feels when they admit they don’t have a daily “quiet time.” Christians know they need to read their Bibles.
And that’s exactly what I want to say. I want to shout from the mountaintops: “Read your Bible!” But I also want to shout: “Read it without guilt!” Psalm 1 speaks of delighting in the law of the Lord, of meditating on it day and night, of being like a tree planted by streams of water, a metaphor that speaks to bounty and glorious satisfaction, not guilt. And for the first time in my life, I feel like I am experiencing a taste of that delight--of truly desiring to spend time in God’s word.
Admitting that is humbling. There have certainly been periods of my life when I clung to God’s word, when it was sweet to me and necessary; but these periods were accompanied by trouble or pain of some kind. I have a good knowledge of scripture--I’ve read every book in it multiple times--and I have a thorough education in theology, for which I’m grateful. And my heart has wanted to delight in scripture, because I love the Lord. But until the past few years, reading the Bible was always something I did because I knew I should, not something I did because I truly, truly wanted to.
The change for me came when I decided to approach it like a story. Instead of asking myself to journal or even reflect in a structured way on what I read, I simply read. I read as much or as little as I want, and the result has been transformative. I have begun to see the Bible as the story of God--not the story of how God’s plan affects me. And with this shift in perspective, it is endlessly more dear to me and much more fascinating.
Understanding the Bible as the story of God, and not of me, has altered everything about how I view myself in relation to him. It’s changed me theologically as well as practically (some of which I unpacked in this previous post.) Discovering how compelling the character of God is in scripture has set me off on a new journey of reading theology, because it has reinforced to me how little I know of God, and how much help I need in interpreting his character.
Reading the Bible in this way has also upended what I thought the Bible said about women, which in turn has upended how I think about myself and about the church. There is so much noise around the issue of women in the church: centuries of culturally motivated mistreatment, a pendulum swing in the opposite direction and an assumption that the Bible itself is anti-women, and so many opinions and personal experiences one way or the other. Part of reading the Bible with no agenda meant shutting out all that noise and just discovering what the story actually said.
What I found was a profound understanding of what it means to be a woman, and to be honest, I was not ready for it. Far from many people’s assumption that there are no stories about women in scripture (or at least very few) I found the story that the Bible tells about men and women and the world at large to be searingly honest. There are stories of women triumphing, (like Jael and Esther), there are stories of women who are smarter than their husbands (like Abigail), there are stories of women being uplifted (like Hannah and Mary), there are stories of women who are evil (like Jezebel), and there are many, many stories of women being abused or mistreated.
The fact that there are so many stories about women being abused in the Bible used to bother me, because like most people, I want heroes to look up to, not a continual reminder of how women have been treated. But as I read through the Old Testament without layering on my own preconceptions, I found something true emerging: the Bible honors women by being honest. The message of the Bible is that sin has entered the world and has wrecked it; for women, this means continually being subjugated by men. The fact that the Bible does not hide this is a testament to how women are given equal status within its pages.
These are just examples of the way scripture has revealed itself to me. There is a quote attributed to Gregory the Great that reads: “Scripture is like a river...broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.” I find this idea comforting and sustaining, and a reminder that in our world of immediate gratification, this is one thing I can’t have instantly. There are things spoken in scripture that I don’t understand that I will wrestle with for years, if not for the rest of my life. There are bits that have revealed themselves to me only after years of mulling them over. There are things I didn’t even know I didn’t understand, only to have them change shape suddenly before my mind’s eye and become gloriously bright.
What I do know, however, is that the Bible is neither a book about me, nor intended as a weight of guilt; it is a gift. What I want to say is: read your Bible. But perhaps consider reading it differently--maybe let go of your structure, and allow yourself to enjoy it as the story it is. It may change everything.
Artwork by Bruce Buescher
The body that is corrupted presses down the soul. The earthly tabernacle weighs
down the mind that muses upon many things. - Augustine, Confessions
I was re-reading Confessions when I came across the above quote. I don’t understand why people speak as if the mind is pure and the body is corrupt. To be sure, in Galatians 5 the Apostle Paul sets up the flesh (meaning the desires of the world, not our physical bodies) against the spirit (meaning the life aligned with God’s word, not our ethereal souls). And yet despite the age-old and ever-popular heresy of gnosticism (just as prevalent now as during Augustine’s time or the time of the Greeks,) the Bible is clear about the fact that we are both body and mind, and neither is more corrupt or holy than the other.
Far from understanding my spirit as pure and my body as corrupt, it always seems to be through my body, and not my soul, that grace shines most clearly, and I am grateful for the ways this has manifested over the years.
It was my body that taught me, as a senior in college, that standing in a room and breathing back to back with another human being can heal. That looking into the eyes of a man doesn’t have to be sexual, that holding hands can simply be a symbol of common humanity. That having a safe way to touch someone not only brings connection but also elevation of my own person as well as theirs. I can say something to myself in my mind over and over, but if instead I learn it through my fingers and my hands, it will go straight to my core and become a part of who I am, instead of who I want to be.
It is not my body that compares itself to others, but rather my spirit. While my mind reaches for any opportunity to praise or condemn my own skin--and the skins of those around me--my body moves on, digesting, stretching, sleeping, enjoying, hurting, resting. My thighs are pleased to be mine, though I am not pleased with them. My toes and ankles do their jobs, even when I reject them. My chin doesn’t care if it looks fat in photos; it wants to laugh all the same.
It is my body that calms me, when my mind is racing or my spirits depressed. My legs that carry me on long walks when energy builds up in my soul, propelling me to leave, and those same legs always bring me back. It is my eyes that fill with sight, trying to remind my thoughts that what is tangible and what I feel are not the same thing. It’s my breath that calms me when I lie awake in the night, anxiety thrumming through my veins, panic seeping around the edges of my mind. In and out, in and out. The breath, at least, is constant and dependable. It does not waver.
It is my mind that distrusts my body, as time goes forward and my bones and skin change; my mind that seeks to find something wrong, something corrupted, something to fixate on in worry, and my body that steadily hums; healing, thriving, slowly decaying. It’s through my body that I have learned most poignantly how fearful I am, how little I can control the world around me, how to be present in the moment I exist in. To blame the body for the corruption of the soul is like a human blaming a beloved dog for her own sin; it is the flesh that carries on and performs its duties faithfully while the spirit rails against the state of everything it touches.
It is my body that forgives, touching my husband’s face, when my mind resists, and my fingers that remind me of love when my spirit stubbornly holds up the platter of wrongs that have been done to me. It’s my breath that sidles up to the platter and knocks it askew, tipping it so that the wrongs come crashing off, one by one, and once more our bodies can be quiet, unweighted and unburdened. Finally: the spirit silent, our flesh alone and at peace.
It is the body that has shown me, in a darkened theater or a crowded circus tent, that some things can only be communicated through the physical--there are truths that rise up from the depths of who God made us to be, and words can’t cover or touch them. Some things live so deep, run so far below the surface, that the only way to understand them is to see and feel them physically recreated; sacred, soft, steady, and dense.
It was the body, of course, that Christ required to bring redemption and healing; not the body that he suffered, but the body that he gladly took and fully became. The physical presence that God had pointed to from the very beginning, blood and lambs and sacrifice because it’s who we are, not something to seek to avoid. He took a body not just so that we could be elevated, but because the physical is part of the very fabric of existence; when our bodies die we will not cease to be material, we will become even more fully embodied and truly enfleshed for the first time.
These breaking bodies that are so faithful, that enforce our limits and our reality, that serve as the scapegoats of our mind’s desires--these bodies point constantly to our need for restoration and our union in blood with the body of Christ our God whose healing power rippled across not just the intangible idea of salvation we carry in our minds, but through the very tendons and muscles of our bodies. That is why we eat real bread and drink real wine as an act of communion; it’s through the physical mechanics of chewing and swallowing that God meets us and sustains us.
She is faithful, this body of mine; she is far more faithful to me than I am to her. She is me, and I am honored to be her.
Artwork by Bruce Buescher
Open and Unafraid
David O. Taylor