catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 13 :: 2014.06.27 — 2014.07.10


Growing up with the Word

As a young child I learned this song in Sunday school:

The B-i-b-l-e —

Yes, that’s the book for me!

I stand upon the word of God,

The B-i-b-l-e-e-e-e!”

The song underscores the emphasis on the Bible as the inspired Word of God. The Baptist church of my childhood prided itself on being a Bible-believing church and frequently proclaimed this from the pulpit, on the street sign, in the church bulletins and in the newsletter. Our pastor had a well-worn Bible that he held up often during a sermon as he paced back and forth on the church stage. Many cars in the church parking lot had this bumper sticker affixed: “God said it, I believe it and that’s that.”

This church was large – today, it would be called a mega-church — and included an elementary school which I attended from kindergarten to grade six. Every school day morning we pledged allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag and to the Bible. We placed our right hands over our hearts, gazing upon the Word (either held by a classmate or placed on the chalkboard ledge), and recited: “I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path, I will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.”

By grade four, we were having “Bible sword drills” during Sunday school. Our teacher would call out a Bible verse and we had to find it as quickly as possible. The first person to find it, leaped up from their chair, and read the verse aloud, and won that round. Modest awards, such as bookmarks with Bible verses, were given to the all-around winner for the day. Perhaps more important was the praise from all the Sunday school teachers because winning the Bible sword drills indicated that you knew the Word of God well. If you quickly found the minor prophets in the Old Testament, you indeed knew scripture well.

The Word was interpreted literally — although some parts were interpreted more literally, while other parts were ignored or dismissed. The New Testament letters attributed to Paul were held with the highest regard, then parts of the Gospels and the Ten Commandments. And, because this was the late 1960s and early 1970s, the prophetic books of Daniel and Revelation were studied very carefully along with copies of Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth. We often studied the news in expectation for the rapture to occur at any moment.

I valued the Bible because it brought me to Jesus, whom I loved. I received a Living Bible for Christmas one year which I devoured, underlined and annotated to learn about God and to become a godly woman. By late high school years, though, I was growing aware of some contradictions within Scripture for which I couldn’t find satisfactory answers. And I was troubled by the passages regarding the role of women in the church. My ambivalence toward the Bible grew with the first glimmers of doubt regarding church teachings during my final year of high school.

Nevertheless, I attended a conservative, evangelical college that also believed in the literal interpretation of the Word. Indeed, my first Bible class, called “Biblical Foundations,” cleaved so closely to a literal interpretation that we had to memorize Bible verses (from the King James Version) on which we were weekly tested. One missed comma, semi-colon or word was subtracted from the total points possible for each week.  I am not very good at memorizing and as the semester continued, I began to panic each Bible test day. At the end of the semester I flunked that class due to my mistakes in Bible memorization. I was not inspired to find the joy of Scripture after that class. (The following semester I took the same class with a different professor who didn’t require the memorization and I passed with an A-).

At the same time I began to read the Gospels more carefully and wonder what Jesus was talking about, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. When I asked teachers, youth leaders and professors, I was told Jesus meant all this stuff for the future, in another dispensation. This didn’t make sense to me and I grew more baffled about the Word and resistant to the theology of my leaders. Eventually I left this college for a public university, and began an intense inner struggle of distancing myself from what I had learned as a child.

In this public university, during an English literature class, my professor — by no means a religious man — quipped about some people worshipping the Bible rather than worshipping God. I was shocked to hear this! People can worship the Bible and not worship God? How can this be? I was deeply unsettled by his statement because there seemed to be some truth to it.

During these years, I was part of a house church that occasionally met with Dallas Willard. He was loving, kind and gentle with us and talked about the Word differently than my childhood church. He understood the Bible through the prism of his relationship with God.  Indeed, he suggested something very similar to my English professor: “Exalting the Bible does not free us from the responsibility of learning to talk with God and hear God in the ways he speaks to humankind.” I understood that pledging allegiance to the Bible, while well intentioned, was a form of exalting the Bible without the foundation of a living relationship with God. Bible sword drills may have worked for a poorly-planned Sunday school hour, but they didn’t inspire us to live lives deeply rooted in God.

I continued to wrestle with the Word, wondering if I really believed a verse, or whether I thought I believed it because it’s what I was taught to believe? I moved back and forth on the belief continuum, reacting to childhood teaching yet longing for a relationship with God. I found a somewhat satisfactory solution: I read spiritual books rather than the Bible. And in reading these other books I began to think differently about God and about Scripture. I saw that the Bible interpretation in my home congregation was just one way of understanding Scripture and there have been a multitude of approaches toward the Bible over the centuries. This was freeing for me.

In retrospect, I had to leave behind the Bible of my childhood in order for God to re-shape and re-mold my heart. As my understanding of God deepened, my relationship with the Bible had to change. This was not an easy process and it didn’t happen quickly. It continues and will continue in the future.

Now, I’m learning to practice the lectio divina (or, sacred reading). Occasionally I wrestle with those old voices that whisper 1) I can’t trust my imagination when it comes to God’s word; and 2) only inductive Bible study can teach me about God. Nevertheless, I persist in hopes that the childhood whispers will grow fainter.

As I pray the scriptures, I also wrestle with the living God whom I encounter in Scripture. I wrestle with the complexities of the Word that describes God in relationship with a plethora of characters and I wrestle with the confounding words of Jesus Christ. I wrestle with this text as I long for a deeper relationship with God and I suspect I will be wrestling with scripture throughout my life. Despite these struggles, I know that the God who was with me as I read the Bible through a child’s eyes is with me now, and is continuing to reveal God’s self through scripture today.

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