(I wrote this a few months ago and was afraid to post it. Please take it seriously… I’ve tried my best to be brutally honest, and it’s painful to share because of how important being Christian and being Quaker is to my identity.)
I’m having a bit of difficulty with the Bible.
A month or two ago, I bought, from eMusic Audiobooks, a full set (1255 tracks) of “The Message: Remix” (rather, “The Message – REMIX//Complete,” as the über-hip—and trying-too-hard—typesetters at the publisher would like you to call it). It’s really an excellent deal; it’s something like eighty hours of audio for ten bucks total. It makes you wonder if the pricing was set by more than just an invisible hand.
I digress. So far, I’ve listened to the first seven books, so that’s Genesis (seven days, lots of begats, twelve tribes) through Judges (in which Samson’s girlfriend is very, very interested in learning how to tie him down, another lesson in the importance of safe words). And…
You should know that, as a Quaker, I’ve grown up with a God who loves me, and one who abhors violence. I’ve always been taught (with the lesson continuously reinforced) that war in God’s name is absurd, since God does not sponsor war or take sides. And…
I was bracing myself for the Old Testament, knowing it was a bit of a risk to start there. I knew that it’s full of amazingly arbitrary laws (if you have sex with a woman on who is on her period, you are exiled, and if you work on the Sabbath, you are stoned to death), bloody battle sequences, and a thorough and inevitable poking of holes into everything I know about God, love, and forgiveness. It comes with the territory, and necessitated Jesus coming down to Earth to forgive us for our sins and set things right on the Old Testament’s exciting sequel.
I really had no idea, though, what I was in for. I often complain about Quentin Tarantino, despite having seen only one of his movies (Pulp Fiction) and that one for only fifteen minutes. (I justify my judgment by noting that the first fifteen minutes of Pulp Fiction is all anybody ever quotes from.) As far as I’m concerned, he represents an awful idea that violence and depravity are artful and meaningful unto themselves (at least, when you give them a hip, idiosyncratic soundtrack and an incorrigible pretense of irony). I saw Sin City (of which Tarantino wrote all of one scene) and nearly puked my guts out. (And yes, it’s a raw wound that ten minutes of nonsensical dialogue about hamburgers, followed by a ruthless and unprovoked murder, is somehow considered one of America’s great cinematic achievements.)
So, it’s tough for me to get down that the first seven books of the Bible, anyway, collectively put Tarantino to shame. I’m not sure even he could direct a movie this bloody. It seems like the majority of the time—not individual passages, not embarrassing moments of canon that I can safely relegate to my personal, religious Dis-Continuity (TV Tropes link warning! Don’t click if you have anything to do today), but the bulk of the text—is spent on tales of wholesale slaughter, of unprovoked genocide, of invasion and wanton killing in the name of God. The Israelites have no more reason to kill entire communities than the promise that God has bequeathed them this land, a chilling theme today (as cutthroat armies hold firm in religious conviction as a shield for their crimes, take your pick from the Congo to the Middle East) for such a supposedly timeless book.
It gets worse. Sexual minorities like me should be happy that the dinky passage in Leviticus banning gay contact is part of a long list of arbitrary rules which even the most observant Jew will not follow to the letter. While I already knew how readily Leviticus dispenses the death penalty for minor offenses, it’s another thing to hear it read aloud, spelled out, over and over again: Kill them. Bring them before the congregation and stone them. Cast the evil from your community.
Crimes that don’t bring death bring exile, and crimes below that merit only specific instructions on which animal to sacrifice in penance and how. No mention is given to being good, for its own sake; God speaks to the Israelites as children, presuming that all good comes from him, and that he will take care of them if they follow his rules.
Now, of course, I can’t call myself an expert on the Middle East of these old days. I often defend the Quran on similar grounds, that it must be understood in the violent context of Arabian antiquity. It really appalls me, now, to think of the bigots who speak of the atrocities in the Muslims’ holy book as evidence that the religion is fundamentally violent and hateful; Christians who say that have no leg to stand on (and I hope that atheists, by and large, acknowledge that violence and hate can exist without religion as well, as there are plenty more weapons in the hatemonger’s arsenal). I always took a bit of pride, though, that my hero, Jesus, my personal savior, never engaged in war, and would sooner die on a cross than take up arms against the people he came to save. I knew that his message, his Gospel, was meant to wash away some of the bad blood from times past. It’s just difficult to find such brutality buried deeply in my own lineage.
I wrote about this someplace else online, and a friend (please don’t hate me for writing about this, friend) suggested I stop trying to read the Bible all at once, as it’s too “heavy.” I should space it out, have time to discuss and reflect, and in the meantime she recommended reading two books by Philip Yancey.
I had a bit of a cow. All my life, I’ve been told, read the Bible, read the Bible. The Bible has the answers within, the Bible is living food for the soul, the Bible brings comfort and wisdom. Yet, now I read it, and it’s fundamentally disturbing—it’s a long, flowing, poetic Quentin Tarantino movie—and now people tell me, pull back, hold off, don’t read the Bible, or at least read it more slowly, and spinkle in some Philip Yancey to make it go down more easily.
Now, I’m aware of Philip Yancey, and I know that part of what makes him a renowned author on religion is his willingness to take a long, hard look at original sources while casting aside received assumptions and traditions. So, he certainly wouldn’t dumb down the Bible the way my Sunday school teachers did (who would have had me believe that the Bible is a warm and fuzzy book of fables and miracles). I was just offended by this idea… I thought she was telling me to have Yancey explain it away. I don’t want to believe in anything that makes it okay to kill people merely for sitting on “God’s land” and worshipping other gods. That’s never okay, and I don’t care what God says, he gave me a brain and I have to think for myself. I became too terrified to keep writing or thinking about it because I imagined Philip Yancey, starer-into-of-God’s-black-heart extraordinaire, trying to explain why these divinely mandated massacres are really good things, necessary to our societal upbringing then if not today. I doubt he says anything remotely like that, but in that moment I had already felt betrayed, and every Christian in the world, all my brothers and sisters in Christ, had become suspect. My Sunday school never told me of the cruelty in the Bible, but neither did my young-adult pastor, nor my parents, nor my present pastors, nor any of my Christian friends. The whole experience of finding this atrocious killing in the Bible made me feel like I’d been betrayed my whole life, that every Christian in the world had been lying to me, that my image of an all-loving, pacifist God was now shattered. I was a girl with no origin, no past. I didn’t know what or whom to believe.
My concern now is that I need to talk to somebody about it, but I can’t figure out whom I even trust enough. Who will hear me out without trying to explain it away? I just don’t know.
And yes, for now, I’m still a Christian; I’ll make it through the whole Bible before I judge. It’s just that… part of why I didn’t want to read Yancey in-time with the Bible itself is that I didn’t want to force belief upon myself. If the Bible speaks to me, if it lives up to its reputation, if it becomes something I can turn to for advice and solace, that’s wonderful. If it doesn’t speak to me, though, and continues as a lengthy Tarantino slasher flick, I may lose my faith and convert to something else.