Why It’s Harder to Admit the Bible Isn’t My North Star
My Catholic (and former Catholic) friends often talk about the cycle of guilt that their tradition instilled in them as children. Among those who no longer go to confession or say their hail Marys or cross themselves, “guilt fatigue” is – in my anecdotal experience – often cited as a primary cause for defection. Who wants to go through life constantly reminded of how much he sucks?
Having grown up in a Southern, fundamentalist, evangelical culture, I can relate. We didn’t have confession booths, but we certainly had a weekly reminder that the Lord’s Supper – “holy communion” for the uninitiated – was strictly off-limits if you were harboring any unacknowledged errors. If you had a beef with your brethren, best to make amends before 9:30 on Sunday morning, or everyone who sees you pass up the bread &
wine grape juice will know the horrifying truth: He’s got sin in his life.
For me, the slow drift from sola scriptura to prima scriptura to scriptura’s great and all, but let’s have a little context, shall we? wasn’t so much the “guilt fatigue” as it was the “fear factor.” There are verses a-plenty referencing the necessity and benefits of the fear of God, and no one is better at taking that concept to its most literal outcomes than evangelicals.
Many of my progressive friends – especially of the LGBT persuasion – are quick to cry “Hate! Prejudice! Bigotry!” when Christians affirm their version of traditional marriage or vote to limit the rights of those who don’t conform to heteronormative standards for love. It’s a logical (and not always untrue) conclusion for someone who has no context for the “fear factor” – the evangelical obsession with the finality and exclusivity of the Bible’s authority to govern our lives.
I use the word “obsession” sincerely – not to belittle. As one of the formerly “obsessed,” I recall all too well how it felt to encounter individuals who had the nerve to question the Bible’s veracity or authority. I genuinely feared for them. For instance, the first time I ever met a fellow Christian in college (let’s call her Janet) who told me she affirmed same-sex relationships, I physically pulled away. (I did the same thing when another student, who is now one of my best friends, told me she could not discount the probability that evolution is how we got here.) As Janet explained how her beliefs had evolved as a result of having gone to a girls-only high school with a handful of lesbians, I cringed and blurted out “I know – KNOW – that being gay is wrong.” (Talk about being in denial.)
It was as though some wires had been disconnected in my head – I just couldn’t process that here, in the cafeteria at my Christian college, was a girl who said she believed in and followed Jesus, and also was thrilled that her lesbian friends had found love… with each other! She was so clearly wrong, because the inerrant, infallible Word of God so clearly differed with her personal opinion on this matter. And how could human opinion ever trump the Bible?
You see, fellow progressive rights-affirming activist, the evangelical antagonism toward same-sex relationships and marriage is not entirely based on hate. It’s not even entirely based on ignorance. It’s based, more often than not, on fear. If you don’t seek to understand this, you will always feel like you are hitting your head against a wall when confronting this issue with a Bible-toting believer.
(The definition of the word “fear” in this context is a whole conversation in and of itself. For a primer from the evangelical perspective, start here.)
There are grave and grievous consequences for the Christian who challenges, doubts, or even wonders at the validity of the Bible. It’s scary as hell – literally, because that’s what’s waiting should you choose to usurp Scriptural authority. And often, it’s that same fear playing out on behalf of those of us who dare suggest alternate interpretations, sources of inspiration, or approaches to how we use the Bible in our lives. Calling the typical fundamentalist evangelical a hateful bigot is, in a way, the equivalent of affirming she is doing the right thing because
- the Bible tells her she will be persecuted for her beliefs (so she must be doing something right), and
- your lifestyle choice is in opposition to the Bible, so it’s easy to discount anything else you might have to say as false.
(Similarly, evangelicals who quote Scripture at left-wing liberals and are flabbergasted when we don’t respond with humble acquiescence need a reality check themselves. To someone doesn’t believe it in the first place, the Bible is merely gobbledy-gook. A tool of the majority that has been misused and misinterpreted to keep straight, white, Protestant men over the age of 50 in power. I generalize, but this is nonetheless a real perception of many non-Christian people.)
The fear factor is a big deal. I simply mean that the process of evolving one’s views of the Bible is, from the perspective of the believer, full of consequences and, ultimately, a slap in God’s face. Christians love God. There’s very little incentive to change.
Unless, and until, you become one of the affected. Until you realize, for instance, that you’re gay. Or your friend is gay. Or your alcoholic, abusive father who takes communion every week is regularly absolved of his sins. Or your priest molests you. Or, or, or… And the bigger the disconnect becomes between your reality and the Scriptures (or more accurately, the Scriptures as interpreted by evangelical Christians), the bigger your sense that maybe, just maybe, we’ve gotten something wrong in the way we’re approaching this journey of faith.
The problem is that the doubt that life’s realities trigger is itself too often mislabeled as sin. The moment it crops up in the church environment, the doubter is put on prayer lists, gossiped about, shunned. So rarely have I ever heard a preacher laud the famed Doubting Thomas for wrestling publicly with the disconnect he felt between what he was told and what he was experiencing. Rather, he is held up as the example of what to avoid.
Meanwhile, Jesus comes to the doubters. Shows us his hands and feet.
This past Christmas season, I was home with my family in North Carolina. I had a series of difficult conversations that were supposed to be about my relationship with my boyfriend. Instead, I found myself sitting across from my Papaw and Mamaw working to explain how I could ever consider rejecting the Bible as the single and final authority for my life. My Mamaw sent me a letter a month later that included, in addition to several of her delicious recipes, a note saying how discouraged she is – not that I am openly gay or that I have a boyfriend – but that I have rejected God’s truth in the Bible. And I do know exactly how she feels.
Saying those words to my grandparents – who helped raise me, sang songs with me, came to my school plays, kept me on weekends, took me on road trips, invested in my education, cosigned on my first car loan – saying that I do not stand sola scriptura… that was, for me, harder than coming out. Because that’s how deep the fear factor runs.
There is no room for doubt, no room for other possibilities. No chance that the Bible is just one of many ways in which God offers guidance for our lives. That the importance of context is regrettably overlooked in contemporary evangelical Biblical study. That there are bad translations. That the sacred “untouchability” of the Book itself is a new concept within faith – that oral tradition, relationships, experience, spirit, and other sources are every bit as valid and vital as are the texts that humans wrote and assembled and canonized. That listening to the love and affirmation that God speaks to my heart about who I am is perhaps the most significant way to encounter truth in this world.
Realistically, my Papaw and Mamaw, my mother and father, and other family and friends will probably pray for my re-introduction to the truth in the Bible until the day they – or I – pass on. When it comes down to it, that they love me enough to pray with earnest conviction for what they truly believe to be the best for me is nothing less than humbling. An honor.
Maybe I am wrong. I have considered it. Maybe I’m a fool for not taking the Bible at face value. For not having the appropriate amount of fear. For relying too heavily on my own experience, on what I sense is God’s voice speaking to me. Maybe I’ve been deceived and now I’m deceiving others. There have been times over the years when I have doubted.
In the end, when humanity has sorted through our evidence, our signs, our hypotheses and proofs – when all is said and done, we each stand on our convictions. What we choose to believe. Our faith. We have nothing else.
My conviction is that God is bigger than we want God to be. That the kingdom has unlimited capacity. That there is “room in the fold” for all of God’s children – not just the ones who take the Bible literally, but those of us who doubt – the ones who don’t conform to the literal interpretation of the Book. My own prayer is that as I share my story, evangelical hearts and minds might be opened to the possibility that these things could be true.
I pray the same for you, and the story you are living.