I have always known that the Bible is special. Nonbelievers might snort at that, and that’s okay. I get it. You go on ahead; I won’t be mad.
I spent decades as something of an agnostic myself, and someday I will write down, for my fellow strugglers in the desert, how it is that a rational woman who believes in science and empirical evidence came to a place of unashamed and total belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For now, I will summarize by saying that faith was a very long slog through the bog for me, but the Bible was a constant glimmer of possibility because of the unique things that happened to me whenever I sat and read in it.
The Bible opens communication between a willing reader and God, and it happens in a way that I never experienced anywhere else. It is not a superficial or transient “feeling” that you get. It’s something else entirely, and I’ve experienced it for myself, in the Bible, firsthand, and I’m not a nutcase. My mother had me tested.
This book is God’s book. I believe. I’m all-in.
And I said all of that to say this:
I’m About to Get Really Real With You
The first step in recovery is to admit that you have a problem, and Christianity has a problem today. The problem is that the Bible is hard, and very few Christians are willing to face that or learn how to handle it. You might be asking, “What does she mean by ‘the Bible is hard?'” Well…
Genesis is a book full of moral degenerates, perverts, and crimes against women. Exodus is a book about a group of entitled malcontents for whom the daily manifestation of Almighty God in the middle of their encampment wasn’t enough to give them faith and hope. Leviticus is full of blood and semen and menstruation and death sentences. Numbers continues with moral degeneracy, more blood and death, some charming addenda to the law that sound like institutionalized oppression of women–oh! and some really upsetting attempts at moral justification for chattel slavery. Deuteronomy has some rape laws that sound on first reading like the worst thing you’ve ever heard and then Joshua is just a straight up bloodbath.
That’s just the first six books, for crying out loud, and there are sixty more to go (and that’s just for the Protestants among us. If you’re Catholic, tack on another 7). I could go on, and it would get worse, but you get the point.
The Bible is hard, y’all. It ain’t all about “for God so loved the world,” or, “ask and you shall receive.” There’s more than that between the covers of this book, or it wouldn’t be 1,500 pages long, amen? We need to start putting this fact closer to the top of our lists for teaching and guiding new believers. We should not be leaving them adrift and expecting them to tackle 3,500-2,000 year-old Scriptures produced out of an alien culture all by their lonesome…because when we do, this is what happens:
I decided to share some of the most provocative notes I have written in my Bible’s margins with you throughout this article. I wrote them in moments of shocked disbelief, anger, upset, or hurt as I read through these pages for the first time. I wrote a lot of notes like this. There are a lot of them because the Bible is hard. Scripture is ambiguous, sometimes, and other times, it’s just plain hard. It is difficult to read some of the ugly stuff in Scripture, and the mystique of its inspired status means that we have to wrestle with the eternal implications of believing in a God who wanted us to learn, for example, the story of the Levite’s Concubine (Judges 19).
As a woman, I can testify that it is hard for a female who is new in her faith to get through some of this stuff without thinking, “I must have been an idiot for believing this book was from God,” or, “Why did all these men hate women so much,” or, “Why does God hate women so much,” or…”Did Jesus seriously just call me a dog?”
Every single person who has ever approached the Holy Bible with honesty and spent time studying it will have questions like these, and the answers are only given through instruction or through months and months (or decades) of meditation, prayer, and struggle with the Holy Spirit. Don’t get me wrong, the Holy Spirit of the Lord our God is a very good teacher, but learning this stuff is a whole lot easier if you can get by with a little help from your friends (or a pastor or a biblically literate lay-teacher).
Everyone who has read the Bible knows that there is some excruciatingly difficult material in there and yet I have never seen anyone hand a Bible to a new believer and accompany that gift with some advice about how to read it, warning them about the hard stuff and giving them tools for finding the answers to those hard questions. I believe that if someone had done that for me, I could’ve been spared a lot of upset. My pastor has been extraordinarily helpful, but not everyone has a pastor with a personality, a schedule, and an inclination to accommodate frequent one-on-one discussions like mine has been able to do.
Maybe I’m wrong and there is a widespread distribution of beginner material for developing a quality hermeneutic (method for interpreting Scripture) right from the start, but I’ve never seen it. What I have seen of the material that passes for an introduction to the Bible in most of our churches is super basic, pre-packaged advice in the form of videos or workbooks that focus only on the Good News (which people who are watching have already accepted and put their faith in). Almost all of it studiously avoids the hard stuff.
I’ve never seen a beginner class for new believers in the Word that talks about how to contextualize and see the godly lessons in Lot’s daughters, biblical concubines & polygamy, the rape laws of Deuteronomy, the bitter water test in Numbers 5, the callous disregard for the life of Hagar and Ishmael, Jesus using an epithet in reference to Gentiles, Paul’s confusing mention of salvation through childbirth, the killing of women and children in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua…I could go on. No one prepared me for any of that, and I waded into each of these quagmires alone, wrestled with them alone, and came to conclusions about them alone. It was just me and God and this miraculous book…and it was hard.
We need to do better as a whole, as a group, as the Body of Christ. Every one of us has a responsibility to become biblically literate so that we can be and make disciples.
A disciple is not someone who has “accepted Jesus in his heart.” That’s a mere Christian. A disciple is someone who follows Jesus, and you can’t follow Jesus if you don’t even know the Way of Jesus. You can’t learn the Way of Jesus without studying the Bible–both testaments–deeply enough to grasp the redemptive Genesis-Revelation arc. It doesn’t work any other way.
Since my start in Scripture study, I’ve cleared up almost all of my original doubts. Since I wrote all of my “ugly notes” in the margins, I have grown in my understanding and found clear explanations from context. I see God’s love in all of it, now, and I see his protection of women in that harsh time and culture. I see the Genesis-Revelation arc, and I believe He’s got this in his hands. It’s all under control. None of it meant what I feared it meant. Not for my female-ness. Not for my sinfulness. Not for the sinfulness of the people in the Bible. Not for any of it. God is good and God is just.
I was able to reconcile most of this on my own, enough of it that I trusted there were answers for all the rest. One by one, I’m finding them, and it is good work. It is work that makes me better.
But I’m a tenacious lady with very particular gifts in the area of language, research, and this type of deep, detailed study of source material from books. Not everybody has that, and I am afraid that many tentative baby Christians are out there right now, with a Bible they were given on the day they said they wanted to know Jesus, and they are feeling torn, hurt, alone, and confused by how hard the Bible really is.
That’s my biggest fear, and that’s what I think I’m supposed to work against in my own small way. That’s what I feel personally called to do. I want to help people through it, but I’m nobody. I’m one person, and though I believe that God equips the called, I am not, as of yet, anything approaching a qualified biblical scholar. I’m a chubby, middle-aged housewife with an undergraduate degree in history sitting at a desk in the United States who’s either got a Spirit-led calling or delusions of grandeur. Either way, I’m not enough. I’m not even worthy to teach a Bible class, much less educate masses.
We all, as a body, need to get real. We need to acknowledge that the Bible is hard, face that fact, and come up with ways to help people through it. If you are a pastor, a teacher, or a missionary in the habit of handing people Bibles, please warn them about the ugly parts or advise them briefly about how to process the Torah, the OT Histories, or the controversial parts of the Epistles. I just think we will fail if we don’t do that.
The work has to begin in regular ol’ Sunday School. As I got back into corporate worship, regular church attendance, and meaningful interaction with other Christians, I fell in love with small group Bible study (addicted and compelled are better words for it). I see a lot of really good work and a lot of love and godly fellowship in these groups, but I also observed a few worrying patterns in the culture of the modern church:
1.) If I bring up a struggle I’m having in Scripture with a layperson or group of laypeople, unless I am super careful with my wording, everything goes silent, and everyone gets uncomfortable. Occasionally, somebody will get very politely hostile because I am “questioning God.” This is especially prevalent in online groups which, whether we like it or not, is where a huge mass of seekers go for their initiation into fellowship.
2.) If someone is actually willing to engage with me on the difficult Scripture I’ve brought up as a struggle, the advice they give is generally something very vague and unhelpful: “pray on it,” “have faith,” “just give it to God,” or “God works in mysterious ways.” Somesuch. Platitudes are not substantive answers and they lead the seeker to believe that there are no answers…or that God is just a jerk since nobody had an alternative.
3.) When a woman asks legitimate and heartfelt questions about the horrific crimes (and they are crimes) against women in many of the Bible’s narratives, she is almost universally met with condescension and scolding, and she generally gets bupkis in the way of substantive answers.
That…my brothers and sisters…is unforgivable. Because there are substantive answers to every question someone might ask about Scripture, and the Bible can handle our questions.
Don’t ever scold a fellow Christian for honestly and humbly wrestling with God’s word. Remember that when someone asks a question like this, it is because he is seeking to keep faith or deepen his understanding of our God. If you don’t know the answer to his question, just tell him that. Say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know,” and leave it there. Do not mask your ignorance with a haughty platitude about women being silent or “where were you when I laid the foundations.” Don’t do that to your brothers and sisters in Christ. If you don’t know Scripture–or that particular Scripture–well enough to give a solid answer, tell them that and suggest they seek out a pastor’s assistance or a modern commentary for clarity. It’s just that easy. You might end up learning something, too.
Today, I stand in the place of faith that I hold because I struggled mightily with Scripture. That is my path, apparently, and I’m happy to be walking on it. I hope to stay here and keep struggling and getting stronger. I am a book nerd by nature who has always loved the pursuit of truth in text form. For me, this struggle has strengthened my relationship with God, and I am grateful for it, but I don’t think that means that everyone is meant to endure this particular struggle. We all have struggles of one sort or another, but not all struggles are the same. If I can remove this barrier for somebody, and if that work can assist a fellow Christian in his life with Jesus…then I have to do it.
When people come seeking, they will start with other Christians. They will ask at church or they will ask in a Christian group on social media. It is our duty and our divine commission to be available for those people, to make sure they encounter someone who has been equipped to answer their questions and doubts with love and gentleness and truth. I was given the blessing of pastors who preach and teach very well. I was given access to a pastor who loves answering people’s questions about the Bible in an academic way that worked for me. I was blessed with a love for bookish study. I have to believe that those things were given to me for a reason.
If you have the gift of biblical literacy, it was given to you for a reason, and you should do everything in your power to share it.
Someday, I will get to a point in my Bible study where most of my notes start looking like this last image. I want everyone in Christ to be at that point. I want to play my part, and I pray that all of you will play yours, as well.