“God said it, I believe it and THAT settles it!” Seeing that expression on a bumper sticker or church billboard always gives me a chill. What is often meant by this expression is that if it is in the Bible – I automatically believe it, my interpretation is correct and should be summarily applied to all of God’s creation.
As I have struggled to grow in my spiritual journey and stretch beyond the traditional teachings of my youth I have seen another phenomena that for me is as deeply troubling as the first. Many Christians have decided to abandon the Bible for the most part. Some churches have even struggled with whether to include the Bible in their pews. I know that many of these people have been deeply hurt – but it seems that they have been mostly hurt by other people who have abused the Bible. It seems unfair punishment to the scripture to put it in the corner (so to speak) because of the actions of people.
My experience growing up was to be taught that the scriptures are literal and God-breathed. I questioned this very early in my life but because of what I had been taught to believe automatically assumed my questions meant that something was wrong with me. So I did not ask the questions out loud. I just tried to figure out what was wrong with me. Funny thing, those questions. They never left. But the guilt they caused only grew as time went on. And it became harder and harder to even let them sit within me. So they became buried quite deeply. And letting them resurface has been a slow and painful process.
But I have also had life-changing experiences in studying scripture. This past year when our children’s Sunday School explored the story of the woman at the well, I did my own study and found a lot of strength and empowerment from my interaction with this powerful story from long ago. I will also never forget the moment when I was able to look at the story of creation as a powerful tale of God’s love for humanity and how it shows us God’s desire to be in relationship with God and each other. I no longer had to struggle with the “logistical” questions of how creation could have literally happened in 6 days and how to reconcile the story with science. I had found truth in the story that could stand with the scientific facts and not be shaken. And the scientific facts could remain without having to “prove” the truth I had discovered.
Recently I woke up at 4 a.m. with the thought – what if the Bible is neither to be “used” or ignored? What if its purpose is altogether different? What if its only power comes from its interaction with us as seekers after truth? What if it really becomes the living, breathing word of God when explored by living, breathing human beings but is merely words on a page when sitting on the shelf? What if the Bible is full of truth not because its words mean the same thing to everyone but because everyone who is willing to open their spirit and let the words flow through them can find truth?
I can already hear the naysayers. They are saying “aren’t you are talking about relativism?” If you look at the Bible that way you will just have people reading it for their own ends – won’t you? Won’t you be letting God’s truth be replaced by everyone’s individual and personal truths?
But would you?
It seems to me that people who try to read scripture literally and apply it to others are using scriptures to their own ends. After all, what is a “literal” interpretation anyway? Once a person has read and interpreted it is unable to be completely literal. But in trying to be literal we don’t bring our humanity into the process. We try to force one understanding onto the life of another.
But I don’t believe that all truth is relative either. There are certain universal truths that do shine through scripture. The two that come to mind are that we should love God with our heart, soul and mind and should love our neighbor as ourselves. These are truths that cannot be forced onto the life of another. These are also truths that have no life and breath without our own life and breath. We must all learn to live them ourselves and when we do – that is where we find the greatest sense of community.
I have tried to imagine a Christian community where people looked at scripture this way. You wouldn’t have people using the Bible to crush the spirits of others. But neither would you have people wanting to hide the scriptures. There would be no fear in studying the Bible but rather people would find great joy and peace in doing so. We would teach others about how to live life simply by the way we live our own.
Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he talked about peace on earth.
Writer, storyteller and lifelong spiritual seeker Elizabeth McGee served as director of children’s ministries at a Methodist church near Atlanta. She earned a master’s degree in library science and a bachelor’s in business and journalism. Born in California, she grew up in New England and lived in the South for many years.