On Taking a Break from the Bible
My relationship with the Bible is, at best, tricky.
We’re keeping our distance, sorting things out, and maybe - just maybe - we’ll get together again soon.
Step back a little less than two years, and you’d find me at my desk every morning with a cup of coffee - French pressed on a good day - and my hefty, leather-bound English Standard Version Study Bible, supplemented daily with multi-colored highlights scattered throughout its pages. I made my way morning by morning through various parts of Scripture in a particular system I had devised as a way of compartmentalizing this overwhelming religious anthology. The most impactful Bible reading sessions ended up being those in which I could easily apply the concepts of God or humanity to my situation, thereby centering myself in the narrative.
I cried a lot. And that's highly unusual in every other area of my life. Combine my emotionally-curated Hillsong playlist, a subtly self-loathing frame of reference, and a time of prayer journaling, my typically stoic demeanor crumbled into a ball of tearful fervor.
This was my quiet time.
The backbone of my spirituality was this portion of every day spent in the "Word", listening for God's whisper through the faint, black type and color-coded highlights laid out in front of me. If my little prayer sessions, which were highly structured much like the Bible reading, didn’t end in tears, I considered it just short of failure. Unhealthy, for certain, but in line with the Charismatic tradition in which I was raised. If you weren’t reduced to a blubbering mess, was the Spirit really changing you? That's the message I'd always received, anyway.
I genuinely loved my time with the Bible - nothing else gave me the same spiritual high, grounding, or sense of purpose. In retrospect, I partly loathed Scripture, for it was a constant reminder of how unworthy, broken, and unlovable I was, manifesting in the shame that comes by believing you're worth less than dust to the God called Love.
Within my community as a Liberty student, serving on hall leadership and increasingly involved in a megachurch, immersion in Scripture was all but necessary to belong. The social fabric of my environment was nothing if not Scriptural.
And it worked, for a time.
When existential questions of sexuality and faith uprooted the fragile certainty of my biblicist framework, the Bible quickly lost its appeal. The colorful depth and texture of Scripture assumed an evolving character, one whose apparent hostility to my identity I was reticent to acknowledge. And in the darkest throes of my faith deconstruction, the last thing I felt I needed was another passage of Scripture to trigger a personal crisis in the midst of what was an extended personal crisis.
If I'm honest, I haven't had a consistent practice of reading Scripture in something like a year and a half.
And that's okay.
My deconstruction included a fair amount of time spent reading about the Bible, finding intellectual solace in the works of people like Dr. Peter Enns and Rob Bell. They allowed me the freedom to do what I'd never done: read Scripture critically, honestly, and with ability to be utterly disgusted by it. Before I could even begin to approach Scripture without a fundamentalist, biblicist framework, I had to unlearn the only thing I'd ever known: fundamentalist biblicism. In other words, my hermeneutic had to be deconstructed, reframed, and rebuilt from the ground up.
And this is still happening.
What many Christians, particularly Evangelicals, fail to understand about the way they approach Scripture is that, from the perspective of minorities, Scripture is a weapon against which epistemological defense is nearly always necessitated and nearly always ignored. And it certainly lends itself to such use when Eurocentric, post-Enlightnment biblicism flattens the text beyond recognition.
Near the end of his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul - everyone’s favorite Calvinist - builds an extended metaphor on the “armor” of God. For all its wanton militancy, the metaphor’s character is, in large part, defensive. If you had any experience in Sunday school or a church youth group growing up, you have an idea of where this is going: We get the shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness, and shoes of peace.
But the armor includes what is explicitly a weapon.
The “sword of the Spirit”, which Paul called the “word of God”, is listed alongside each of these things and given special emphasis. The unfortunate reality is that privileged Christians take this to mean Scripture is their weapon, converting their sacred text into the rhetorical fulfillment of its Pauline metaphor.
From a place of privilege, the sword of the Spirit is something to be feared insofar as it doesn't challenge one's privilege. Yet, for those against whom the weapon is employed, the sword of the Spirit is nothing like the Spirit, but more of a blunt-force instrument whose primary means of attack is spiritual trauma.
When I say I don't read the Bible, it's because all I've learned to see is the promise of another blow.
Another idea to deconstruct.
For trans and queer Christians like myself, we've made shields of faith in the form of community and epistemology to protect ourselves against other Christians' swords of the Spirit. The flaming arrows against which we must stand are carried on Romans 1, Leviticus 18, II Corinthians 6:9, and so on. They sometimes come in the form of gaslighting, micro-aggressions, and obviously targeted messages in our churches. These arrows sent by the Accuser are hurried along by the family, friends, and spiritual leaders whose influence is not easily undone.
The text whose pages speak of Love are turned against us, and for many, the journey understandably leads away from this weapon.
I know - much of the Bible has little do with violence, bigotry, and the wrathful God-construct whose only consistent will is to send unrepentant souls to hell. And that's true: Much of Scripture is beautiful, an ancient collection of songs, poems, and tribal mythologies aimed at conveying profound and progressive wisdom at a time where violence, bigotry, and pantheons of vindictive deities were all the world knew. Even when Scripture speaks of God Incarnate, God with us, I spent twenty years of my life believing and providing apologies for a complex collection of documents with complex ideas, and there's no easy way to disassociate the trauma from its source, even when an alternative frame of reference provides a means of helpful reinterpretation.
I know what good the Bible has within, but I'm not far enough away from the bad to see it yet. I spend most days learning in an environment whose very foundation is mingled with the brandishing of Scripture as sword. To see beyond this superficial interpretation takes time, growth, and extended healing.
And that's okay.
You don't get to tell the hurting how to hurt.
When my heart is in an open place, there are fewer things sweeter than a fresh reading of Matthew 5, fewer things more comforting than David's Psalms of praise, little more grounding than John's poetic rumination on the Divine Logos. There's nothing quite as moving as God speaking and breathing life into existence, calling Creation good as only its Creator could. The indignant sorrow of Lamentations, outright nihilism of Ecclesiastes, empire-toppling prophecy of Revelation - these are all wonderful and necessary parts to my faith.
Nevertheless, I needn't daily wade through trauma to know and experience the fruit of Scripture in my life.
Christians must stop shaming fellow believers for not reading Scripture, let alone taking it literally every step of the way. I know Scripture well, having been through it a couple times at different points in my life. For all the good it has to say, all the beauty in its pages, there's a lot of work yet to be done in disassociating from the pain wrought by misapplied theology. For many of us who've had to step away from the Bible, even when keeping our faith, it's not out of spite or hate. And even if it were, that's perfectly acceptable - the Bible is not God and idolizing it to the point of self-harm is wholly problematic.
We, the Church in and out of exile, must allow space for this.
So I've taken a break from Scripture, and I don't know when we'll get back together. Until then, I'll probably read about it, talk about it, and take interest in its contents. I can love it from afar. But I owe it nothing, and God loves me just the same.