As I mentioned in a recent post, I recently went on some hikes with friends from church. The hikes were terrific – I introduced my friends to new trails and we got a chance to get some exercise and celebrate the beauty of God’s creation together.
However, things didn’t go completely smoothly on the first hike. In a fool-hearty move, I picked a trail that I had never gone on before. I had consulted my trusty trail notes and even had a trail map neatly folded in my back pocket telling me which color blazes to follow. But then I started chit-chatting with my friends, and next thing I knew, we had missed the turn-off for our selected trail and ended up going on a much longer hike than planned.
On my way out of the park after the hike, I was a little tired and ended up turning the wrong way on the road to head back home. The next day I was back in the car, driving up to the Berkshires to visit an old college friend who was briefly in the country from a multi-year stint working in Turkey. Deep in thought about future blog posts, I almost missed the turn off for the highway to her mother’s house where she was staying.
After all of these experiences of getting lost (or almost lost), I had a moment of revelation: I really needed a GPS embedded in my brain that would call out, at every moment of every day:
“LOUISE! TURN HERE!”
In fact, the more I contemplated the benefits of such a device, I realize that I could really use something along those lines that would help me address the more fundamental choices I face in life. I am at a life stage where I’m struggling with a number of tough decisions: should I go back to school (once again) to help with my writing? Or should I pursue a career that leverages all the education I’ve already received? Should I cut back on my volunteer work that has really gotten in the way of all the things I quit my other job to do in the first place? Should I stop worrying about a career and just enjoy being a mom during those last few years when my kids will still talk to me?
If I were an evangelical Christian, I would now turn and say ‘well actually, we ALL have that kind of GPS – it’s called The BIBLE’. I’m not making this up – check out this YouTube video that actually makes this metaphor explicit.
Joyce Meyer also seems to subscribe to this concept of the Bible when she confidently states “The Bible has an answer for every question we might ever have” (she also goes on to write repeatedly about how God’s spirit is with us when we go shopping!?)
To my mind, these folks are treating the Bible like some spiritual equivalent of a Magic Eight Ball. Any decision I have to make in my life, big or small, I should be able to turn to the Good Book and get an answer. Well, let me give that a try and see what happens.
Dear Bible: should I try to find a job that leverages my hard-won MBA and existing professional background or pursue my newfound passion writing about religion?
I’m opening the Bible now to a random page…hopefully the Spirit will move me and show me God’s will through The Holy Word:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: You shall eat no fat of ox or sheep or goat. (Leviticus 7:22-23)
OK, let’s try again. Maybe I should turn to Proverbs. After all – that’s full of wisdom – I’m sure it will help me with making this important life decision.
The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands. (Proverbs 14:1)
OK that’s a little ambiguous, but I guess as an aspiring ‘wise woman’ maybe it means that I shouldn’t throw out all of my existing education and work experience. That would be like ‘tearing down the house’, right? But that really wasn’t the answer I was looking for. Let me try one more time.
Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)
Yes! Finally – the answer I was looking for – one that supports my heart-felt desire to pursue a career writing about faith.
This little exercise demonstrates a truth acknowledged by many Christian scholars: that the Bible can be used to support just about any point you want to make. As retired Bishop John Shelby Spong notes:
In almost every dramatic confrontation on the key issues in Western history, the Bible has been quoted on both sides of the conflict. For years the Bible was used to justify the prevailing political idea known as the divine right of kings. But it was also used as a powerful weapon in the hands of those who led the revolution against royalty, as Oliver Cromwell’s rebellion attests. Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis both appealed to the Bible as support for their attitudes toward black people, and to give moral authority to their different sides during America’s bloodiest war.
It is not at all surprising that the Bible has been used this way, because it is not, as Spong notes, something that dropped ‘out of Heaven fully written’. Rather, as theologian Paul Tillich notes,
….the Bible is a collection of religious literature written, collected and edited through the centuries. (p. 50, Systematic Theology vol. I)
In other words – the Bible is a collection of frequently ambiguous and contradictory texts from different historical points. How could one possibly take these texts at face value, randomly picking texts to guide one’s life?
In fact when we cherry pick verses of the Bible to lend credence to a given choice, we are essentially doing what neurologists have known humans do continuously: use our prolific analytical capabilities to justify decisions that we have already made based on non-rational, often sub-conscious processes. Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis describes how studies of split-brain patients led scientists to realize that the conscious portions of the human brain regularly concoct explanations for behaviors that were actually driven by completely unconscious (and different) motives. As Haidt puts it:
This finding, that people will readily fabricate reasons to explain their own behavior, is called “confabulation”. Confabulation is so frequent in work with split-brain patients and other people suffering brain damage that Gazzaniga refers to the language centers on the left side of the brain as the interpreter module, whose job is to give a running commentary on whatever the self is doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of the self’s behavior.
And while obviously most of us are not split-brained, Haidt goes on to explain:
…the split-brain studies were important in psychology because they showed in such an eerie way that the mind is a confederation of modules capable of working independently and even, sometimes, at cross-purposes. Split-brain studies are important for this book because they show in such a dramatic way that one of these modules is good at inventing convincing explanations for your behavior, even when it has no knowledge of the causes of your behavior.
So you’re probably wondering at this point (especially after I’ve just quoted extensively from this atheist author) if I’ve tossed my Bible out the window and finally declared myself an atheist. Well, actually, not at all. The Bible is incredibly important in my life, and it does provide guidance for me, but just not in a literal, face-value, Magic Eight Ball kind of way.
First and foremost, the Bible (along with other major sacred texts) represents a profound witness to human experiences of the Divine. In that way it is fundamental to my faith, because when I read about Biblical encounters with God – from Abraham to Paul – I find in their experiences something of what I myself experience in moments of spiritual connection. In particular I find the stories of encounters with the risen Christ - regardless of whether they happened exactly the way we read about them – to be utterly compelling.
Secondly, real exegesis and scholarly study of the Bible is a spiritual and communal discipline that guides my life, deepens my faith and provides me with a priceless community of others seeking answers to similar questions. I have been truly fed spiritually by the women’s Bible study I have participated in for several years now, and I’m looking forward to beginning schooling where I will have greater opportunities to conduct the kind of scholarly study of Scripture that I have read about in books such as this one.
Finally, I do believe there is an underlying, core message to the Bible – ‘the Spirit behind the word’ as Spong puts its, that represents what God wants for all of us. For me, I believe that this Spirit is manifest in the life and teachings of Jesus – the core of what He was is what we all should try our best to be, recognizing that as flawed humans we’ll always fall short.
So maybe I have my GPS for Life after all.