What We Encounter When We Encounter the Bible

First in an occasional series of posts ruminating on Jessica Martin’s book, Holiness & Desire (2020).

Growing up submerged in the evangelical sub-culture of the 1980s, which claimed, with a certain desperation, that the Bible was “historically accurate,” I remember a lot of people talking about the search for Noah’s Ark. There was excitement in the air: modern techniques, such as satellite imagery, were going to prove once and for all that the Flood happened, that the Bible was true, for God’s sake (in the weakest possible sense of the word true).

People are probably still searching for the Ark, but I’m not interested enough to Google it. I know about that stupid amusement park in Kentucky or wherever, and that there are certainly a lot of people still claiming “historical accuracy” for the Bible.

Of course, it’s always been a very selective sort of historical accuracy, which I figured out even as a young child. The Bible is factually accurate, we were told, except when it was speaking, you know, figuratively. “Camel, eye of the needle? Well, that’s just a metaphor, kid.” (And these folks were exceedingly liberal in their approach to interpreting metaphors. Except for those who didn’t understand metaphor at all, they insisted that Eye of the Needle was slang for a certain low gate, and Jesus just meant that rich people should watch their heads.)

So, as I was saying, some of these Christians were very interested in finding Noah’s Ark because they thought it would legitimize their beliefs before the broader secular culture (and thus legitimize themselves to their own Enlightenment-soaked minds, pitifully pleading for intellectual affirmation). But I don’t recall hearing about any explorers seeking out the ruins of the Tower of Babel. (Doesn’t mean it’s not a thing; again, no Googling here.)

Holiness & Desire | Jessica Martin

As a kid entranced by the act of reading from a very early age, I found the story of Babel much more fascinating than the one about all those animals on a boat. In Jessica Martin’s book Holiness & Desire, she describes the tale as a “weird thought-experiment” in which people “use their perfect communication powers to threaten heaven: language makes them gods.”

The Babel narrative is brief (only 9 verses long), and strangely wedged between the Flood and the beginning of Abram’s story. Pre-Flood, humans had multiplied (inter-breeding with angels along the way, somehow), and had become so wicked that “every imagination of the thoughts of [each person’s] heart was evil continually.”

Post-Flood, though, human beings came together in a remarkable spirit of cooperation, which the God of this fable found offensive and threatening for some reason.

Martin describes Babel as “another Fall story” that is not about hubris, as I was taught as a child (despite the non-literalness of that interpretation), and is not even really about language, but about understanding. Babel shows that “human systems of meaning are fractured: our edifices, real and imagined, cannot hold; we need God as a relationship cornerstone.”

Genesis specifically says that all this trouble began because there was “one language and few words” – and God’s reaction in the tale was not to addle our brains, or punish or eliminate us like he did with the Flood, but simply to make it impossible for us to understand each other.

Babel is not some alternative history of linguistic development, but an attempt to explain why humans are separated from each other, not only geographically but mentally. Obviously you don’t need to speak different languages to misunderstand each other. (Just look around.)

Perhaps, by scattering people into smaller groups, the God of Babel was actually trying to help humans understand each other better. As Martin says, “Our meaningful communications with each other are embodied. Face-to-face we take more information from tone and body language than we do from words.” (emphasis original)

The substitutes we create for this non-verbal form of communication – whether it’s an emoji in a text, or a sentence structure and phrasing meant to convey my sarcastic sense of humor – are often easily misconstrued.

And yet, one can not only trace the history of civilization through the adoption and use of written language, but God has chosen to communicate with human beings through written language. (Perhaps in another post we can talk about why this choice and not, say, ecstatic mystical visions, the existence of which I do not necessarily deny.)

Yes, as a Christian, I’m talking about the Bible here. But which Bible am I talking about?

Is it the Bible of the literalist church of my youth, which derided Catholics for believing in “non-Biblical” doctrines, yet believed itself in the Trinity (which can only be called Biblical in the same sense that a “right to privacy” can be called constitutional)?*

Is it the Bible of the congregation in my current Episcopal parish, which dutifully listens to each week’s lectionary readings slightly less attentively than they might listen to a co-worker describe a dream they had last night?

Is it the Bible I read when I was a kid, when the story of Sodom and Gomorrah filled me with fear of what I was becoming, or the Bible I read last week, when I was jarred to discover that this same story said more about God’s mercy than his judgment? (Re-read it and see; God was absolutely determined to save Lot despite the man’s ditherings and disbelief.)

These are all the same books, or collections of books, translated (and mis-translated) over the centuries. The only difference between them can be found in the way in which people read them and relate to them.

As a Christian, I accept these books as more than mere texts, and therefore I read them differently than others might read them. As Martin says, “I assent because my acceptance of the Scriptures as holy is not individual but collective and trans-historical … I will treat the letters of Paul and the other letters of the early Christian communities included in the New Testament on a different footing from the collection of early teachings we call the Didache. I will treat the four canonical gospels on a different footing from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.”

But though I may accept the Biblical canon as more than mere text, these books are still texts. They were written by humans, across multiple spans of time, for multiple reasons, be those reasons historical, genealogical, poetical, or evangelical.

Whatever those human reasons may have been, if the Bible is to be more than mere text, then I have to accept that the books were written as a human response to God’s revelation.

But humans have trouble understanding each other, let alone God. When I read the Bible, I am interpreting another human being’s interpretation of God’s revelation; in many cases, actually, I am interpreting an interpretation of an interpretation, etc.

Reading is always a conversation between author and reader. Sometimes it’s easy to answer the question, what is the author trying to say here, and sometimes it’s difficult.

But reading the Bible as a Christian is even more complex, because this conversation is not with the human authors, who had their own agendas and philosophical limitations, but with the God whose revelation the writers are describing or exploring.

As Martin says, “This isn’t just playing about with words. The word ‘conversation’ describes mutually successful communication: it can also mean the sexual act … The etymology of ‘conversation’ itself refers neither to language nor to touch, but to mutuality.”

A conversation is a relationship, and Martin describes her reading of the Bible as exactly that, using intentionally provocative, relationship-oriented words like “vulnerable” and “violent.” By choosing to speak to humans through written communication, she says that God makes himself “vulnerable” to being misunderstood; by claiming that every word of the text is divinely-sourced, inerrantists trap themselves in a “form of intimate violence,” “the human reader … a blank to be filled.”

Martin compares reading the Scriptures to a relationship with a spouse, where the inevitable disagreements, misunderstandings, and arguments begin from, and lead back toward, a place of trust, “because love underpins the conversation, love makes it possible.” That trust, she says, “goes both ways. I am not expected to be ‘mute and spiritless’ before its holy voice. But I must know how to listen.”

I wonder, however, if the intimacy of Martin’s metaphor actually isn’t quite intimate enough. When reading the Biblical books in order, you can’t help but notice how jarring it is, jumbled, passages veering sharply between hatred and condescension, passion and politics, judgment and affection.

If reading the Bible is like anything, it’s not so much like a relationship as it’s like my own life experience – the same sort of experience we all have but can never really explain, and usually don’t even try: how we move through the day in our own mental spaces, our own jumble of emotions and memories and half-cocked outrages.

Our individual lives can’t be explained to other people in any way that makes sense unless we impose a structure onto it. Someone asks, “What did you do this morning?” I might reply, “Oh, not much, got up, walked the dog, took a shower, responded to some emails.”

But that doesn’t begin to describe the actual richness of activity that happened to me during and in between those events: the petty grievances remembered, the fantasies imagined, the plans considered and discarded.

In the same way, whenever we encounter another person, we impose a structure on their life that can never resemble their actual existence. It can only be thus; we simply can’t know any more of somebody else than what we can see or hear.

There’s the woman exchanging a chipper greeting across a gas pump as you both fuel your car. And there’s the woman that afternoon you see running her car through a busy crosswalk while scrolling on her phone. Are they the same woman?

Even in the most intimate of relationships, even as you grow closer to each other, and continually learn more about each other, you still have no choice but to impose a mental structure on each other’s life, to explain the other to yourself in a way that you can understand. You know that this is the sort of person he is, until one day he does something out of character, but then it’s no longer out of character, because that is the sort of person he is.

The only person we can’t impose this structure upon, the only person who remains completely inexplicable to us even when we ardently try to explain him or her, even though we can hardly think about anything else, is us, ourselves.

It’s why classes about memoir writing talk about themes and organization, not memory. Try writing a memoir that feels to the reader exactly as it felt to live; no matter the actual events described, you’d wind up with something both dull and horrifying.

Which is, to me, exactly what it feels like to read the Bible. It’s as if God is speaking to me, through the experience of these other human beings, in a way that feels to me like actual human experience. At times nonsensical, at times disagreeable, at times beautiful, but never objective, dictated statements of “fact.”

The Bible itself is so disorganized, so self-contradictory and multi-layered, that academic theologians continue to capstone their careers with books titled “Systematic Theology” that attempt to convert Christianity into some sort of coherent way of thought. You won’t find a systematic theology in the Bible unless you weave it together yourself.

As Martin says, “Few bits of the Bible offer fortune-cookie generality, stuff that can be slapped onto human condition … Often the piece of Scripture you find will undermine some previous religious code, show the presence of God in an unexpected place. Following rigid behavioural rules as a way to salvation is undermined within the Scriptures about as often as it is recommended.”

I think that the only way that humans ever “change” is when their experience allows them to change. And when we encounter the Bible, we encounter it as who we are, in our experience, at that time. In that reading, we find our experience reflected back to us.

That’s how I can read the Sodom and Gomorrah story now and find myself amazed at God’s mercy, while relegating the whole “burning the city” thing to a minor plot point, and ignoring the whole “hospitality or homosexuality” debate altogether. Notice that I’m not saying these other parts of the story aren’t worthy of consideration; I’m saying that, as with everything else in my life, I can only experience the Bible, only experience God through the Bible, as I am able to experience it (and him) right now.

Also, please don’t accuse me of saying that the Bible doesn’t show us a way to actual truth (in the fullest sense of that word), because I believe that it does, but it can only show us the truth that we are able to see. We are always the same individual, but not always the same person.

In that way, we are exactly like the human beings who wrote the Bible. They could only see what they were able to see, and that’s what they wrote down. All we can do is read it, and try – try, as we are able right now – to understand.

* To be clear, I think that both of these things are there to be found in their appropriate places.