My grandmother had a large, beautifully illustrated Bible sitting on a table in the center of the living room in her modest four-room mill-village house. I loved it. It was big and too heavy to lift. As a child, I was at once enchanted and disturbed by the captivating artwork depicting tales of a man-eating whale, people drowning in a flood, and a gentle man named Jesus who was crucified by religious authorities for trying to change the world with love, inclusion and tolerance, not divisive rhetoric or violence.
My grandmother was a sweet, Godly woman who loved her church, her children and her grandchildren. Whenever I stayed overnight, I would watch wrestling with her on a 19-inch, black-and-white TV with rabbit ear antennas and three channels. I was always adjusting the antennas to get a picture we could see. This was her escape. I never really got to know my grandfather. He kept to himself most of the time. He didn’t seem to care about church or the Bible like my grandmother did. My memory of him is the glowing end of a cigarette moving up and down in the dark bedroom as he listened to an Atlanta Braves baseball game on the radio. This was his escape.
Even as a child, I was always honest and outspoken to a fault about my thoughts, and I questioned everything. This drove the Bible teacher who visited our elementary school on a monthly basis crazy. We called her Miss Sales. She wore caked-on makeup, bright red lipstick, a heavily hair-sprayed beehive hairdo, and she was a chain smoker. Her voice was gravelly, she had a thick Southern accent and her grammar was poor. She never seemed happy, which didn’t speak well of the book she was teaching.
On a day I will never forget, she asked everyone in our class to raise their hand if they were a Christian. I was the only kid that did not raise their hand. Frankly, I was the only honest kid, because none of my classmates really knew what that meant. This didn’t go over well with Miss Sales. She scolded me and sent me to the principal’s office. I think she thought I was being disrespectful, when all I was doing was being honest about not understanding what that really meant. Not a good day for little doubting Beverly.
Years later I learned that Miss Sales had taken her life with an overdose of pills and alcohol. Lonely and lost, the words in the Book she taught did not save her. I never hated her for that moment of rebuke and embarrassment in front of my classmates. I don’t know why, but I had always felt sorry for her. Even though I didn’t know her, I shed tears at the sad news of a lonely person in too much pain to keep going in an unkind world.
Even with all the times the Bible seemingly fails to keep its promises, I still love it. When it isn’t being misinterpreted or distorted, its wisdom and timeless message of unconditional love are there for the taking. While recovering from an illness, I had time to take a deep dive into the book I loved most. I collected over 50 different translations, and I read the theological works of all the great theologians.
I had to know the Bible’s origins, understand the meaning of the original languages in which it was written, and know who its authors were. I learned that its authors are attributed by “tradition,” not historical evidence. I didn’t trust the theologically biased interpretations of inside-the-box scholars, so I referenced the Greek and Hebrew, dissecting words and phrases to draw out its true meaning. Doubting Beverly had to know for herself. Being spoon fed anything is anathema to me. Sunday school and 30-minute sermons wouldn’t do.
This seems harsh, I know, but I began to see that the Bible had been hijacked by impostors. At first this was painful, and I grieved deeply over the loss of innocence and the responsibility of bearing the truth. The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 2, not included in the canonical Bible, rang in my head. Jesus said: He who seeks, let him not cease seeking until he finds; and when he finds he will be troubled, and when he is troubled he will be amazed….
Studying early Christian origins I learned of other Gospels omitted from the Bible, such as the Gospel of Thomas, which were discovered hidden in a cave in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. I studied the hermeneutics and biographies of second and third-century Christian theologians.
Through the illuminating lens of early mystical Christian theologians, hard to understand passages of Paul’s letters and puzzling inconsistencies in Jesus’ sayings became clear. To follow him, Jesus said, I had to hate my mother and father. I understood what he meant. Going beyond the fundamentalist and literal interpretation of the Bible and listening to what my heart was telling me, the Bible became a completely different book. The living Gospel message came alive, and it was exciting!
The beautiful Bible that sat on my grandmother’s table in her living room is not to blame for closed-minded fundamentalism and the self-righteous who scream from the pulpit “it’s heaven-or-hell for you!” It’s the people who think they know what it says, interpreting it literally or contriving meaning to support their religious and political agendas who create a climate of fear and distrust.
The love, light and truth of Christ are not confined to a book. It’s already within us. God put it there. It’s the divine spark waiting to catch fire, the seed waiting to grow, the life waiting to live. God’s word is written, not in a book, but in our hearts.
This is the promise that I make, says the Lord: I will put my teachings in their hearts and write them in their minds. Hebrews 10: 16.