This series is all about “getting biblical” (more on that phrase later), but before we can jump into the pages of the Bible, we need to talk about an incredibly important part of reading Scripture. The reader. That’s me. That’s you. This applies to everyone.
Who we are and how we approach reading and interpreting the Bible – in other words, how we “show up” – influences the reading and application processes. How we engage the Bible makes a difference in what we find in its pages and how we understand its connection to the questions and concerns of our daily lives.
As an eager undergraduate biblical studies student, I soaked up the rules of biblical interpretation and guidelines for application. I wanted to know the “right” way to extract meaning from the text so that I knew the “right” answers, rules and doctrines. Largely, this was a quest for certainty: the early formation of my faith taught me that God demanded obedience, so I needed to know “God’s will” very clearly in order to comply with it. Having the “right” interpretation and theology was a way of defending against the anxiety of “getting it wrong” and so disappointing or angering God.
During seminary I became focused on understanding the Bible as a grand narrative of God revealing his purpose for the world and his mission to fulfill that purpose. This expanded my vision beyond answers and rules; however, I was still focused on “getting it right.” I wanted to know the “right” story, the “right” vision, the “right” path. If I could determine “God’s path” for my life, then I could ensure I was headed in the “right” direction. I did not want to stray and end up separated from God (in this life or for eternity).
So, for the years I invested in academic biblical studies, my goal was rightness. Right methods lead to right interpretations which leads to right rules and beliefs which leads to right behavior (obedience) which leads to acceptance and affirmation by the faith community and God. That acceptance and affirmation was the foundation of my sense of self and self-worth, and provided assurance that in the end, I’d face Jesus and he’d say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” rather than “Away from me, I never knew you.”
I graduated from seminary 15 years ago. In that time I’ve been on quite the theological and spiritual journey. I have remained passionate about the Bible and the potential for engaging it in ways “useful for… training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Yet, after years of approaching the Bible as I described, I was really struggling. Chasing “rightness” and “obedience” in order to, as Brene Brown says, “hustle for my worthiness,” did not produce good fruit. I learned to see a vision of shalom, of all creation flourishing, in Scripture; yet, I was withering. Still, I avoided reexamining my beliefs about and responses to sexuality. The fear and shame I felt around my sexuality kept me frozen in that quest for certainty, rightness and earning love and belonging. Though the rest of my theology had grown and expanded in some ways, it remained stifled and fundamentally in conflict with my lived reality. Eventually, in order to survive, I had to learn to show up for myself and in my faith differently.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown writes, “If we want to fully experience love and belonging [which are essential to the human experience], we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.” Living from that place of worthiness frees us to show up in the world formed by love and belonging and to extend that love and belonging to others. She calls this wholeheartedness. Her book explores how “owning our story” is connected to becoming wholehearted. “When we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness – the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging. When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving. Our sense of worthiness – that crucially important piece that gives us access to love and belonging – lives inside our story.”
Whether we are “owning our story” or “hustling for our worthiness” shapes how we engage the Bible.
Before we open the Bible and turn to any particular book or passage, we show up as human beings with a story. How we understand and live in relation to that story influences our engagement with Scripture. What we see or don’t see when we read. The questions and expectations we bring to the text. How we respond to each other in our similarities and differences. Our capacity for experiencing love and loving others.
As we “get biblical” throughout this series, I will explore this idea more. I’ll also share more about how owning my story has shaped my theological development. I hope that as I trace my journey, it will inspire you to reflect more on your own. My faith compels me to grow in wholeheartedness as core to the greatest wisdom of the biblical tradition:
Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40).