the voices in my head are in my bible, too

Young woman reading bible

This picture appears sometimes during the slide shows of my pastor’s sermons, along with several others– they’re all of people reading their Bibles, and the scenes they picture are calm, tranquil. Sometimes they’re curled up on their couch with a cup of coffee, sometimes they’re relaxing by a riverbank, just letting the words soak in– but all of the time there’s a gentle, beaming smile on their faces.

Isn’t the Word of God just beautiful? their faces say.

And I want to say yes, yes it is, but I can’t, and I feel the splinter in the back of my mind worm its way just a little bit deeper. Guilt sinks a little bit deeper into my heart, and the refrain read your Bible and pray every day and you’ll grow, grow, grow runs through my head on repeat, and I can still hear the voices of children in the fellowship hall echo against concrete floors and steel chairs.

I wrote a series on Christian fundamentalism, and as I wrote it, I asked to hear from all of you about what your experiences were like. What I heard back from many of you was that yes, the legalism is bad, but we learned so much. If we hadn’t grown up in fundamentalist churches, we wouldn’t be as familiar with God’s word, wouldn’t have countless verses, chapters, and psalms at the tip of our fingers, written on the table of our hearts. Using phrases from the Authorized Scriptures comes as naturally to many of us as breathing– they are scattered in all of our words.

And, initially, I agreed with you. I did receive an “overwhelming amount of information.” I found myself on rhetorical par with seminary students and pastors– I could converse about technical theological issues with the easy nimbleness of familiarity.

But then I had a conversation with a friend about churches and pastors and preaching styles and sermons, and I don’t remember much of it, except that he said that he “loved his pastor because he uses so much Bible when he preaches. He’s constantly referencing the Bible, everywhere.”

I didn’t know how to respond, because I’d heard a good dozen of this pastor’s sermons, and while his sermons were filled to the brim with the casually uttered verses that flowed out of him like water, I would shift in my seat as I listened, because it felt familiar. Like I’d heard it all before.

Slowly, I’ve grown to realize that we were right– horrifyingly, terribly right. We are intimately familiar with the Bible. Our Bibles are losing their covers, the bonded leather is crumbling away, pages are falling out, the gold edging is faded where we’ve thumbed through it countless times. Verses are underlined, circled– the pages are scarred with childish handwriting. For many of us, our histories are in our Bibles. There’s a record there of the sermons we’ve heard, the churches we’ve been in, the ideas we’ve held. Handwriting becomes older, neater, the phrases we jot down become more mature.

The church-cult I was raised in strongly encouraged all of its members to read the Bible through every year. I would always promise that I would, and I didn’t make it all the way through every year– but, out of the 10 years we attended, I read the Bible through at least six times. There have been many times where I’ve read through the Gospels, or the Epistles, in a single sitting, reading them in their entirety instead of parsed-out bits. We memorized Jude, II and III John, and many of the other famous passages together as a church, standing up every Wednesday night to recite them together as a body. Our “pastor” always grounded his sermons firmly in the Bible. I never heard him preach a single sermon that didn’t begin and end in Scripture.

And then we left, and my world shattered, and I haven’t been able to read my Bible since then.

Oh, I’ve studied it, in the sense that there have been biblical concepts that I was curious about. When I finally arrive at a place where I feel comfortable confronting one of my Dragons, I go to the Bible and I do my best to work it out.

I’ve made some fantastic discoveries, some of which I’ve shared with you.

It never fails to utterly astonish me that, even with all of my familiarity, even with all the Sword Drills and the Memorization Contests and AWANA and the constant stream of “the Bible says…” that I really had no idea what it actually says.

And I’ve read it as least half a dozen times.

How did this happen? How did I grow up going to church four times a week, grow up reading my Bible, go to a Bible college, take eight separate Bible courses, and come out on the other side so completely clueless?

And what I’ve been realizing, slowly, is that I never really read the Bible.

The Bible was just another tool, just another opportunity for fundamentalism to become an ingrained part of who I was. On top of the words I read in the Bible was layer upon layer of interpretation, of meaning, of what I was taught was the “correct” way to read it. I read those words with the black and white lens of literalism.

And when I read my Bible, the words that could have revealed a God of love, of justice, of mercy and compassion, were almost utterly obscured by a god of vengeance, wrath, judgment, jealousy, and righteousness. When I read my Bible, fundamentalism lay down on top of it and forced me to read through a glass darkly. The doctrines of fundamentalism cloaked and disguised things it didn’t want me to see– like the fact that Paul calls Junia “outstanding among the apostles.” I must have read those words. They’re right there, smack dab at the end of Romans. But I never saw them, never understood them, never once thought about what they could mean. I never once realized that the last good king, Josiah, went to the prophetess Huldah. Not Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, or Nahum, or Habakkuk. Huldah— a woman. Entire stories were completely erased– obliterated by the battle cry of sound doctrine.

I was taught to “rightly divide the word of truth,” but what I didn’t realize was that they were limiting me. Rightly dividing was, intrinsically, interpret anything you find according to the doctrines you’ve been given. If anything in the Bible seemed to come into tension with those doctrines, it wasn’t the Bible, no, it was just my interpretation of it, and I just needed to go back and rightly divide it this time.

All of this has left me with whispers and voices I can’t ignore when I try to read it. There are whole passages–entire books– that I have to avoid because I can’t read them without hearing another person inside of my head telling me what to think, what to see, what to believe.

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  • Catcat

    This was excellent. It is exactly my experience. Some of the passages I read less in my youth (the minor prophets, for example) I can read now and they do seem refreshing. But there are entire books and passages that I simply cannot read right now. Thanks for putting this into words.

    • I know what you mean. Honestly, the minor prophets are becoming some of my favorite books. Social justice, for the win!

  • So true. I was just thinking about this yesterday. I went to a fundamentalist high school (although not nearly as fundamentalist as your experience) and we had to memorize a verse (or two or three) for Bible class each week. I would never fail to be able to repeat back the passage for the week…but ask me to explain that passage and I’d be clueless. The verses were always separate from whatever we were studying that week. We were being made to memorize random verses with no clue about their meaning or significance. How stupid is that? We knew verses, but didn’t know why.

    Sometimes I’m tempted to think I “learned so much” from them. But lately I’ve discovered that the people I’ve “learned so much” from think that Barack Obama is a gay Muslim socialist that illegally stole two elections, that Sharia law is an imminent threat to America, that Christians are an oppressed minority in this country, and that it is perfectly acceptable to view anyone that doesn’t share these positions with the utmost hate and contempt (they are enemies of “god” after all). Then I realize I “learned” from disturbed and deceived individuals. I “learned” from bigots, and homophobes, and rape apologists. I “learned” from people that hold Ronald Reagan on the same level as Paul. I “learned” from people that thought Jesus gave them the right to carry assault rifles wherever they wanted.

    Then one day I realized “If my only knowledge comes from these clowns, then I don’t know anything.” And ever since I’ve struggled to overcome the preconceived notions about the Bible that have been drilled into me by stupid people.

  • I have had those voices in my head as well, but they are fading as I let in other voices, such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. In my Episcopal church some of us are participating in a “Read the Bible in a Year” challenge – which is a big deal for Episcopalians! It scared me to make that commitment because of the very thing you write about today. I haven’t read the Bible in years, and didn’t want to! But I found a gentle surprise – I’m seeing it and hearing it differently. The Genesis stories – suddenly it is so clear that they were stories told around the campfire, never intended to be a history lesson! What I believe now is that the Bible says a lot of things, and some of it is BS. *We* have to interpret what’s right for us. There is no other way forward.

    Love your blog!

    • Coming to see the Bible primarily as a collection of Story has been liberating for me. It doesn’t make the accounts any less True, but I’m no longer concerned with whether or not they are literally factual.

  • Yes, not when the Bible now has baggage. I guess it’s good that I know where everything is, but they are devoid of so much meaning now

  • Ahhhh, so many people will resonate with this. I’ve been very grateful in retrospect that my religious education was interrupted at a young age when my parents were declared apostates and kicked out of the church. I thus missed out on 15 years or so of Sunday school indoctrination, and when I finally read the Bible in my mid-twenties, it was alive and wonderful. I wish and pray this for you, a healing (gently, in its own time) that can bring the book to life for you, to be the wellspring, rather than weapon or weight, that it can be.

    • I have occasionally been envious of those who could come to the Bible as adults, and view it, at least in some ways, as a clean slate. That seems like such a valuable experience.

  • I always wondered how a fundamentalist friend (who studied the Bible daily and read it cover to cover several times) could be completely surprised and unaware of troubling passages I brought up. Your commentary helps explain what might have been happening with him — he was reading the Bible, but through a fundamentalist lens that obscured certain passages.

  • Koko

    Yes, this. I find that I can study the Bible (use it as a tool, as you put it), but not read my Bible without seeing condemnation or hearing about my failures in the pages.

  • Samantha. The official Christian fundamentalist term is “right doctrine.” And what makes it right? It is right because they say it is. Over many years, I have concluded that the single most troubling passage in the Bible for Christian fundamentalists is:

    “And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”

    Whip this one out the next time you are encircled by fundies, tell them Jesus really meant it, demand that they ponder it, and watch them scatter like rats fleeing a sinking ship.

  • Samantha, I believe you are reading my mind. I am having the same problem reading scripture, but I didn’t have words for it until reading this post. I do have times when I speak to some of my old “fundie” friends (thanks, Dover, that’s a good one :-)) and I refer to something that I have come to believe or no longer believe, and they rush right to some of those passages and exclaim…”but scripture says right here that…” and I have been wanting to say something like, “you believe that because you have been taught to believe that is the way to interpret those passages, not because that is what the scriptures actually means or are intended for.” I like the way you phrase it as “fundamentalist glasses” because its true and wise and spot on. Thanks so much, Samantha. Your insights and reflections and thoughtfulness are why I keep coming back . Keep writing.

    • Thank you! I’m glad this helped in any way. Helping people put words to their experiences is one of my primary goals with this blog. It’s why I keep writing. Being able to point at something and exclaim “yes, THAT!” have been some of the most important moments of my life.

  • Seren

    “And then we left, and my world shattered…”
    Yup, pretty much, this. I rolled from fundie baptist to fundie pentecostal (a drum set for worship, but that was the biggest difference), and yes. How did I skip over the god-ordered genocides of Israel? Why didn’t I ever question why the epistles of paul were the word of god?
    Later, after I’d been in the service for awhile, and little by little, let go of the church, and the ideology, and the accompanying bigotry, I read the Jesus Papers, and read about the council of Nicea…my heart really broke. How come no one had ever mentioned that the most fundamental issue of all had been put to the vote? Or that the same council had picked and chosen books?
    Still haven’t gotten over it. I look over proverbs occasionally, since it’s mostly just solid advice. But that’s about it.

    • I can completely understand this. I struggle– violently struggle, at times– with the dark parts of the Bible. As one of my blogging friends like to say, “reading the Bible can be hazardous to your faith.”

  • Don

    I recently encountered a discussion of notion of absolute morality. Whatever it is that some hold up as absolute, biblical, divinely-established morality turns out to be just another “rightly divided” reading by men who use it to control others.

  • So much of what you encounter applies to others, Catholics for instance. Being a recovering Catholic now for well on 40 years, since my priest told me in confession I must return to the husband who had just beaten me so badly he broke my jaw (it was his right don’t you know). I read the Bible, through a different lens. I also read many other things.

    • Oh, Valentine… I know you don’t need me to say this, but that was evil and wrong. Telling people to stay in abusive marriages is one of the most wretched crimes any spiritual/religious leader can commit– and they do it with impunity.

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  • Manner. C

    My epiphany was a total 180. i went from dutifully choking down scriptures as numbly and quickly as possibly, to literally in one day- realizing- “they” have no authority, “they” do not know the God I have SEEN, and the Bible is NOT and never was what they said it was. I now read as much as I can as often as I can because EVERY single time I get this powerful feeling of ownership and new understanding. It is like every time I pick it up, someone shouting “THEY” were wrong, those who abused you and belittled you and deplored you for not fitting into their mold- “they” were all wrong, and here is MORE proof. It is amazing now.
    I describe my fundie background as Bible idolatry, because they are placing proof-texts in the place of the Holy Spirit, and all those “drills” and “memorization” and sermons based on proof texts are a method to AVOID and PREVENT the Holy Spirit from becoming active in the church.
    For any recovering ex-fundies, I highly recommend the “Dwelling in the Word” exercise (you can get an overview googling it) as a way to relearn the role of scripture and the Holy Spirit in one’s spiritual life. If at all possible, seek a non-hierarchical church or Bible study to experience this in. It is amazing.

    • I am wildly curious about all the different ways there are to read the Bible! I was taught that you had to read the King James with Webster’s 1828 dictionary in one hand and Strong’s Concordance in the other and “sound doctrine” always kept in view.

      Being familiar with Strong’s concordance has been a boon as an adult (I can navigate Hebrew and Greek on a complete lay-person level), but everything else? Bah.

  • Every group has different color of glass that they use to interrupt scripture and life problems. Its just that some groups have darker and cloudier glasses, or they give opaque glasses and tell you what to “see”.

  • I think a large part of the problem is that repetition dulls. Especially when it is done in rote fashion. When reading to get through the Bible, I’ve always struggled, become bored and stopped actually thinking the words, just letting my eyes skim over them.

    Ask me afterwards what the chapter was about and I couldn’t tell you.

    There is so much that is jarring and shocking and exciting in the Bible, but I’ve had to be reawakened to it. It had become so blunted with use that it didn’t resemble the tool that it was originally intended to be.

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  • Reblogged this on Grace and Stuff and commented:
    The writer so clearly describes the life of ex-fundamentalists everywhere. If I didn’t know better I would think it was written about me.

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  • This is so my story, too. I went straight from Christian high school (in a Seattle suburb, so it was impressed upon us we were “the light in the darkness” of our liberal sinful city…) to a one-year intensive Bible school. On a remote island in BC with only 90 other students. We went through the ENTIRE Bible that year, with visiting teachers from carefully selected uber-conservative churches or ministries. We were taught the Dispensationalist view of Scripture was the only correct one. They would (I wish I was making this up) say on cloudy days, completely serious, “Jesus will come back on the clouds! It could be today!” Most of the students were conservative Mennonites from the prairies who had never left towns that were entirely Christian. Every. Single. Thing. We did that year was soaked in Bible. Meals, “free” time, chores, it all had a Biblical reason behind it. It was incredibly gender-segregated. If the girls went near the boy cabins, or vice versa, consequences were serious. We were not only prohibited from dating, but the rulebook (which we were handed upon arrival and read from for our first weekend) said “We discourage pursuing exclusive companionship of the opposite sex.” While I was there I began experiencing severe anxiety and depression. Like, the kind where I couldn’t walk anywhere without someone holding my hand. I was told if I read my Bible more, prayed more, had stronger faith, I would be healed. (Spolier: I wasn’t. I only felt better after I got on Prozac) And after that year, in fact, from the day I came home, I haven’t picked up my Bible since. There’s too much baggage attached to it. It’s been three years and I still can’t believe I actually stayed there. I’m still facebook friends with most of the students and staff, and several only post Bible verses as statuses. I’ve returned to lovely liberal Seattle and have fully embraced it, and even found a church that doesn’t use the Bible as a weapon and has people who love me for me- I am 100% certain that I could still go there if I weren’t a Christian and I’d still be accepted. Sorry this is so long. I needed to tell my story.

  • Pebbs

    I get this creepy sensation, too. When I was first exposed to Catherine Kroeger and Rachel Held Evans I was spinning. “These concepts are very straightforward, easy-to-see interpretations. They fit with the flow of the Bible. Why did I never see these in all the years I was reading the Bible?!” What you’ve been taught ABOUT a text has an unsettling way of sitting on top of that text.