I suffer from mild insomnia, and since it takes me so long to even approach something resembling “sleepy,” I usually putter around on my phone– I jot down blog ideas, play CandyCrush, and catch up on my blog reading. About this time last year I was scrolling through blogs in my WordPress app and something I read leaped out at me.
I wish I could remember the name of the blog or enough of the post to find it again so I could share it, but what I noticed had less to do with the topic of the post and more with something that they did. In the last ten years, I’ve gotten used to sort of skimming over Bible passages in books, articles, posts . . . reading the first line is enough for me to recall the entire passage and so I usually just skip it. This time, though, they referenced a passage that I’d read a thousand times before, but what they were applying it to was . . . radically different.
Growing up, going to church, going to Bible college, one of the ideas you hear thrown around quite a bit of evangelical America is how amazing it is for Christians to read the Bible– they can read the same passage over and over again, and every time get something new out of it. It’s one of the things that makes the Bible special, and, of course, they’ll mention the gift of the Holy Spirit as an afterthought. I heard that in my fundamentalist church, as well, but I never really understood it. They talked about it like coming to the Bible each time was something new, fresh, exciting . . . but I had to work at seeing the same passage in different ways.
In fundamentalism, even though they might pay lip-service to that idea of seeing the same verses anew each time you read it, what I experienced was that each passage had a specific interpretation and application– there was a correct way to understand it, to “rightly divide the word of truth.”
We also had a lot — a lot— of passages that were only ever about “The World” or “Carnal Christians.” One of those was Matthew 25:31-46, The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The way it was taught to me, the sheep in this passage were “true Christians” and the goats were carnal people who professed salvation but in actuality were not saved; so, pretty much anyone who wasn’t an Independent Fundamental Baptist. Every time I would read this passage as I was “reading my Bible through in a year,” that was how I interpreted it. There were many people who were professing Christians that Jesus would send to Hell, and those people were probably liberals.
Then I read it again, as a progressive-Pelagianist-errantist, and it about bowled me over:
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we seek you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these . . . you did for me.”
There are some Sheep who don’t know that they’re Sheep.
It took me a little while to wrap my head around it, but it was the passage that was the push I needed to start looking into Inclusivism. I’m still not entirely sure where I’ll fall on the Universalist-Inclusivist-Annihilationist spectrum, but wherever I am I’m far away from the understanding I was taught as a child.
But, every time I read this passage now, I’m a little boggled as to how something so obvious was something I completely missed. I know that cognitive dissonance is a powerful influence on us, but wow. Every time I encounter something that makes me think how in the world have I never noticed this before I’m usually simultaneously overjoyed and frustrated, because I wasn’t reading these passages on my own. I had books and preachers and sermon tapes and radio shows all shouting the same things into my head. I didn’t come up with these interpretations on my own– and they were the only interpretations I was allowed inside fundamentalism. Now that I’m out, it’s like my life has turned into a Jimmy Cliff song.
There’s a lot of passages now that have opened up for me– verses I’d once believed only applied to non-fundamentalist Christians I’ve flipped around to apply to fundamentalist Christians and spiritual abusers. Turns out, the Bible actually has a lot to say about how we treat the oppressed, the abused, and the marginalized, and very little input about being a white, cisgender, heterosexual, male, middle-class, college-educated American.