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Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels
Edited by Jennifer Grant
Edited by Cathleen Falsani
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Disquiet Time was written by and for Bible-loving Christians, agnostics, skeptics, none-of-the-aboves, and people who aren’t afraid to dig deep spiritually, ask hard questions, and have some fun along the way.
Table of Contents
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Fitting Our Stories into God's
Many years ago I wrote a phrase that keeps coming back to me from various sources: "Stories are verbal acts of hospitality."
This gathering of stories, Disquiet Time, is fresh confirmation of that notion. The stories all have two things in common. They all take the Bible seriously, and, like Jacob at the river Jabbok, they take it seriously enough to wrestle with its meaning in the context of their own lives. More often than not, also like Jacob, they leave the river alive and safe but "limping."
An enormous authority and dignity have, through the centuries, developed around the books of the Bible. Through those centuries they account for a truly astonishing amount of reading and writing, study and prayer, teaching and preaching. God is the primary concern of what is written in the Bible. That accounts for the authority and dignity.
But it is not only God; we get included, too. That accounts for the widespread and intense human interest. We want to know what's going on. We want to know how we fit into things. We don't want to miss out. But this also accounts for the difficulties that most of us have with the Bible from time to time.
Sometimes the difficulties are introduced by our parents—they have found a rule or command or practice that, taken out of context, they feel obligated to impose on other members of the family. Sometimes the difficulties come from well-meaning friends who have adopted an interpretation of one or two texts that they are convinced we need to follow if we want to escape the wrath of God. And sometimes it is a pastor or TV preacher who, as a self-appointed policeman for God, arrogantly bullies us.
But the voices in this book—the ones that interact with biblical texts in their "disquiet times"—seem to be quite free of polemical rhetoric. The voices are conspicuous for not requiring an enemy in order to establish their identity as persons of faith as they read and meditate on the Scriptures.
The Holy Scriptures are made up mostly of stories and signposts. The stories show us God working with and speaking to men and women in a rich variety of circumstances. God is presented to us not in ideas and arguments and abstract "principles" but rather in events and actions that involve each of us personally. The signposts provide immediate and practical directions for behavior that is appropriate to our humanity and the honoring of God but are never isolated in themselves, outside the larger context of the story.
Primarily the Bible comes to us in the form of story—narrative that draws us into a story-shaped life. Not infrequently, though, our lives feel less like a story than like a pile of disconnected fragments that have no relation to one another, a bone pile that leaves no clue as to whether the knee bone is connected to the neck bone or to the finger bone. In our culture, a lot of people spend a lot of time and money on psychologists, psychiatrists, and other experts to put the "bones" together and help give them some sense of identity.
There is also this to be said about story: if you are going to get it right, you need the entire story. You open a book at random, say, at page 257, happen on a beautiful sentence (or an ominous one), copy it out, and then spend the next half hour being either superficially happy or neurotically scared to death. You need the whole Bible in order to understand and interpret rightly every single sentence or paragraph in it.
The men and women who wrote these Disquiet Time stories have done it from many different personal contexts but always in the context of the larger biblical story. I sense that they are not trying to fit God into their stories but rather fit their stories into the comprehensive God story of creation, salvation, and community.
I was reading a novel recently and in the middle of a page began to get angry with the author. The main character was a thoroughly unlovely person, although nearly everyone around her thought she was charming. She was interfering in other people's lives in the most intolerable and insensitive ways, making a thorough mess of emotions and relationships.
"She can't do that!" I found myself saying to the author (although she has been dead for two hundred years). "You can't let her get by with that!"
And then I noticed that I was only on page 103, with 115 pages left to read. I recalled that in other novels by this author things always get sorted out in the end, leaving me with a feeling of completion.
I was tempted to turn to the last chapter and get to the end of the story. I resisted, however, remembering that much of the satisfaction of the conclusion comes from giving my imagination over to the contradictions and ambiguities of the plot. I was not absolutely sure that the novel was going to turn out satisfactorily, but since I had read four other books by this writer and in each one she had managed to put it all together for me, I had fairly good expectations. Right then, though, I was thoroughly fed up with Jane Austen's Emma.
Just as I get thoroughly fed up at times with God's Eugene.
I find myself involved in this comprehensive story of salvation. Sometimes I don't like the position I have in the plot, don't like what I do and say, don't like what other people do and say to me, don't like the way things are going at all, and get angry with the author: "If you are writing a story of salvation, surely you can make it go more satisfactorily than this!"
And then it occurs to me (not for the first time) that my life is a narrative with connections all over the place, not an obscure item on the inside page of last week's newspaper. And the story is obviously not yet finished. When you are in a story you never know how near you are to the end. There may be a surprise ending on the next page, or it may go on for a thousand pages. But for as long as I am conscious of there being a story at all, it is not finished.
It also occurs to me (and how often I forget this) that I am not the only character in the story. Everybody I know and don't know is in it (the Scriptures in their entirety don't let me forget this). I calm down and see that the contradictions, the inconsistencies, the impossibilities, the unresolved tensions, the lack of balance between reward and punishment, disappointment and blessing—all these are in the process of being given a kingdom-of-God shape, which, I have good reason for believing, includes my own and the world's salvation in it.
A good friend calls this honest wrangling with our faith and God "good work." I agree. I hope as you read these Disquiet Time stories you will find permission to be honest, move past pat answers, and freely engage with Scripture, maybe for the first time.
Eugene H. Peterson
Translator of The Message
Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology
Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia
Montana, September 2013
Greetings from the Land of Misfit Toys
An ethicist who can't make the right choices.
A yogi who's tempted to pray the Jesus prayer over her children.
A poet at the helm of a global corporation.
A buttoned-up suburban parent with a penchant for Eminem.
A Hollywood producer who dons a superhero costume and proclaims, "Sola Scriptura!"
A female professor at one of the nation's most religiously conservative schools who has a passion for tattoos and scatological literature.
These are but a few of the souls you will hear from in the pages that follow.
The voices collected in this book are those of nonconformists and oddballs—not-too-distant cousins, perhaps, to the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys from the classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Not unlike the tiny cowboy who rides an ostrich instead of a horse, the toy train with square wheels on its caboose, and Hermey the Elf—who would rather pursue a career in dentistry than make toys in Santa's workshop—most of us are well acquainted with the itchy, out-of-place feelings wrought by the spiritual subcultures in which we sometimes find ourselves.
Some of us self-identify as orthodox (with a small o) Christians, while others feel a flush of pride when called liberal, mainstream, or conservative. Some of us used to identify as Christians or Jews, but now answer "none of the above" (or "all of the above," as the case may be) when asked to choose a religious label. Whatever our spiritual predilections, each of us seeks an end to the divisiveness and name-calling that too often surround discussions of the Bible.
As diverse as our voices are, they harmonize; and we hear echoes of our own stories in those of the "other." We learn something new when we hear how a particular biblical passage sustains some people, while other folks continually stumble over (or are repulsed by) the same passage.
We see God's spirit shining through each other's eyes as we grant ourselves permission and a safe space to, as Edgar says in King Lear, "speak what we feel, not what we ought to say"—even (and especially) when it's messy.
All the contributors to this book are personally connected to one or both of us. You'll meet our pastors, professors, mentors, chosen families, and some of our dearest friends, as well as thinkers and artists who have long inspired us.
While we like to say that Disquiet Time is "not your mama's Our Daily Bread," we do hope it nourishes, sustains, and even invigorates you as you encounter the full array of these diverse writers' authentic experiences with holy writ.
Please consider this book an invitation to join a conversation that has been going on for millennia—one that asks only for you to listen and respond with an open heart. We pray that, through reading it, you will grant yourself permission to express your own faith and doubts about the Good Book, honestly and without caveat.
Remember: even if you end up feeling like a cowboy riding an ostrich into the sunset, you are not alone in this. And when it comes to the greatest concerns, biggest questions, and gravest doubts about the Bible, you have the right and freedom to voice them.
God can take it.
With grace in our hearts (and sometimes flowers in our hair),
Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani
Just as I Am
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
—Psalms 139:1–6, 13–16 ESV
I don't think you're an idiot at all. I mean, there are elements of the ridiculous about you. Your mother's pretty interesting. And you really are an appallingly bad public speaker. And, um, you tend to let whatever's in your head come out of your mouth without much consideration of the consequences… But the thing is, um, what I'm trying to say, very inarticulately, is that, um, in fact, perhaps despite appearances, I like you, very much. Just as you are.
—Mark Darcy (to Bridget Jones) in Bridget Jones's Diary
In the decade I spent as a teenager attending Sunday services (morning and evening) at the Southern Baptist church in which I largely was reared spiritually, I must have witnessed (and occasionally participated in) hundreds of altar calls.
Invariably, while we waited for the Holy Spirit to move us at each of these altar calls, we, the congregation, sang all six verses of Charlotte Elliott and William B. Bradbury's hymn, "Just as I Am." In fact, I believe I've sung the words to that hymn more often than any other song in my lifetime. Even more often than "The Star-Spangled Banner," the Eagles' "Desperado," and Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back"—combined.
The second verse, then as now, sometimes puts a lump in my throat:
Just as I am—and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot—
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
The idea that God knows me—all of me—and loves me anyway moves me deeply and in ways for which I have no words.
I did not grow up with a God who was ready to smite me the moment I toed the first blades of grass on the slippery slope of sin. Rather, the God the Southern Baptists introduced me to was a God of grace, mercy, and unconditional love.
My understanding of salvation—what we called the born-again experience, back in the 1980s—was that it was a "one-and-you're-done" transaction. All I needed to do was open the door of my heart to Jesus and let him in, and I would be forgiven for all sins past, present, and future. My salvation would be assured.
I was about ten years old when I opened the door to Jesus. In he came with his forgiveness and grace, and he set up shop in my heart's kitchen, making peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches served with Ovaltine and slices of Gala apples on the side. Last time I checked, he was still there doing his thing, and in return I've adopted an orthopraxis that can be summed up nicely in a slogan I probably stole from Anne Lamott: striving daily not to horrify Jesus.
I am not perfect.
Far from it.
I am neither pious nor disciplined, neither patient nor particularly long-suffering. I try to start good habits but usually give them up before the requisite twenty-eight days. I've never kept a journal for more than a fortnight or successfully awakened early in the morning to have my "quiet time" with the Lord. I've never read the Bible all the way through (even though I hold a degree from a Christian seminary of some repute), and I've never kept a fast or discipline for all forty days of Lent.
I have a temper. I swear like an Irish lumberjack. I shout at other drivers. I sometimes drink vodka gimlets and make promises I don't remember the next day. I probably show more cleavage than I should. I've never followed a diet I didn't cheat on. And I'm pretty sure I once got out of a Columbia House music subscription contract by telling the collector that I had died.
I do things I know are wrong; I say things I know I shouldn't say. My ethics are shaky, my morals are worse, and I am, most assuredly, not a very good Christian.
I'm telling you this because God already knows. God knew about the gimlet thing before I was even a flirtatious wink in my father's eye. And God knows about the ridiculous thing I'll say next week, and the lie I'll tell when I'm eighty, and the reason why the sound of Uilleann bagpipes makes me cry, and why I can't wheel a shopping cart back to its parking lot corral without hearing my uncle Dodi's voice say, "You and your brother are good citizens."
God knows me. All of me. Every inch. Every hair. Every thought. Every zit. Every fart. Every step. Every breath. Every hope, fear, sorrow, joy. Every everything.
King David knew this, and that brother was a major fuckup. He did some horrible shit, and he suffered the harsh consequences, but they didn't include God throwing up God's hands and stomping away in a huff. God was there when David made epic mistakes, God was there for the ensuing heartbreak, and God was there when David got back on his feet, righted his course, and walked on.
And God loved David the whole time.
So I tend to believe David when he writes in Psalm 139:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
[I]n your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them. (v. 1–3, 16 ESV)
There is a freedom in being known. God sees me. The real me. All of me. All the time. Just as I am.
And even with all that data to go on, even though God sees everything, God loves me. Just as I am. God is Mark Darcy to my Bridget Jones. God loves me—even when I show Daniel Cleaver my enormous granny panties. God fights for me. God pursues me. God never gives up on me. God never stops loving me.
I bring all that I-am-ness with me when I read the Bible, which, frankly, I do more now than I ever have in the past. Perhaps that's because I stopped trying to read it "right." I used to believe that I wasn't educated enough to engage well with Scripture. I wouldn't get it. I'd misunderstand. I'd do it wrong.
Nowadays, here on the other side of forty, I don't care as much about right or wrong. I lean more into authenticity and figure there's nothing I can misunderstand or dislike in the Bible that someone before me—eons before me—hasn't thought, felt, and expressed already.
A few years ago, while I was visiting with Elie Wiesel at his home in New York City, we talked about how he studies the Bible daily. For hours at a time. It's something he's done for most of his life to hold both himself and God accountable. In the Jewish tradition, he told me, people have the right—some might go so far as to say it's an obligation—to take the tough questions directly to God. God can handle it. Hebrew Scripture recounts how Jeremiah shook his fists at God and angrily accused the Almighty of taking advantage of him. And dude was a prophet.
Maybe that's why in those rare moments when I've been pissed off at God, I've also felt, strangely, closest to God. There's an intimacy in anger expressed. You shout, you tell the truth, you say how you feel, and you work it out.
God wants to be in a relationship with us, and in order to do that, we have to keep talking. The Bible is one of the ways the dialogue continues. And unlike dining etiquette, polite conversation with God puts no topic off-limits. Go ahead and put your elbows on the table. Use the wrong fork. It's okay. (Whom are you trying to impress?)
God knows us. All of us. God knows everything about every single one of us.
Still, God loves us. Madly. Just as we are.
And there's nothing we ever could do to make God love us less—or more.
Of Feet and Angelic Netherbits
When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down. At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman!
—Ruth 3:7–8 NRSV
I'm a latecomer to Christianity, and I missed that all-important, formative time in church that most people experience: adolescence. I never had the chance to sit in the pews making stupid jokes about the preacher, the hymns, that god-awful soprano soloist, or the Scriptures themselves. And I missed out on the opportunity to find sexual innuendo in everything I heard at church, all the time.
Don't try to pretend you aren't familiar with the sniggering humor to which I am referring. If you are honest with yourself, you know that you, too, have an inner voice that makes a dirty joke out of everything. Now that middle age is upon me, I have decided to make it my spiritual discipline to give voice to my inner eighth grader. I am claiming it loud and proud.
So let's talk about feet.
Snort! He said "feet"!
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory. (Isaiah 6:1–3 NRSV)
Angels cover their feet? What's that all about?
The first time I noticed this quizzical turn of phrase was in Isaiah 6. I was in college, taking a class in Old Testament literature, and this passage came up. The professor read the verses and looked up at the class. He waited.
Eventually one intrepid student asked, "Um, Professor, why are they covering their feet?"
"An excellent question. What do you think?" dear Dr. So-and-So replied.
We postulated a great many things that day about purity, including angels' inability to touch the ground with their feet and other foolishness. We were digging deep into our mythological memories and our collective cosmological imagination.
But the professor kept saying, "No. That's not it. Next?"
Eventually we gave up.
Finally the professor spoke: " 'Feet' is a euphemism for genitalia."
No one said a word for what seemed like an eternity until someone giggled.
"He said 'feet.' " And it was all over. We laughed and laughed and then started quoting other Scripture verses that featured feet while the patient professor of Hebrew literature let us get it all out of our systems.
Clearly he had witnessed this particular brand of disillusionment before.
I always had assumed that angels were genderless. (Frankly I don't know why I ever gave it any thought at all.) Celestial beings don't need to procreate, right? I had presumed the heavenly hosts' private bits were a lot like my giant-size Luke Skywalker action figure. (Admit it: you went there when you read "giant-size," didn't you?)
I was a young kid when a large plastic Luke turned up under the Christmas tree. My action figures often needed to join me at bath time. That's right, folks. Luke and me in the bathtub with Chewy and a small phalanx of regular-size Jawas. It was a wild time in the old town, I tell you what. If memory serves, although I never mentioned anything about it to my parents, I found it curious that Luke—even the supersize Luke—was not… well… anatomically correct. Not that I wanted him to be, per se, but if you are going to spend that kind of money on plastic… Still, that wasn't the point of the action figure. Luke was a hero. He had his light saber (I was too young to make the Freudian connection there), and he was ready to take on Darth Vader!
Somewhere along the line, I decided that angels were a lot like Luke Skywalker, at least where their netherbits were concerned. They had other work to do. God didn't need to give them those bits. Nope. They were fully equipped to deal with the poor prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures with their swords and wings and tongs with coals. Who needs genitalia when you are a six-winged seraph wielding the holy rapier of justice?
Alas, I was wrong.
Did you know that angels have sex? (And I don't just mean that they have a gender.) I'm talking about knocking boots—or wings, at least. Yessiree. It's right there in the Bible.
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the LORD said, "My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years." The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. (Genesis 6:1–4 NRSV)
In this passage the "sons of God" are angels. And their progeny, the Nephilim, are the offspring of angelic intercourse with mortal women. Now, let's move past the fact that these must have been some powerfully good-looking women to draw God's own angels out of heaven and consider the fact that the angels actually have sexual intercourse with these women to boot (pun intended). Angels can procreate with their, um, "feet." And their kids are like the demigods, giants, and heroes of Greek mythology.
Those are some potent feet.
As I began to look a little deeper into these two stories from the Bible, it got me to wondering why this particular euphemism—
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