“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
–James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
this is one of those times that i’m posting when a number of posts and themes have been rumbling, boiling, roiling, and bumbling around in my head, and i’m trying to see if i can distill them all into something cohesive, together.
recently, i finished reading the bible for the third time. the first two times were in high school, one right after the other. what the three reads have in common is that they were relatively textually easy editions that i read at night, before bed. this reading was the message: remix, meant to be read in small chunks, over either 1, 2, or 4 years. i took a little over 3 years, reading at a variety of paces throughout that time, sometimes missing a few days to a week at a time. i found myself baffled and concerned by the frequent old testament battles and the bloody imagery throughout. i felt disconnected from the frame of mind of early jews, trying to translate my own experience into this entirely different worldview. the bible resonates the most with me when treated as metaphor, but there were so many stories and events, and long narratives, that i couldn’t find the use in, and that seemed to run counter to my own ideas of morality and god.
one piece of that that’s interesting is that in my quaker journey, i’ve found a lot of resonance in contemporary jewish writers, sometimes more so than in contemporary christian writers. it’s actually through jewish writers that i learned to feel more comfortable looking at religious stories metaphorically. and a reality about myself is that whenever i’m in new york, i get self-consciously giddy by all of the jewishness. i am worried about my tendency to romanticization and exotification as i press my nose to the bus window going through hasidic neighborhoods, but my justification is that i am fascinated by that ability to live one’s faith out loud like that, jealous as a white kid who believes he has no culture.
shortly after finishing the bible, i was part of a conversation where someone was talking about his atheistic respect for this person who had actually read the bible and lived by it, despite how ugly it was. this person and the person he was referring to were thinking about the bible of the eternally angry god. i was saddened by this, but unable to counter it, both because of my natural timidity in conflict, the power dynamics involved, the level of alcohol consumed, and my awareness of the confusing ugliness i’d found in the bible.
one thing he said was that many christians don’t acknowledge how hard it is to actually live by the bible. and even as i create the bible in my own image, unsure how to grapple with the pieces that make me deeply uncomfortable, i still find it difficult to live by the pieces that i absolutely believe in. god is love. there is no fear in love. love your neighbor as yourself. who is my neighbor? the good samaritan. these things can be distilled into fluff, i guess, but at their core, they are terribly terribly hard. if we all succeeded in living by them, i believe the world would be a much better place, but they seem to be ignored by the people flocking to chik-fil-a, boycotting funerals, and engaging in warfare. these people have their own piece of the bible, too. how do i justify my piece of it, in the face of the other side of things? is it fair to take the bible piece by piece?
i will probably continue to live my piece of the bible as much as possible. my view is something like that comic strip that says something, “what if it’s all a hoax? what if we fix up the ozone layer, replant trees, and make the world better, for no reason?” that is the world that i want.