That morning, my cousin was officially conferred as a Doctor of Ministry by Antietam Bible College, Biblical Seminary & Graduate School. That afternoon, as we were all celebrating this impressive achievement and having a good time, I asked Doctor Cooper what the most interesting or surprising thing was that he learned in seminary.
His answer - he was surprised at how much stuff was in the Bible that he had not heard or read before.
Now keep in mind, this is a young man who was raised in the church, read his Bible faithfully, and has probably already sat through more sermons, teachings, and classes than most people three times his age.
And I know exactly what he means.
You see, there's A LOT of stuff that people who hold to a simplistic understanding of faith would not be comfortable dealing with in the Bible - from the basic sex and violence (trust me on this one, there's A LOT of sex and violence) to some truly disturbing questions about morality, reward, punishment, ethics, and the meaning of life.
I joke around with some of my minister friends from time to time, asking them why they don't try preaching a sermon on the incest that led to a whole new group of people (including the great-great-great-[add a few more greats] grandmother of Jesus)? Or how about the righteous woman who tricked her father-in-law into having sex with her by posing as a prostitute? Or the great hero of Israel who shoved a three-foot long sword into the belly of the very fat king who was oppressing the land? Of course, the reality is that all of these stories have significance and meaning, but it would be difficult to convey these deeper truths in a 20 minute sermon.
Frank Schaeffer wrote something in 1990 - I remember reading it at the time thinking there was a note of truth to it. Now that I've read a little more of the Bible, I can say that I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Schaeffer's assessment:
Only by giving the Bible a devotional spin when we read it, by taking isolated verses out of context and ignoring the raw whole, by filtering and interpreting, do we "civilize" it. Civilized, the Bible has become a devotional prop of middle-class values instead of being the rude challenge to false propriety it actually is. The Bible is a dangerous, uncivilized, abrasive, raw, complicated, aggressive, scandalous, and offensive book.
The Bible is the literature of God, and literature, as every book burner knows, is dangerous.
The Bible is the drama of God; it is God's Hamlet, Canterbury Tales, and Wuthering Heights.
The Bible is, among other things, about God, men, women, sex, lies, truth, sin, goodness, fornication, adultery, murder, childbearing, virgins, whores, blasphemy, prayer, wine, food, history, nature, poetry, rape, love, salvation, damnation, temptation, and angels.
Today the Bible is widely venerated but rarely read.
If the Bible were a film, it would be R-rated in some parts, X-rated in others.
The Bible is not middle class. The Bible is not "nice." The Bible's tone is closer to that of the late Lenny Bruce than to that of the hushed piety of some ministers.
In some centuries, the church did not allow the common people to read the Bible. Now by spiritualizing it and taming it through devotional and theological interpretations, the church once again muzzles the book in a "damage control" exercise.
We now study the Bible but through a filter of piety that castrates its virility.
Seriously, there are times when I read the Bible these days and wonder how we ever ended up with some of the cheap, shallow, flimsy stuff that passes as faith today. I would argue that at least 90% of the people who claim they are "Bible-believing Christians" really don't have the foggiest idea what the Bible contains (at best, some might be able to spout off a handful of memorized verses).
So, I encourage you, dive in, really read what this book has to say - wrestle with it - don't treat it like a collection of sayings from a fortune cookie factory or read it like you're trying to imitate someone reading in Victorian England - ask some of the tough questions. Why did God harden Pharaoh's heart? Why did God love Jacob and not Esau? Why are there two prostitutes in the lineage of Jesus? There's hundreds more where those came from - and believe me, if you're willing to dig and not settle for simplistic explanations that don't fit, you will find some real treasures in the answers!
OK, I'm going to get back to reading that dangerous, uncivilized, abrasive, raw, complicated, aggressive, scandalous, and offensive book now.
By the way, here's a link to my cousin's church in Western Maryland -- if you're in the area, stop in and say, "Hi."