I grew up in a mid-sized town in central Missouri. I suppose I felt about my hometown as most children do. It’s playgrounds and schools and corner stores were the geography of my world. My notions of wealth were drawn from looking at the houses around the country club. My ideas of poverty came from delivering papers in our “projects”. Our local celebrities – politicians, prominent business owners, the wealthy wives who starred in community theater productions – they were outsized figures in my mind. Sure, we went to the city once in a while to go to the mall or an amusement park. I enjoyed those attractions, but the city itself was frightening to me. Crowded, dirty, vaguely menacing. I loved my town and I couldn’t imagine any place being better. It was home.
By the time I graduated from high school my hometown seemed cliquish and provincial. On a youth group ski trip I befriended a boy who listened to Depeche Mode, the B-52s and R.E.M. He even had a pierced ear! Why wasn’t anyone from my hometown that cool? I took up the timeless cry of teenagers everywhere: “After I graduate, I’m getting out of here and not coming back!”
A few months ago I started something I called an Open Bible Study. Open to everyone, open to a wide variety of perspectives – that’s how I explained it. I wanted a space in which Christians of all kinds could sit together with those who aren’t Christians and talk about the Bible in an atmosphere of mutual respect. I believed such a thing was possible, even if I’d never experienced it. I was hungry to see if it could work.
After the first few tries, I still think it’s possible and I intend to keep trying. But it’s not easy. Most of the people who attend are Christians – yes, of all kinds. We’ve got conservatives and progressives rubbing elbows and maybe rubbing nerves. Only one brave, outgoing, non-Christian friend has joined us, but he’s been there every time. And he’s the one who has shown me my own naivete. “Are you trying to promote your view of the Bible, or is this really open?” he keeps asking, in one way or another. “No, I’m not trying to promote anything, I just want to talk about the text,” I’ve replied. “If you don’t believe any of it, just talk about it like a work of fiction.”
“I’m not trying to promote my view of the Bible.” I said and said and said those words, and meant them. But I was wrong.
I grew up immersed in the scriptures. The history of Israel seemed like my own history. David and Joshua, Ruth and Esther, Andrew and Mary – the biblical characters were my ancestors. And as for the Jesus of the gospels, he was my dearest friend. My head was filled not just with the stories but with verses memorized for children’s Bible quizzing. The geography of my imagination was created by the Bible. I loved it. It was home.
As an adult my relationship with the Bible became more complicated. I no longer took every story at face value. A man surviving three days in the belly of a fish? A global flood? A 6,000 year old earth? I had some serious questions about whether those stories were historically factual. Worse, I was tangling with the moral world of the scriptures; finding what Phyllis Trible called “texts of terror.” How could a loving God command genocide? Why were the innocent so often punished along with the guilty? Slavery, silencing women, capital punishment for homosexuals – are these God’s values?
Few people know how hard I tried to leave the world of the Bible behind. I tried being an agnostic for a few years. It didn’t take. I dabbled in Wicca briefly, finding its feminine spirituality attractive. But I missed Jesus. I could leave the Bible for a time, but the Bible never left me.
I never moved back to my hometown, but I did begin to visit with more and more appreciation. Memories softened. I recalled all the characters I had loved: the friends, teachers, neighbors and church folk who had poured their lives into mine. The old downtown that had seemed so stolid in my youth revealed itself as rich in history. I could still see the imperfections, but I was no longer ashamed of them. I loved my hometown again.
I did return to living in the Bible, to claiming it as my spiritual home. Maybe it was too embedded in me for emigration to ever really be possible. What I know is that it was the person of Jesus who held me fast when I wanted to flee from the awful stories, from dark and confusing passages. I’ve only found it possible to stay by having Him accompany through those neighborhoods. But it’s not all grim endurance these days: my love for the Bible has returned even in the wrestling. Its poetry washes over me. It’s moral complexity challenges and fascinates me. I am moved by how often the storytellers speak on behalf of the marginalized. It’s not just kings and patriarchs who matter in this world. The Bible lets us feel for slaves and exiles and concubines; for Hagar and Leah and Esau.
And so…no, I can’t be objective about my spiritual country. When I speak about the Bible, I want to communicate my love for it. These days when I visit my hometown I want to show it off to people who haven’t been there before – to show them my favorite buildings, share my favorite stories. We can’t be dry and dispassionate about the places and people and memories that are buried in our hearts – not even if we’ve left them behind, as I have my hometown.
And as for the Bible, it’s still home. I’m glad that my friend’s probing question forced me to recognize the truth of the matter. I don’t want to turn the Bible into a bludgeon. I don’t want to shun or berate those who live elsewhere, spiritually speaking. But I suppose I’ll always, only, be able to speak about the Bible with the voice of a lover and a native.