How to Read the Bible: A Non-Cringy Guide

The Bible is not an easy read. In fact, it’s downright daunting when you think about it. I say that as both a Christian and a reader.

Where do you start? And does it matter what the Catholic church teaches about it?

The Christian Bible is a collection of books (history books and letters and apocalyptic literature and poetry and prophecy and creation stories and parables and proverbs), and when you consider that the church was its first editor and compiler, I do think it helps to know what they have to say about it. The Reformers had something to say about it too, but that’s a story for another day.

There are a few questions I’ve been asking myself lately, as I consider how to write about the Bible on this blog. I feel equipped to answer them not because I am a Biblical scholar or theologian, but because I have had a lot of time to experience and interact with the Bible over the course of my life. I’m familiar with Catholic and Protestant theology and have spent time with both types of churches. The answers I’ve come up with are not meant to be definitive, but thought provoking.

Shouldn’t I be able to pick up the Bible and start reading it anywhere I want, in any way that I want, without any specific interpretation or guidance? Sure. Just like I could pick up any ancient text and get something of value. But I would also add that an interpretive guide would be an advantage rather than a detriment.

Should I ignore guidance on Biblical interpretation from the church if I’m an atheist or I’m distrustful of religious institutions? I would say no, because understanding what the church teaches about the Bible does not mean you have to agree with it (either in whole or in part). Your opinion of that teaching does not negate the value of learning it.

What about Jesus? How do my thoughts and opinions about Jesus fit into a Bible reading plan? No matter what your personal beliefs are about Jesus, an understanding of how the church sees him is fundamental to understanding much of the symbolism and thematic content of the Bible. According to the church, it is the key to unlocking many otherwise obscure and problematic passages.

What about politics and all that socially conservative cringe I keep hearing about? If any of that’s in the Bible, then why should I bother reading it? Bias affects everything we read. We search for, and most often find, evidence to confirm what we already believe.

The belief that it is inherently good to accumulate and protect one’s personal wealth at all costs with no consideration for the common good, that women must be submissive and restricted in their roles within the church and society, and that issues such as sexual preference are of the utmost moral importance, will lead people to find passages to support those agendas. They may be taken out of context (ie. misinterpreted), but they will find a few. And that will be sufficient for them to construct a theological interpretation that is based on them.

It’s not a coincedence that these types of biased interpretations also support and maintain existing power structures and benefit the most privileged among us. That does not make them the correct interpretation or application of the Biblical texts. If anything, it makes them suspect.

Like every other text, the Bible speaks for itself. It speaks about matters of the human heart and social justice. And if you contend that Jesus is the key to understanding it, as the church teaches, what he told his followers makes for the best guide of all, if you wish to get the most out of reading the Bible.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:36-40 NIV (my emphasis)

The motive for reading the Bible should ideally include a desire to know God better so that we may love him (and learn of his love for us) and a desire to learn how we may better love our fellow humans.

Jesus leaves very little room here for self-serving, biased interpretations of the “law and the prophets”, if we’re being honest with ourselves. No one is perfect. And I’m not attacking social conservatives out of a desire to insult them. They deserve love and forgiveness, as we all do. However, the spirit of the Biblical text more often than not is in strong opposition to oppression in all its forms, and exhorts us to actively choose the side of the marginalized. It advocates for social justice over preservation of the status quo.

It’s also important to read Jesus’ words in context: He was being tested by none other than the infamous Pharisees. We have our own version of the Pharisees today. Why would we allow their interpretations of the Bible to taint our engagement with this fascinating and valuable text?

Can Old School Blogging Save My Writer’s Soul?

One of my all-time favorite songs is Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles. Ironically, video also killed the blog, as did every other social media platform.

I began my very first blog before social media as we know it today existed, and this is my fourth personal blog. There was a time when I used to post every day. Now I struggle to post once a month.

It seems like I’ve been forever trying to figure out how to write more. Of course I want to write better. But doesn’t writing more mean writing better? So why haven’t I been writing as much as I’d like to? The truth is I lost the feeling of joy at the thought of publishing a post to my blog a long time ago–circa 2009 to be precise.

Do you remember when blogs were interesting? Before branding and niches? When bloggers weren’t quite so…impersonal? So voiceless and polished? When posts weren’t SEO-driven, marketable (God I hate that word), and utilitarian? In those days, the blog was a humble and eclectic and sometimes messy but delightfully authentic treat to read. And to write.

Today’s blog is superficial. Unoriginal. The internet has been flooded with money-making blogs for the past decade. Blogs that are so full of ads and promotions, pop-ups and marketing (there’s that word again), that you can hardly find the content you were searching for.

The blog’s transformation from its organic, wholesome, democratic roots to a vapid capitalist enterprise was swift and tragic. It’s been quite the revelation to me that my writer’s soul has been one of its casualties. I had become plagued with perfectionism, preoccupied with keeping up with trends, and afraid of putting anything in writing that might not measure up to the standards of the marketplace.

It wasn’t that I no longer wanted to write, it was that I no longer wanted to write like that.

I don’t care how many words the experts say the ideal blog post should have. Or whether I have found the perfect Google-searched click-bait title. The one rule I am keeping is: the advantage of consistency for the content creator. No one wants to read a blog that posts inconsistently. I know I don’t.

My primary writing goal in 2021 is going to be to show up and write here as often as I can. No one has revelations like this every day, but there is something in the everyday and the ordinary worth sharing. My inner blog guru will try to make me feel small and unimportant, but the old school blogger in me says, “Write on!”

The old school blog is needed today, and I have a hunch I’m not the only one who misses it.

A Fool’s Gift

Screen Shot 2020-08-19 at 8.30.55 PM
Holy Fool Surrounded by Pilgrims (1872) by Vasily Perov

You delight in tales,
not history or achievements,
in parables ancient and abstract.
Your ways are bloodless.

Fearing nothing but God
and your own human heart,
you are no mere jester,
no sophisticated mime,
or vulgar clown.

The face of a fool is intimate,
not subtle, not philosophical.
You are gifted, though, and deft
at unraveling mystery and depth,
at exchanging rhetoric for art.

{This poem was inspired by the dVerse prompt which asks us to:

Write a poem using the word clown or a word – real or created – with clown as the root.

I am not at all a fan of clowns. I find them quite frightening.

Some poets decided to go the horror route with this prompt. Some went political. (Clowns and politicians just go hand in hand don’t they?)

Mine went a different direction. The Fool fits loosely under the clown category. I have always been intrigued by the archetype of the Fool, and in particular the Holy Fool.

There are many representations of the Fool throughout literature. Shakespeare’s plays feature these types of characters. There’s a Fool card in the tarot. And of course there were many saints who were honored with the title within the Eastern Orthodox Church. (In the Western Church we have St. Francis of Assisi as an example.)

The Holy Fool was known to do outrageous (and occasionally humorous) acts. Many had colorful or controversial pasts.

The concept of the Holy Fool is based, in part, on scriptures such as:

God chooses “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Here are a two great reads on the subject:

The Holy Fool (at Image Journal)

St. Simeon the Holy Fool (at Ship of Fools)

There are so many manifestations of the Fool. It’s a fascinating subject.}

Thoughts on Mercy

I.

A world without mercy
is like a room with no windows—
all painted walls,
mechanical hums,
and closed doors,
with only the power you can purchase.

II.

A young woman limps
out of the 7-Eleven…
bone thin, blowin in the wind,
carrying a squall—an infant by hip.
Where is your brother Abel?
Unheard, unseen.
How can it be?
Sheep outnumber the wolves
a billion times over.
Do you see what I see?

III.

Mercy is a window
with slatted blinds,
light beaming through—
morning sun or moonlight,
pelting rain with lightning,
birdsong, hints of green
and blue— hidden in part,
but still within view.

Egret

Small eyes of bright dark glass, brighter than beetles crawling through infinite grass.

Tall and white as the flower beneath my window that opens each day and disappears each night. You move so fast.

I must step out for a better view. The bloom doesn’t mind…why do you?

{National Poetry Month is here. I will try to write a poem every day for the month of April. This is possibly one of those quantity over quality situations. There may be typos…

I don’t know if I will be able to publish a poem every single day, but I would like to at least attempt to write one.

This poem was inspired by the “early bird” warm-up prompt on March 31, 2020 at NaPoWriMo.net.}

Cold Front

When a cold front arrives,
it’s conspicuous.
Whole trees sway.
Leaves and chimes are moved to music.

Cats and coyotes cry
at dawn. They sound
like children in peril.
Or demons.

I am a prisoner watching
from morning’s window.
Listening to the cries
of the lost and hungry.

Slipping out of blankets,
I am grounded
on a floor of ice.
Foggy but steady,

I step in slow motion
toward my daily routine—
silent and desensitized,
in striped fuzzy socks.

World Wind Chart for July August & September. Figure 144 from Admiralty Navigation Manual Vol 1 (1938)

Dead Ends {a haibun}

Clouds make the January sky darker than it should be for five o’clock, and the temperature has been dropping all week.

After finishing a steaming cup of tea, it’s time to face the evening traffic. I wrap my turquoise scarf twice around my neck. A dull day deserves a bright color.

Tonight is the night.

I haven’t cut my hair in almost three years.

But it’s a new year. A new decade. I am ready to let go of dead ends.

And begin growing again.

Long, cold commute…
Running warm fingers through wet
shoulder length curls.

Spectacle {a haibun}

img_3462
[Photo by Ganeshrg, Wikimedia Commons]

When dragonflies swarm, people stop what they are doing and watch. They call their friends over. They take photos of themselves surrounded by a blur of wings.

This is what happened one day at work.

You couldn’t walk outside without bumping into them. For twenty minutes, all anyone could talk about with any passion was a gathering of dragonflies.

Even people who bolt outside every day with their mind on cellphones or cigarettes or any number of urgencies, even the distracted and the burdened, were compelled to observe.

I sat at my desk watching the dragonfly watchers. I had noticed the creatures days ago when there were only one or two. My desk has a window view.

No one paid them any attention back then, when they were so small in number.

Two dragonflies sew
the seams of clouds, moving slow
across my window

The Stone Tree

My naked feet pressed the wet blades flat and smooth. Grass is always coldest in the shadow of the Stone Tree. I dreamt about her. Mother told us that anyone who cut that tree would find a treasure inside.

Last night I was a sparrow circling above the forest. I caught a bright flash of white and silver like starlight. I knew I could find that place again in the morning.

After lessons, I drew a picture of her. Her bright limbs reaching for me through thick gray clouds. I wept because I could never be certain that those arms would be able to reach me here in the darkest part of the world.

When I found her, I lay down in the soft moss beside her and slept.

These memories were left here with the trees.

{Some short fiction for the dVerse Prosery prompt. 

It’s meant to encourage poetry writers to try some fiction.  I don’t think fiction is my cup of tea, but the prompts are meant to expand our creativity by taking us outside of our comfort zones.

This prompt asked us to incorporate a line of poetry: “These memories were left here with the trees.” It is taken from a poem by the new US poet laureate, Joy Harjo. Her complete poem is here.

You are only given a few days to write it. Most people write theirs on the first day of the prompt! I like to revise what I write a few times before I post… and after I post… and three years later… I am always revising what I write. I see what’s missing and I add it (or not), especially with fiction.

Poetry is a little different. Because a poem is such a small piece of writing, I usually get the sense that it is complete.  

To be honest, I am certain that I am a poet, not a fiction writer. But these short fiction prompts can be fun to try, and maybe they will help me to develop as a poet too.

I got the idea for the piece of fiction above from a poem I wrote the other day. The prompt asked us to write in prose, so I turned my poem into a piece of short fiction.

I think the poem I wrote also deserves to see the light of day… so I will share it:

The Stone Tree

It’s been so long.
My insides,
like the trees
of ancient times,
are petrified.

I can count
ring upon ring
upon ring,
of gold, but I
am not that old.

No spirit will call
my bone white branches home,
or chew my silver leaves
When I weep, even
when I sigh,

always the smallest,
nearest creatures die,
and, unlike my evergreen
memory, decompose.

Intention

warm, muted light
a quiet evening
a chance to read
the words of poets,
the soft weight of a book
in my hand,
to feel with intention,
a time for order
and safety to roam
as if earth were a memory
and mind a home

{I never did get to read that evening.

I wrote this poem.

As soon as I typed it up in WordPress, the app glitched.

I panicked.

Unfortunately, the rest of that beautiful evening in August was spent chatting with tech support.

And it turned out that all I needed to do was uninstall and reinstall the app.}