I Read the Bible... What Next?
by Tony Domenick
Philosophical Contributions by Emily Cameron
Mention God, or the Bible, and you’ll obviously get a huge variety of reactions from different people. Some people immediately tense up, because their experience with religion has left them suspicious, or even deeply scarred. Some people immediately relax, because they’re relieved to find someone else to talk to about religion. Some people are immediately interested; even if they don’t believe in God, they love to discuss the history of the Bible and its implications in today’s world.
I’ve personally had all of those reactions over the last 15 years, as I’ve been figuring out my own beliefs about religion, the Divine, Christianity, and the Bible. Right now, I do consider myself a Christian, but I still struggle with this label. So much is assumed by others about what being a Christian means, based on their own life experiences, and sometimes I feel that I am co-opting a religion to fit my own purposes. Speaking with friends, family, or strangers about God can alternatively make me feel like I’m too Christian, or not Christian enough. So I’ll keep thinking and writing, trying to define my own beliefs amidst the spectrum of reactions that people have to religion in general and specifically the Bible.
Like most people, I imagine, I’ve had a complicated relationship with faith throughout my life. My mom grew up Presbyterian and my dad grew up Catholic, but all I really knew about the different denominations of Christianity was that dad didn’t like his but mom liked hers, so we attended a Presbyterian Church when I was growing up. I vaguely remember being baptized, because I was 9 or 10 years old at the time, but I don’t remember at all what I thought about God. I do remember that I loved the people, and I loved the songs.
I started singing in the church choir when I was 14 and I thought I was the coolest kid ever. Everybody in the choir loved having a teenager sing bass with them (my voice changed early, too), and the director even pulled me aside one time and said, “Tony, you have the voice of a man. You don’t look like a man, but you sound like one!” Slightly embarrassing, slightly awesome.
But again, through all that enthusiasm, I just don’t remember having a “religious experience,” or praying, or really anything having to do with theology. I do remember a youth group leader making a connection between some Bible story and my favorite scene in Star Wars Episode V when Yoda espouses his famous wisdom: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” But it was just “some Bible story,” nothing that stuck with me. I went to college, and like most of the “nones,” drifted away from church completely.
I started to ignore religion; I was essentially apathetic toward God, not confident enough to say I didn’t believe at all, and not particularly interested in the whole thing. Then I got my first professional singing gig at a Catholic Church, and listening to the sermons there moved me from apathy to animosity. Just prior to the election of 2008, a priest at this church held up a ballot at the end of the service and told the congregation very clearly how they ought to vote on a few ballot measures in the upcoming election. I was not impressed (to be clear, I have been to some awesome Catholic Churches that I truly enjoy, it just so happens that both my Dad and I have witnessed some questionable practices from Catholic leaders), and I made the mistake of letting this particular church represent all of Christianity.
In my early 20’s, I became more seriously interested in religion as I started to pay more attention to politics; politicians would quote Bible verses, and then use other people’s religion as an excuse to discriminate against them. Something that began to really bother me about religion was people’s insistence that their beliefs were the only way to salvation. It’s gotta be the Christian God, or no one else! This just never made logical sense to me, and right at this time, about 22 years old, I read “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
Mid-way through this novel, Michael, a human who was raised by aliens on Mars, has been studying human religions in order to find some glimpse of truth about the human religious experience, but is disheartened by all of the contradictions he finds: one God claiming to be greater than another God, genocide being justified by religious means, etc. But, in a sudden realization, he asks his companion Gillian, “What if all those religions are true?” Gillian responds incredulously that this is impossible: if one is true, it means the others are not so. But Michael persists, and eventually develops a synthesis of religious thought that transforms the humans around him into ‘enlightened’ beings (of course, learning the Martian language manages to give you telepathic powers, among other advantages).
What appealed to me most about the novel and Michael’s philosophy was not having the power to move objects with my mind, or his church’s polyamory, but the central idea that all paths to God are valid, truthful ones. I began to seriously wonder if this was a thing you could convince Christians of, since it seemed obvious to me that the inability to recognize the validity of other paths causes so much suffering and animosity in our world. I slowly realized that to have any chance whatsoever of developing this argument, I would need to read the Bible.
Around the same time I was latching on to this idea that all religions could be valid, I had become a singer at a different church, a Lutheran church. Here I found a completely different theology than what the Catholic priests had been preaching: the pastor of Augustana Lutheran would analyze Bible verses very thoroughly, drawing on quotes from philosophers and more recent writers to give the congregation context, and find relevant meanings in the ancient Biblical passages for humans in the modern world. Couples who were homosexual could get married at this church. They cared deeply about making every single person who walked through the door feel welcome. I began to think, “These are religious people? They’re so nice!”
What’s funny to me now about that thought is that it perfectly reflects what I had thought about religion when I grew up at the Presbyterian Church: everyone’s so nice! For about 4 years, I had drifted away from that truth, and started to believe that all religion did was poison your mind and turn you into a mean person, determined to oppress those different from you. At Augustana Lutheran I would start to understand a more fundamental truth: religion doesn’t poison your mind, humans do (#notallhumans).
I started a one year Bible reading plan on January 24th, 2016. On October 6th, 2018, I finished (2017 was a distracting year). I loved the way this plan was formatted: instead of reading straight through the Bible cover to cover (really not a good idea, I’ve been told), each day of the week had a theme. On Sundays, I read Epistles, or the letters of Paul and other Apostles to various churches during the early development of Christianity, on Wednesdays I read only Psalms, on Fridays I read books of the Prophets, and so on. This way of reading really lit up connections between different parts of the Bible, and prevented getting bogged down by very long lists of families.
Reading the Bible was crazy. Truly, it blew my mind in places, bored me in others, and generated all kinds of new questions. How was this book put together in the way I see it now? How has the translation process altered the meaning over the years? Did people thousands of years ago know this text would be around for so long? Politicians, religious leaders, and other public figures have said that the Bible is a book of morals, of history, or of God’s literal words, among other things. After reading for myself, I object to all of these labels on the ground that any one of them is an unfair reduction of what’s in the Bible. There are parts that deal with morals that I would consider applicable today and perhaps for all time. There are parts that deal with morals and laws that may have been useful for ancient people, but not for our world or the future. There are parts that seem to accurately document historical events, and there are parts that distort historical events. I don’t believe there are any of God’s literal words in the Bible, but that’s largely because I don’t believe it’s useful to think of God as having hands, handwriting, or even words in the way that we think of human words. I don’t think the word “literal” is being used correctly in that phrase (more on this in a future essay).
There is also beautiful poetry in the Bible, there is philosophy, there are fantasies and dreams, stories, predictions, mundane advice, and propaganda. It’s a dense and complicated work, and to attempt to describe it as any one thing seems a terribly crude way to approach the book. Maybe I’m just smug because I’ve read it now (heh heh), but I think we do ourselves a huge disservice by trying to assess the “quality” or “validity” of the Bible based on limited knowledge of what it actually says. That goes for Bible ‘supporters’ and Bible ‘detractors’ (a funny way to put it, I know): without a commitment to a nuanced understanding of the complexity of this text, we shouldn’t be latching onto one passage and using it to justify some belief or policy in our current world.
I’ll re-read the Bible periodically, but I also am excited to read the Quran (a copy currently sits on my shelf), and to keep studying various Buddhist texts, and the Tao Te Ching. There are Hindu texts I’ll need to get my hands on, Pagan and Wiccan traditions to explore, and surely many more religions and philosophies that I don’t yet know the names of. Through all of this lengthy exploration, I may never arrive at a satisfying synthesis of religious thought, or even attain any useful conclusions for anyone other than myself. I will simply try to define my beliefs while also recognizing that what I think and believe does not represent absolute truth, and that I will transform over time. And although our world is now inundated with words, I will continue to write, to explore the grey matter between what so often seems to be a black or white understanding of God. Christ, the Bible, and all religions demand far more than yes or no, black or white, wrong or right: they demand nuance.