Guest Post: Ellen Painter Dollar Asks “Does the Bible Leave You Disquieted?”

By Ellen Painter Dollar

What is the best perk of blogging (besides being occasionally accused of heresy by mean people hiding behind computer keyboards and sighing heavily whenever I click over to see what Google analytics has to say about my “traffic,” that is)? Getting free books in the mail. I always love free books. A few weeks ago, I especially loved getting a big fat package with several hardcover copies of Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels (Jericho).

coverI turned first to my own chapter in Disquiet Time. Titled “Broken and Bent,” it is a reflection on that fact that, despite all those healings he did, Jesus never actually has a conversation unrelated to the healing that is about to or just did take place (at least not one that was recorded) with someone whose body is failing, limited, or in pain due to illness or disability. And we never see Jesus experience sickness or pain firsthand, except at the crucifixion, when his pain is significant but doesn’t happen in the context of his daily life as it does for so many of us. This absence of direct Jesus-talk to my daily experience frustrates me. It frustrates a lot of Christians I think, who go on to make up silly wise-sounding but ultimately ridiculous little theologies of suffering. You know the ones: “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” and “God gives special children to special parents,” blah blah blah. I don’t accept such easy (or warped) theology. But I do believe Jesus has been present to me in some of the worst moments of living with my particular genetic condition. My chapter is the story of my frustration and my faith in spite of it.

After I read my own chapter, I read some others. And I was completely, utterly smitten.

I read Ian Morgan Cron’s chapter “Wherever Two or Three are Gathered,” about his uphill battle to foster an evangelical church in staid, mainline Connecticut, where I grew up and now am raising a family. I laughed with recognition upon reading this:

Affluent New Englanders classify religious enthusiasm as a social disease. They’d rather be trapped in a corner at a cocktail party with someone who wants to talk about their battle with involuntary flatulence than in the same room with a Christian talking about Jesus

By the time Cron got to how he sees the Bible—“As an artist who was raised and educated by Roman Catholics, I viewed the Scriptures more sacramentally than dialogically. For me, the Bible was the story that explained the way the world is, not the “manufacturer’s operating instructions for living,” as my [seminary] classmates called it”—I was hooked.

Cron goes on to tell a story about hope and love and new life being made real—really real—right in his fledgling little church that met in a smelly middle school auditorium with various drama sets as backdrop. What Cron knows in light of this experience is that “the entire Bible could be reduced to one idea: God is in the resurrection business…[I]f you don’t know that we live in a multichance universe created by a God who loves us, who weeps for us, and who uses his people to call each other out from their tombs, then you don’t know anything about the Bible.”

There is tremendous relief in finding people who speak one’s own language, especially when it’s the language of something as deep and difficult and potentially life changing as faith.

I haven’t read all of the Disquiet Time chapters yet (I had to force myself to put it down to finish this post). But every chapter I’ve read thus far, by people who approach faith from all sorts of backgrounds and with all sorts of questions, has left me with that sense of fresh understanding—of revelation, really—that I usually get from reading literature, not theology.

Karen Swallow Prior writes about how often poop shows up in the Bible (really, there’s a lot of poop!), and what this tells us about ourselves and God.

Katherine Willis Pershey writes about how all those horrific visions of the end times that Jesus trots out now and then, just when we’re tempted to see him solely as a mild-mannered nice guy, aren’t really about fear. They’re about hope. When the end comes, whatever that is and whatever it means, “the pain of the past can be released…we ourselves will be released.”

David Vanderveen writes about meeting God’s spirit “hovering over the waters,” (Genesis 1:2). Or rather, he meets God in the water, specifically by taking his surfboard and giving himself over to the awesome, mighty, potentially destructive power of big waves. He tells stories about surfing and sailboarding with his brothers as a teenager. And as he tells these stories, amid all that quivering teenage-boy energy, muscle, and daring, Vanderveen talks of the God he wrestles with in the waters as “she.”

Dale Hanson Bourke writes about how a limited understanding of what it means that the Bible is “inspired” was broken open by, of all things, her obsessive concern with proper punctuation.

Rachel Stone digs into the many birth metaphors in the Bible, taking those metaphors back from centuries of male-dominated theology that is so squeamish about the bloody, groaning reality of human birth that Jesus’s birth was once described as a bloodless blinding light, which disappeared to reveal—voila!—a newborn baby! The memory of childbirth pain, she writes, “forces me to remember the hopeful promise that even the profoundest suffering can somehow bring forth something new, something unexpected, something glorious.”

I could go on.

The Bible is not a tool to bring others around to our way of seeing things, or a weapon with which to accuse others of heresy. The Bible is not a history book, nor does it tell us everything there is to know about God. The creator of the universe cannot be contained in a book, even a holy, inspired book. The Bible, at least as this little band of skeptical, faithful, scoundrel-ish souls sees it, is an invitation. An invitation to contemplate who we are, as individuals, communities, and as a species. An invitation to contemplate and encounter what is holy and sacred, which is found smack in the middle of the mundane, the ordinary, and the difficult as often (even more often, I think) as it is found in the strange, the extraordinary, and the transcendent.

In the foreword to Disquiet Time, Eugene Peterson says that, “Stories are verbal acts of hospitality.” Again, invitations. To come as we are. To dig and question and ponder without fear of rebuke or punishment from those who believe they know better than anyone else what, exactly, the Bible means to say in every instance. Peterson writes, “The stories [in Disquiet Time] all take the Bible seriously, and, like Jacob at the river Jabbok, they take it seriously enough to wrestle with its meaning in the context of their own lives. More often than not, also like Jacob, they leave the river alive and safe, but “limping.”

As someone who walks through life with a literal limp, I loved Peterson’s analogy. I have learned through my own struggles with physical pain and limitation that when we are unafraid to ask the questions that arise from life’s hardest moments—moments well represented in the Bible—we find companionship and grace, even if we don’t always find the ultimate relief, healing, and complete answers we seek, even if we are still left limping after encountering something holy, wise, and good. The encounter in itself is a good thing. As the Disquiet Time editors, Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani, assert in their introduction (and in the short video I’ve posted below), “When it comes to the greatest concerns, biggest questions, and gravest doubts about the Bible, you have the right and the freedom to voice them. God can take it. Really. We promise.”

I hope you’ll take up the invitation issued by the stories and reflections in Disquiet Time, which each, in their own way, reflect the Bible’s invitation to seek wisdom and understanding in its pages, even knowing that we won’t always find clear answers to the conundrums, confusions, and catastrophes of human life.

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