Conversatio Divina

Part 7 of 16

The Destabilizing Bible

Gray Temple

Transforming Theology: Forming the Soul

Several years ago, I had a remarkable experience in church—or perhaps it would be more correct to say I attended a remarkable church. I had heard by reputation that St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta presented a blend of charismatic spontaneity and liturgical order. That alone seemed enough to make a visit potentially quite interesting! But I had also read on the parish’s web pages that it was “a Bible-reading congregation which seeks in the Scriptures a catalyst for intense prayer, a drill bit to penetrate more deeply into life’s mysteries, a transcendent point of reference which critiques all of our bland modern certainties, and a kaleidoscopic, everchanging lens to focus on God.” The rector’s welcome message continued, “I envision us outgrowing the impulses to abuse the Bible by manipulating it to fund spurious certainties, by insisting on seeing it as a complete textbook of morality, by refusing to heed its cries for justice and mercy, by pretending that any Bible passage is God’s last word on a topic rather than his first word on a topic.”

I could hardly wait for Sunday to arrive! And I wasn’t disappointed.

Charismatic spontaneity did, in fact, find its place within standard Episcopal liturgy. But more impressive was that, as promised, these were indeed people of the Word—not based on declarations of allegiance to the Bible’s inerrancy, but on having learned to receive God’s Word with faith and the expectation that doing so brought God right into their midst with a living word for their present needs.

After each passage of Scriptures was read, the reader asked the congregation what they had heard. A number of people responded, noting a phrase, an association, or even an image that had been triggered by listening to the reading. Later, the rector told me that if no one heard anything, he always had the passage reread because he was convinced that the words only became the Word of God when received in faith.

That rector was The Rev. Canon Gray Temple. I knew right away that he had to be a part of this issue. What follows is an excerpt from his book, The Molten Soul. Gray Temple, Molten Soul: Dangers and Opportunities in Religious Conversion (New York: Church Publishing, 2000). Used by permission.

—David G. Benner


Years ago, I read a biography of Jonathan Swift. Though I can’t remember the name of the writer or the book, one observation from the introduction has stayed with me to this day: “Jonathan Swift forged the deadliest arrow ever forged and shot it straight at the heart of man; man caught it—and turned it into a plaything for children.” That greatest of social satires, Gulliver’s Travels, had been successfully dodged by using it for a different purpose than the purpose its author intended. Something very much like that has been the Bible’s fate.

A deliberately diverse collection of scrolls has been edited and bound into a single volume, its diversity ignored if not indeed cloaked.

People take that vast panorama of unresolved arguments and pretend it’s a rulebook for settling arguments. People take that broad record of evolving moral understanding and pretend it’s a monument to an unchanging eternal moral system. People take that record of transformed lives and act as though it—rather than God’s Holy Spirit—were the agent of transformation.

Though the editors of the Bible deliberately went to little discernible trouble to square conflicting details or viewpoints with each other, you can find a vast literature dedicated to helping us pretend that the Bible is unitary and univocal. Though the Bible constantly stresses the deep incomprehensibility of God, we hear people insisting that it contains everything about God—including every significant divine thought—which we can, should, or might want to know. Though the Bible stresses God’s favor toward the underprivileged throughout both testaments, people have regularly used it to protect the privileged: male over female, wealthy over the poor, owners over slaves, bosses over employees, whites over blacks, married people over single.

More to the point of the present discussion, the Bible is used to prevent spiritual growth rather than to enhance it, to confirm rather than challenge—to keep people in religious bondage.

All of that takes place using reading strategies, i.e., an approach that we use to make our way through the Bible’s vastness, trying to form patterns of understanding. When we don’t admit that we employ such strategies and don’t declare how we’re using them, we pretend to voice the Bible’s intent even while favoring one set of passages over all others. We probably won’t declare our own stakes in the interpretations we retail as God’s own. For example, very few biblical-theological arguments against women’s ordination ever concluded with statements like, “Of course, I who write this am an ordained male.”

It is difficult to imagine how a deliberate campaign to subvert the Bible could achieve more mischief than we’ve managed on our own inadvertently. It almost makes you believe in the devil.

If the liberating Word of God is used for undeclared privilege maintenance, if it’s used to protect people from the very doubts and crises the Bible was given to express and provoke—doubts and crises which are, after all, the necessary preconditions for spiritual maturing—then those who want to grow up and go on with God will swiftly discover themselves low on resources. Or, as the Arab proverb puts it so succinctly, “If water sticks in your throat, what will you wash it down with?”

That we normally use the Bible to confirm what we already believe is so simply demonstrated that it’s almost bad sportsmanship to point out instances of contradictory practices—e.g., that most Bible readers own interest-bearing bank accounts and pensions; or that congregations which pretend to emulate the “New Testament Church” do not veil their women (1 Corinthians 11:10). Yet the Bible’s most easily demonstrable power is to disconfirm, to challenge, to destabilize even the most sacred pieties.

01.  The Bible as Enzyme

Indeed, in the latter regard the Bible is unique among the sacred literatures of the world religions. Virtually all the others produce stability when they are read, pondered, and taught. Continual iterations of the Quran produce predictable pressures for Sharia law—stability, in effect. Thousands of years of iterations of the Hindu Vedas have simply reinforced the caste system, despite its being outlawed periodically in modern India. But repeated iterations of the Bible have overthrown slavery (at least twice), political and economic feudalism, the suppression of women, and the legitimacy of armed conflict. The Bible is at work in our day countering the suppression of ethnic and sexual minorities. The Iron Curtain recently fell to it; most of the liberation movements in the former Soviet block were grounded in churches. Iterations of other classical religious scriptures produce stability; repeated iterations of the Bible generate novelty. The Bible—free of the interpreter’s voice—precipitates change.

Most of us would benefit from personal change, especially change from religiousness to righteousness, from bondage to suppleness to the will of God. It’s terribly important, therefore, that we allow the veil to fall from our eyes when we dare to open the Bible (2 Corinthians 3:12–16). We need to loosen our restrictive interpretive grip on the Bible so the Spirit can use it with us again to foment godly novelty. Until we dare do so, no matter how much we protest that we’re “biblical Christians,” “Bible-believers,” we have not permitted the Bible an independent voice distinguishable from our own.

They used to chain Bibles to church lecterns so they wouldn’t be stolen. An apter symbol than a chain today would be a leash and muzzle. Jesus turned water into wine. We have turned the Water of Life into embalming fluid.

02.  What the Bible Is For

The Bible exists in order to aim our hearts and minds toward God. The New Testament of the Christian Bibles I use the plural of the word Bible here because within Christianity alone there are various Bibles whose contents and internal arrangements do not coincide with each other. At a minimum, those include the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. makes that aim even more specific. It aims our hearts and minds toward Jesus Christ so that the Spirit might convey us into trusting, adoring fellowship with the First Person.

Properly used, the Bible is a launching pad into the Presence. When a group prayerfully invites the Spirit to lead its reflections on a passage, it discovers that the “Word of God” is not so much the specific words in India ink on India paper pages as they are the very here-and-now speech of God. The Bible catalyzes the living Word of God among us. How thrilling it is when the Spirit is able to coax us away from discussions of “what it [the Bible; the particular passage] means” and introduce us to the more attentive question, “What is God saying to us right now?”

03.  Getting Real with the Bible

When we get attentive to God with the Bible in the company of others, we no longer need assert things about the Bible that anybody can tell are not accurate. We no longer experience the weight of cognitive dissonance that burdened us when we thought it was in some modern sense “infallible” or that it is absolutely self-consistent. We quit defending it. God can now use it to change us. When we get real with the Bible, we no longer have to pretend things about it which are so strenuous to maintain. The Bible’s reality is superior to our notions or wishes.

To begin with, when we get real with the Bible, we do not have to defend its statements in twenty-first century terms. For example, there are people who go to great trouble to insist that Genesis 1:1–2:3 offers us an accurate scientific account of the origin of things. It’s so much more relaxed—and unsettling—to see that glorious passage for what it was and is: a seven-day Hebrew liturgical ceremony of thanksgiving for the Creation.

Anyone who brings to the Bible the literary-critical tools they’d use in front of an airport book rack, selecting the sort of literature they want to take aloft, can readily discern much of that without even relying on the vast scholarly literature. Most of us can distinguish prose from poetry, fiction from nonfiction, or science fiction from historical romance. Something like that skill works pretty well with the different biblical genres.

Resistance to that kind of grown-up Bible reading has been with us since the late Middle Ages. People resist it out of the fear of a “domino effect’ in which, if we “concede” that the story of Noah’s ark isn’t literal history, the whole Bible will unzip to where we lose the historicity of the Resurrection—hence our salvation by God in Christ.

But two truthful considerations serve to relax us on that score. First, mature scholarship has not dispelled the Resurrection; rather, it has helped us to see more deeply into what the biblical writers want us to understand about it.

Second, the truth of the Resurrection—and of our salvation—doesn’t derive directly or exclusively from the New Testament. Rather, our faith in the risen Jesus Christ and the New Testament itself derive from a common source: his current presence among his worshipping people by the power of the Holy Spirit.The faith produced the New Testament; it wasn’t the other way around. If you want to test that, simply find a group that really wants to worship and see what you discover.

Now relaxing with the Bible, letting it say what it says the way it really says it, relieves us of cognitive dissonance. The Bible contains a number of passages that, were we to find them in any other literature, we’d unhesitatingly recognize as conflicting, as fanciful, sometimes as folkloric, occasionally as mistaken. When we drop the pretense that they are otherwise just because they’re in the Bible, we find our trust growing, not shrinking, in the face of truths that overflow their narrative containers, truths that are greater than we are, truths that flourish and transform us under our own terms. When the New Testament theologians refer to parts of the Bible as “myth,” this is what they mean: a truth that overflows its container, that remains generative. To call something a myth is not necessarily to falsify its claims to historicity. Many events are both historical and mythological: e.g., Valley Forge.

I insist that such readings are not disrespectful or unfaithful. To the contrary, I challenge those who dissent to tell us how it’s really respectful to read poetry as though it were prose, to read perpetually fertile mythologies as though they were journalistic history. That seems disrespectful of the very Spirit who chose those genres as the media for parts of the Bible. Our faith is in God, not the literary categories of sacred literature. To rely otherwise is idolatry, even if the idol is an expensive book, bound in real calfskin, engraved with your name and a gold cross.

When we get real with the Bible, we no longer have to pretend that the Bible is either the sole source or the full compendium of the Christian faith. It is, of course, neither.

Virtually all orthodox Christians subscribe to the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and of the two natures of Christ. Both of those doctrines were partially undergirded by the New Testament, and each can be discerned in embryonic form in it as well. But both doctrines are post-biblical in origin, as any cursory survey of church history will readily show. And each owes almost as much to the thought-forms of Hellenistic philosophy as to the biblical witness or thought forms. Indeed, that latter point is one of the standard critiques of those doctrines in their traditional inherited forms. When you read, for example, the Chalcedonian Formula (Book of Common Prayer 1979, 864), no particular Bible passages spring readily to mind. That’s a defect in the formula.

We can’t repeat often enough that the Bible is not the source of the Christian faith. Rather, the Bible and the faith have a common source and a common theme. The source of our faith is what God has done for us in Christ as the Holy Spirit has interpreted it to the worshipping and praying church. The theme of the faith and the theme of the New Testament are identical: the Spirit’s work in redeeming human lives in and through Jesus Christ. Both the Bible and the faith are products of the same force.

04.  The Bible’s Catastrophic Promotion

Until the Reformation, the authority of the Bible wasn’t a major concern for Christians. The whole of God’s self-disclosure was authoritative, but the primary arbitrating authority tended to be the church herself as represented by the pope and his appointees. The Bible was an integral part of God’s self-disclosure and faith-funding, but to remove it from the whole pattern of God’s self-revelation and exalt it above the other elements wouldn’t have occurred to anybody. Obviously, no pope ever felt the need to.

In recent centuries the Bible has undergone a status upgrade that places it beyond what most previous Christian generations would recognize or recommend. Protestants have pulled the Bible out of the whole pattern of God’s self-revelation and made it the single arbiter of all the rest. Historians who track this innovation locate it during and following the Protestant Reformation in Europe during the sixteenth century.

The Protestant elevation of the Bible was an understandable reaction to the centuries-long self-elevation of the church as the primary authority, but the nozzle had begun to confuse itself occasionally with the water tank. As long as the church’s authority was acknowledged and her prestige unstained, things were relatively stable. But the authority and prestige of the Roman Church, which had heroically held Europe together in all ways for so many centuries, began unraveling seriously a couple of centuries before Martin Luther.

Once the Bible got thrust into the position it holds in many sectors of many denominations, interpretative scaffolding rose up around it as rigid as the papacy had ever been. In effect, what was canonical was not so much the Bible itself in all its complexity, but the interpreter’s personal sense of what it ought to mean. The instabilities listed so far required that great care be taken with the Bible’s reading and interpretation. It had to be read in particular ways and not in others. Given the expansive nature of the Bible, the alternative might be chaos.

But let’s be clear about the implication of all this: When any of us, myself included, talk of “what the Bible says,” you are hearing reading strategies masquerading as the Bible’s single voice—as though the Bible had a single voice. The Bible works through many voices, not a single one. If our post-biblical understanding of God as Holy Trinity tells us that God’s very being is dialectic, conversational, how should the Bible be otherwise? As listener, you always deserve to know the speaker’s reading strategy, the prior doctrinal commitments that impel him to select one passage over another: for example, “The one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36, NRSVScripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.) in preference to “Put your sword back into its place” (Matthew 26:52).

All proclamation is interpretive, because the Bible is multivalent. We can’t escape that fact if we read the Bible at all. What we can do is try to be honest about our presuppositions and interpretive strategies. God uses the Bible in manifold wonderful ways. But I can’t recall any instance when God has used it satisfactorily to resolve the tension we feel when confronted with groups whose opinions differ from our own. This kind of demon “cometh not out but by prayer and fasting,” as the Savior said—not by Bible reading alone.

A clerical colleague and I were once on opposing sides in a matter of considerable controversy. It caused him, as he insisted, to doubt my Christianity. I replied that I had arrived at my present position through lengthy, attentive prayer and requested that before we conversed further, he pray about the matter himself. He reacted as if stunned, eyes and nostrils wide with momentary confusion. Raw prayer clearly scared him. (No reason it shouldn’t; it scares me.) After a brief delay, a sudden insight popped up to his rescue. He smiled with triumphant relief and replied, “I don’t need to pray about that; I already possess God’s inerrant decree on that matter—in the Bible!” He then cited a couple of verses which he thought covered the matter, sedulously refusing all subsequent invitations and challenges to approach the Throne on the scary matter in question. He had hit upon a way to avoid the Presence of God in a manner that seemed actually to honor God, which allowed him to maintain his self-approval. That is an example of using the Bible to anesthetize pains we really ought to feel, to unstring potentially fruitful tensions.

Ironically, since being elevated to papal heights, the Bible has nearly ceased to be the catalytic enzyme God generously allowed us to scrape together across so many eons and cultures and languages, at such heroic cost to those who wrote its parts, wove it together, edited it, revised it, treasured it, protected it, and died for it.

The Bible got elevated to the status of sole guide, compendium, and arbiter because people during the Reformation were as scared of death as we are and have been ever since. The particular expression of death-fear at play in the resistance to anything other than a submissive reading of the Bible is our longing for certainty. This is no new reaction. The Gospels constantly contrast personal trust in Jesus with people’s fear-driven insistence that they see signs and wonders.

The Bible was not given us in order to provide certainty. It was given to point us towards God—whose personal Presence is the closest thing to certainty we’ve got. Insisting that it’s inerrant or even self-consistent presses it into services for which it wasn’t designed.

When you and I are in the grips of the fear of death and the loss of our sense of privilege, we do not primarily need Bible verses any more than we need assurance of the validity of our sacramental status—though both point towards the One we need. We need the personal Presence of God, just as a frightened child needs his mama. Nothing short of mama will do, however much it points to mama. It’s mama we need. It’s God alone. And as we’re safe with God, pray God we become safe for others to be around.

Neither the Bible nor Christian doctrine brings us into the Presence of God. They helpfully focus the Presence, call our attention and concentration on particular aspects of God and God’s dealing with us. They attune our hearts, point them Godward. But it is the here-and-now Spirit of God who carries us to God’s merciful, bounteous lap. It is Jesus of Nazareth—one and the same with the Risen Christ—who beckons us to hope that God’s lap has a vacancy with our name on it. It is Jesus who both teaches and models the attitudes and behavior that alone can survive the effulgence of God’s goodness. It is Jesus’ life of merry insouciance that extends to us the courage to risk our wealth, respectability, country club membership, and property on behalf of the despised. It is Jesus’ self-offering on the Cross that both breaks the power of evil over the universe—and us—and displays what God determines to go through in order to have us for God’s own. It is Jesus’ Resurrection which assures us that we are not fools to hope in God’s powerful mercy in the face of all tragedy, all conflict, all contradiction. It is Jesus’ ascension to the place of honor with God that assures us we have a friend in the very control center of all reality. It’s the coming of the Holy Spirit with her extraordinary gentle, utterly natural, superhuman endowments that tells us that God is every bit for us.

05.  Engagement with the Bible

Why stress all this? Why worry about the importance of the Bible while disputing some of the claims made on its behalf? Four hopes underlie the foregoing discussion.

First, I want to highlight the case for not using the Bible as a tension-reducing authority. Embracing uncertainty will allow us to remain molten in our sense of the Presence as we grow through the stages of faith. The tension our uncertainty exposes us to can be welcomed as a gift. God can and does approach us in that struggle and is equally present to us at all points of it—provided only we don’t succumb to dishonesty. The Cross, among its many meanings, signifies that God knows all about our fear, our struggle, and our uncertainty. “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” Embracing the tensions God wants us to share with Jesus gets us more rapidly out of Stage 4 into Stage 5. To put it simplistically, if God had wanted to allay our tensions with the Bible, the Bible would be a whole lot clearer, more systematic, less ambiguous, and easier to read. It would be more like the Dharmapada, the Tao Te Ching, the Quran, or like any number of subsequent Christian devotional classics, all of which are more internally consistent than the Bible. Any of them will help you improve yourself if you read and heed. But they won’t change your community like the Bible will.

The attempt to resolve life’s ambiguities by using the Bible thrusts you into an unfruitful struggle with cognitive dissonance in which you are told to feel furthest from God just when you are becoming personally the most honest and authentic. If we safely slip through that temptation, we can proceed from Fowler’s third to fifth stages in faith development without getting snared in the polarization and arguments that occur so naturally in Stage 4.

Second, I want to urge readers to experiment with the thought that the modern period is as friendly to faith as any period of history. Critical scholarship of the Bible—along with other secular disciplines—has made it impossible to reverse the clock, lodging us firmly within the present day. We can no more pretend to a premodern mentality when we read the Bible than (to borrow a sardonic image from C.S. Lewis) a divorcée can pretend to be a virgin. This is a gift. Rigorous critical scholarship has in no way disproved, invalidated, or falsified the Bible. To the contrary, it has given us a more precise understanding of how God has always self-disclosed to people and how they have struggled with that self-disclosure. It has restored the Old Testament to us. The only things it has really disrupted have been impertinent claims for the Bible mounted by our fellow fear-victims, seeking to lodge their own reading strategies above the high-water line of critical intelligence.

Just as the Reformers in Europe left people “home alone” when they overthrew their papal parent, so modern scholarship leaves us once again “home alone” with the Bible removed from the parental pedestal upon which the anxious seek to set it. “Home alone” is a scary condition. Yet Christians have frequently found it necessary for discovering that we are never alone—that God is our home, here and now. Oddly, relinquishing superstitious misapplications of the Bible encourages us to go the distance into real mysticism, into a personal relationship with God. Bible reading—and more often, arguing in favor of the Bible—takes up the place in our lives that actual time spent in God’s presence could more fruitfully occupy. As we enter that relationship, we discover that God continues to apply the Bible to us quite merrily and specifically. “Whoever attempts to save his ‘psyche’ [that is what the Greek texts says] will lose it. But she who loses her psyche for Jesus’ sake will gain it.” Whoever attempts to save his psyche with his Bible will lose both.

Third, the reader can gather something of my own reading strategy from the foregoing discussion. My blind spots and prejudices show openly. My reading method is simple and obvious—and doubtless flawed. Under normal circumstances, what can be known of the provenance, authorship, likely purpose, and literary form of a passage governs my interpretation and sets understandable limits on how the passage can be applied today. Yet so long as we say what we’re doing, any background work can be suspended instantly when the Holy Spirit uses a passage to call attention to something we had never considered—regardless of critical, hermeneutic considerations. There is little harm in allowing the Spirit to use a passage on us like a Rorschach test, inducing us to project onto it whatever internal process we need to bring to the surface. The only harm springs from refusing to acknowledge that’s what we’re doing.

That leaves God—our ultimate and authentic authority—plenty of scope to do anything at all with us when we are reading the Bible.

Fourth, I wish there were more grassroots conversations between biblicist and nonbiblicist Christians. I want these considerations to serve as a kind of invitation to civil discussion. A conservative biblicist who wants to engage nonbiblicists in conversation deserves to know that many of them are as theistic as himself, as prayerful and submitted to God as himself, and love the Bible and read it as faithfully as himself. It need not be a quarrel. Imagine the richness of the exchange if those who have received grace through the through the medium of an “inerrant,” authoritative Bible could share that grace (rather than condemnation) with those who have received grace through a reason-based seeking after the whole counsel of God. Imagine if the latter could share that grace (rather than scorn) with those who embrace the Bible as primary. Simply imagining such a discussion makes it worth a try.

Clearly, I believe that elevating the Bible to the position of primary authority introduces problems more troublesome than the ones it seeks to solve. In fact, the solution is more trouble than the problem. Arguing that publicly, however accurate it may be, is still a soul-corrosive exercise for writer as well as reader, as it pits us as antagonists against fellow believers. So here are some suggestions about how we might benefit mutually from the Bible’s authentic authority.

Late in the sixteenth century, Richard Hooker struggled successfully with the issues we have considered and, in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, outlined how God actually communicates with us. He offered a threefold process comprising Scripture, Tradition, and Reason working in harmony. By Scripture, he (like Luther) meant the “matter of Scripture,” faith in God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. By Tradition, he meant the historic creeds and major doctrines hammered out in the post-New Testament period. By Reason, he meant something like the contemporary testimony of the Holy Spirit to the prayerful conscience. Those were not three rival authorities. We do not pick the one that gives us the answer we like, rejecting the others. Rather, they work as gun sights. When Scripture, Tradition, and Reason line up together on any matter, you can take it to the bank.

To this day, what remains so exciting about that understanding is that it allows us to use the Bible and the Tradition full force—simply by being candid about how we use them. That means by always showing openhandedly how we are using Reason in the process. Prayerful, God-submitted opponents in a theological debate can disclose their governing assumptions and presuppositions, share the biblical passages and narratives that appear pertinent and their excitement with them, and their sense of how their positions square with the ongoing life of the people of God. There is nothing whatever the matter with using reading strategies on the Bible and the traditional doctrines— indeed, we cannot grasp them without reading strategies, since they both require lots of choices. The problem—the only real problem—occurs if we cloak the reading strategy or the fact that we have one from our interlocutors or from ourselves. In the latter case, we might pretend that our opinions are identical with those of God. That pretense has killed a lot of people and suppressed many others.

When godly, humble, and eager servants of God discuss a matter prayerfully with open Bibles in their laps, they’re in for an adventure. At such moments, they won’t be troubled or derailed by questions of who was high priest when David ate the showbread, or by the value of pi in the Chronicle, or whether it was a fish or a whale that ate Jonah, or how Judas really died. Such considerations rarely come up in that setting. When we use the Bible in Hooker’s suggested manner, those simply aren’t problems. Staying abreast of God in the room with us is challenge enough.

Among my most treasured recollections are occasions when I (a relative liberal) have sat with deeply conservative friends, Bibles open, alert to God’s presence, reading passages and offering to each other the new meanings that strike us. Partisanship vanishes in such settings except as fodder for appreciative humor. I covet that treasure for the whole church, across its entire political spectrum.


Years ago, I was in conversation with a devout friend whose interpretive methods differ dramatically from my own. He described going to a science exhibit and seeing a fossil from fifty million years ago. He reported crowing loudly to his wife, for the benefit of all present, “There wasn’t any fifty million years ago!” He was referring, of course, to his acceptance of Bishop Usher’s famous dating of the Creation in 4004 BCE. I probably flinched and blurted out something tacky, because within seconds we were quarreling energetically. Our love for each other eventually prevailed in the fracas, though we never reached substantive agreement.

However, I found the episode so painful that I crept off to a private chapel, dragging my adrenal body, wounded heart, and soiled soul. Facing the altar, I sputtered at God, “Look, God—you gave me my brain, and you can have it back! You gave me an education; you want it back? Say so! You taught me to value critical thinking, even about the Bible, but I don’t have to think that way. You want me to believe that a literal fish swallowed a literal Jonah and spit him out alive after three days? Just say so, and I’ll manage to believe it. You want me to believe it took just six days to create everything? Say so; I’ll work on it. Give me a frontal lobotomy while you’re at it—I’ll hold still . . .”

When my tirade was exhausted, I sensed that God was present, asking me a question: “Are you willing for me to teach, direct, encourage, and convict you with every passage in the Bible? Or are there sections you’d prefer that I not use?” The tone was whimsical, affectionate.

Subdued and cowed, I replied, “Lord, if you want to teach or correct me, you can use anything you choose: the whole Bible—you can even use the Atlanta phone book.”

“That’s exactly where I want you,” God replied.

Since then, I’ve regretted not asking if the fish really swallowed the fellow and spat him out alive—while I had God on the phone, so to speak. At such times, stuff like that doesn’t occur to you.


THE REVEREND CANON GRAY TEMPLE, JR. has been rector of St. Patrick’s, Atlanta, since 1975. He holds an MDiv degree from Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia and has completed additional graduate work at Gottingen and Oxford Universities. He is the author of 52 Ways to Help Homeless People.