The Messiness of the Word

By Cathy Norman Peterson

Twenty-five years ago I sat in the middle of a Baker’s Square restaurant crying about the prophet Jonah.

Kurt (my husband to be) and I had been dating about a year, and we were talking about his plans to attend seminary in the fall. In the middle of an otherwise innocuous conversation, he mentioned that most biblical scholars don’t think Jonah actually existed, that his eponymous book was more parable than historical record.

Suddenly I was crying into my french silk pie.

I wept because it made sense—the idea of an actual guy who got swallowed by an actual fish, which then spit him up three days later in the exact place he’d been fleeing? On one level it was ludicrous. And that terrified me.

If Jonah wasn’t a real person—if that story wasn’t true the way I had always understood it to be true—then…what? What else might not be real? What did that mean about God, about everything I believed? That day the solid, unbreachable foundation of my faith crumbled a little bit.

After that conversation I began to think differently about the Bible. Growing up, I’d been pretty sure that everything in it was crystal clear. The earth was created in seven days. When Joshua fought the Amorites, the sun literally stood still for a whole day. All those uneven genealogies “worked” as accurate history—you just had to read them the right way.

So how could I reconceive the way I approached this holy book?

For a while I put it aside altogether. Then discovering ancient practices of lectio divina and gospel contemplation brought it to life again. But I began to wrestle with all that violence in the Old Testament. And the apostle Paul’s seeming misogyny. And all that judgment was pretty hard to take too. It definitely wasn’t simple anymore. Plus, it turns out that my fundamentalist default mode is deeply hard to shake. So I still struggle to read Scripture on my own—the muscle memory of my legalistic lenses is all too familiar.

A couple weeks ago in church I listened to the entire chapter of Genesis 1 being read aloud from the pulpit. The bulletin said we were only reading 3-4 verses, which I kept double-checking because the reader, a lawyer in our congregation who serves in the military, kept going—and going. “And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. …and the fourth day… and the fifth day.” As it became clear that he was going to read all 31 verses, I finally relaxed into the rhythms and repetitions as I listened. I didn’t think about evolution or how old the earth is. The poetry of creation simply washed over me and it was beautiful.

If I’d been reading on my own, I would have skimmed those overly familiar words. There’s no way I would have stopped to savor the cadences.

Clearly I need to engage Scripture in community.

Of course that doesn’t make for easy answers either. We disagree deeply within the church—both about what the texts mean and what we do with them. Does my theology derive from Scripture? Or the other way around? Both, of course. And yet sometimes we can’t help but polarize our perspectives. How do we reconcile our wildly different understandings of the same passages?

In spite of the messiness, we continue to affirm that the word is central. And within that word the gospel writer identifies God the Son as Word. Somehow Logos is at the core of our faith—even when it’s not completely clear what that means. So I show up at church in spite of myself and listen to the Spirit-breathed word. And I am healed for another day.


34 thoughts on “The Messiness of the Word

Add yours

  1. I completely resonate with this, Cathy. I am continually attempting to retrain the “muscle memory of my legalistic lens” as I read the Bible, often feeling residual guilt for allowing myself this freedom. The strident voices of fundamentalism are hard to ignore, even when they are only echoes. Thanks for your words!

  2. Cathy – loved this reflection! I was great to hear all of those verse in Genesis a few Sundays back – and perhaps even something divinely appointment about the bulletin/reading mismatch. If the bulletin had listed all the verses I think I would have sat back and listened quite differently.

    I had a great experience in church while listening to the Gospel text from Matthew 28. I heard with fresh ears a line that I’m sure I’ve glossed over dozens of times. It was verse 17: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” That line “but some doubted” has stuck with me. So far I’ve resisted the temptation to turn to the commentaries and scholarship and am just sitting with that line and all the questions it contains. Thanks again for the post – I’ve definitely bookmarked this blog!

    1. Andy, you’ve got me thinking about that disconnect. If I’d known the whole chapter was to be read, would I have received it so openly? I might not want to answer that! But in the moment I ended up being thankful for the “surprise”–its own gift of the Spirit.

  3. I really resonate with this post. I’ve wrestled with many of the same things that you mention here. I too have had my view of scripture tweaked, then bent, then broken. And it’s still not easy for me to read scripture on my own (and as a pastor, that’s a tough one.)

    Thanks for your honesty. It’s refreshing and encouraging.

  4. Beautifully written, Cathy! I love how you conclude this post, that “somehow Logos is at the core of our faith – even when it’s not completely clear what that means.” It is grace that all of us show up on Sunday or during the week, whenever we open ourselves up to the hearing and reading of Scripture. And it is grace when in the mystery and power of the text, God shows up as well. Indeed – we are “healed for another day.” Thank you, Cathy.

  5. Cathy, I read this and thought – I had a similar experience last week! I was preparing for a talk on Malachi for senior high youth at Covenant Point (yes, Malachi). And I was reading up on the history, the Jews being a minority culture in Persia, etc., and I came across a commentary that called Esther a historical novella. There is so much I don’t know! Apparently that small detail- that the story of Esther is historical fiction- slipped through the cracks in my education. If I learned this in seminary, I forgot. Or it didn’t stick. At any rate, I sat, preparing for this talk, and thought: Does it really matter? The meaning of the story is still true (at least I believe it is). And then I marvelled at the wonder of Scripture. It’s not neither a history book, nor a science book, nor a math book…it’s a book about God and God’s desire for us to live (love) in community and worship (love) the right things. As you so aptly note, it’s meant to be read and interpreted as such – a revelation of a living God to a beloved people. Historical novella or not, the point is that we reconcile our wildly different understandings of the text by reconciling with each other.

    1. So very well put Michelle, thank you! I remember the first time I wrestled with “Accuracy” and accuracy. Yous summation of accuracy as a “a revelation of a living God to a beloved people” is perfect.

  6. My sentiments are quite different from the others who have responded thus far. My question, and really comment, is “why is it so important to you to relearn how to read Scripture?”. The idea of Jonah, for instance, being merely just a fictional story seems crazy to me. You don’t know that, nor does anyone else. Why must you rework Scripture to fit into a little box of all that seems logical to you? Doesn’t God transcend our understanding of nature and possibilities?

  7. Doggone it! I love the honesty here! mycakes. I guess the only lens I have available to me to understand the Word, God, or anything else for that matter, is my human nature. With that lens I try and absorb and understand as much as possible. However, I do know it is futile and that if I could truly understand everything about God then it wouldn’t be true faith to believe in God?

  8. One of the persistent questions that has illumined the reading of certain passages in (especially) the Old Testament: can the story be true without being an historical fact? That’s tough coming from a fundamentalist worldview, and I still struggle with it, but it has opened up new vistas on stories like the creation narratives in Genesis.

    1. Dave, this was at the core of my experience–discovering the truth of Scripture that extends far deeper than facts. Of course that can sound counterintuitive, and it terrified me as one who proudly proclaimed my belief in “absolute truth.” One thing I do know is that I don’t know everything (anymore!). And the faith that I find in God, in Scripture and through the church is, well, deeper than my own understanding. Your phrase about opening new vistas makes room for the Spirit to breathe upon us as we read. I like that!

      1. I am glad to see so many comments about the importance of reading scripture in community. As Dick’s post alludes to, that community is not just our own demographic – whatever that may be. I also think it is important that when we talk about community, that we include the historical church as well (something I don’t do enough of, I admit). I was surprised at how many different ways that the church has interpreted scripture, including ways that we would not accept today. We also would do well if the Jewish communities – there certainly are more than one of those as well – were included in that discussion, especially when trying to interpret the OT. Whether we interpret scripture with an approach that is fundamentalist, liberal, or something in between, we need to be careful that we don’t act as if this is the day in history when we are the ones who really know.

  9. Your words caused me to reflect upon the many times I have been wrecked, then restored when meditating and waiting upon God’s Word. The final paragraph, specifically “Logos at the core of our faith” even when the meaning is unclear – I find comfort and restoration in those words. Thank you

  10. I am a bit uncomfortable with the tone of some of the posts here. If we all decided to disbelieve the historicity of the Resurrection then I don’t think we have a basis for our Christian faith. I went to Fuller Seminary and also learned all of the various ideas about interpreting Scripture. I still don’t think there are enough good reasons to believe that Esther or Jonah were not literal folks. If others want to believe they were not literal, ok, but I have a hard time with that. Growing up learning about Evolution in public schools and studying in Seminary the various ways of reconciling Science and the Bible….I wrestled with all of that about 30 years ago. Today I see that there are more and more scientific discoveries that support Creation as a dramatic event and so much of the evolutionary thinking seems to be more and more disproven than it was 30 years ago. I was always uncomfortable with evolution, but now I have really enjoyed reading about the modern scientific discoveries, such as those presented by Hugh Ross and others. I’m more of a doer than a thinker, and too busy doing things to add much to the theological reflection, but I just wanted to add my few thoughts. Perhaps that will cause others who have more time to write to have the courage to add their thoughts to this discussion also.
    Jessie Cheek

    1. I agree, Jessie. I also agree with mycakesandconfections. So then, do we discount the event of Christ’s death and resurrection, because our human minds can’t understand it’s transcendence above science and logic? Was that also just a historical story, an example?

      1. Hi Jessie and Jessie! Thanks for your perspective(s). My short answer to your very good question (in fact I thought of the resurrection as I was writing my response!) is that I think there are a lot of ways to do/tell truth. For example, an event doesn’t have to have actually happened for it to have deep truth in it. I think Scriptural allegories, metaphors and parables for that matter are all true – even though the Prodigal Son wasn’t an historical event. My point is more that the Bible has a variety of genres and telling history is one but not the only one. In terms of the resurrection, I think there is much very good historical witness/evidence that it was an event in history. That said, I don’t understand it and there are days when I wonder, Did it really happen? As you say, it completely transcends science. In the core of my faith, I know the resurrection happened. I believe it. But on my more doubtful days, I look to the community of the church to help me -which includes those who have come before me/us and have believed. And the bigger question is – how does it shape my life and witness to God’s amazing, abundant love?

      2. Thanks, Michelle for your words; they resonate well with what I have found to be true for myself. I think belief is difficult and allowing for their to be ‘breathing room’ around texts actually allows for deeper dialogue..

    2. By conflating the historicity of Jonah and the reality of Christ’s resurrection, you unintentionally play an unfair hand and exhibit the very interpretive fallacies that render thoughtful conversation about scripture impossible. It is precisely that interpretive move (everything must be taken literally with no attention given to genre, history, literary construction, audience, etc. — or you are a non-believer) that has sent a generation of thoughtful evangelicals running for the hills. Biblicism becomes bible-olatry, and we worship the text in place of God. The thoughtful authors of this blog are not dismissing the possibility that Jonah is a real guy, or that Esther might be an actual person; instead, they are suggesting that these stories may be “true” in an ancient sense, stripped of the standards modernity has provided for validity. They are not employing logic to dismiss the simple beauty of scripture; instead, they are seeking to liberate scripture from its fundamentalist, foundationalist box so that it can breathe and give the life its writers intended it to give.

  11. Cathy, thank you so much for your reflection. It caused me think about my own view of Scripture. I have recently been thinking a lot about how much social location matters in understanding Scripture. The notion that I read Scripture from a position of privilege obviously influences my understanding. That makes it all the more important that reading the word must be, at least for me, an experience borne out of and understood in community.

    1. Dick, thanks for this nuance–the need for engaging Scripture through community isn’t just because I personally need the wisdom of the church to help me. It’s because much more is at stake than even my own experience. Clearly God calls us into life with others, which is both wonderful and challenging. But it can be easy for me to ignore that if I only read the texts alone.

  12. Oooh, you’ve opened up the box here, Cathy. Good for you!! Thank you for this excellent, insightful post and for engaging the important questions in the process. Would you all consider adding a subscription option to this blog? I’d love to get your posts in my inbox because I’m not so great at checking back. Also, do you have a FB page yet? That’s another way to keep people aware of when posts are up – if I like your FB page, then I should be notified when you post. Of course, FB keeps changing the rules, so who knows?

  13. Lovely reflection! Thanks, and I’m grateful for the nod to the ancient way of prayerfully reading the Word known as Lectio Divina, a daily portion of every Benedictine monk’s life (and oblate’s life too!), thanks to the Rule of St. Benedict, which calls us to this spiritual discipline daily. Of course, Psalm 1 called us to this discipline 1500 years prior to Benedict. Good to delight in and meditate on the Word with our wise sisters of Theoloqui. Many blessings. I’m currently in a year long (a verse a week) Jonah lectio posted at

  14. Thank you to all who have posted here. Good brain food for the theologically hungry. Grateful for the topic and the approach. For me, I feel like I’m on some type of cycle in my faith… Belief and acceptance, doubting and questioning, uprooting my state of belief and acceptance, healing in community, then all over again. I think the conversation raised by Cathy includes important questions to ponder, but when I come back to scripture, I desire to approach it with awe, surprise, and humility. Is our view of God so linear that we cannot fathom the truth of a story such as Jonah’s? Do we seek to explain it to satisfy our own human way of thinking or can we allow the story to change us? Have you heard about James Bartley? Read about his true or false story here:

    We’ve all got a bit of skepticism in us. And doubt is not the opposite of faith. Though I’m not sure if Jonah was literal or not, I certainly believe it was possible. So, as michelle was pointing towards, how does it help us to love better? (Johnna was taken as a username, so I’m happychipmunk)

    1. God is a god of miracles…and God is capable of doing more than we can imagine. The exact nature of this is of course up for theological discussion…but miracles can happen. The question is, must the stories be “factual” in the modern sense for them to be “true”? Too often, fundamentalists demand that a central tenant of faith is deny science and rational thought: the earth is 6,000 years old, the earth stood still, Jonah lived without oxygen for 72 hours, light existed before the sun, etc. The larger point is that if we demand modern, scientific “truth” from scripture, it will fail on modern categories because it is not a modern text. This does not mean the text is not “true” in every sense. Mine is not skepticism, but a response to the skeptic. And…by the way…the story of the dude who lived for two days in the belly of a whale is just silly – basic historical investigation confirmed the absurdity of this story.

  15. I really appreciate this discussion. One of the things I’m taking away from it is the reminder that these are – for a lack of a better word at the moment – pastoral issues. By that, I don’t mean only for pastors to deal with. But when we make statements of fact that something isn’t true, we are dealing with a person’s faith, the foundation of their life. Not something to be trifled with. They get angry, cry, wonder what – and who – they can trust. This isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong or how enlightened we are. Wish I known that when I tried to “enlighten” others.

    1. Oooh I love this conversation! Stan, I completely agree. I come from a fundamentalist background and later found it liberating to not have to focus on whether or not something did in fact happen but instead on the content – the beauty and the message within the story. That’s the meat of it. That’s the part that sings to me. At the same time, I empathize with Jessie’s comment. Sometimes, saying that God didn’t actually do something feels equivalent to saying that God can’t or won’t do something. And to be honest, there have been times in my life (and I know there will be more in the future) when I have NEEDED God to be that big. Sometimes, I need to know that God is capable of making the world stand still, or saving a nation through one person, or preserving someone’s life even when every odd is against them. (You can’t have more odds against you than when you’re living inside a giant fish, right?) Sometimes the truth is bigger than the fact, and sometimes I really need the miracle. Thank you Cathy!

  16. Can I just write on a different vein for a minute? Thank you all for your honesty and interaction. Herein lies the richness of the Church. Differing, challenging and respectful dialogue with the focus on knowing Christ. Woot woot!!!!

  17. I’m coming into this dialogue a little late, but I’d like to toss my two cents into the convo for what its worth–about two cents. 🙂

    Penny #1:
    When I was in undergrad at Rutgers University, I took a class on the gospels. One of the required books for the class was a book that put all four gospels on each page, so that you could see the places where they were identical and the places where there were discrepancies in the order of the storytelling or where a gospel writer adds something to the story or takes away something the rest of the authors kept. When I look back on it now, I think: “Wow. That really is FASCINATING.” I mean, all kinds of questions rise from the reality that four people told the same story, but told it very differently. Now, after studying each of the gospels, inductively through community-based manuscript studies I’m able to appreciate that each writer was, indeed, trying to communicate to a different audience. And they were each trying to communicate different things about Jesus’ identity and purpose–not contradictory, just different. And most important–I understand now that history, the way we understand it, is not the way the pre-Modern world (the world the Biblical writers lived in) understood history when the Bible was written.

    History, as we understand it, a factual account of exactly what happened (or as close to what actually happened as possible), developed in the context of the Age of Enlightenment with the scientific method as its foundation and the advent of the printing press as a central influence. The printing press fundamentally changed the way Western civilization thought. In pre-Modern times, people thought episodically and thematically: The Modern age — spurred by the invention of the printing press — shifted Western thought into linear thought patterns. We think of history today as an account of what happened in linear time; what happened, then what happened next, then what happened after that. But neither the scientific method nor the printing press existed in biblical times. The pre-Modern authors of our biblical texts were not concerned with what happened in linear time. They were concerned with the task of how to communicate truth. They were people of oral tradition. They were masters of oral histories where truth was communicated and did not change through the generations, even though details and orders of events might shift in the story-telling. For more info on the development of the study of history a great book is “Telling the Truth About History,” by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob. Here’s a link to the book on Amazon:

    So, like Michelle states earlier, I think it’s extremely important to take the scripture for what it actually claims to be, not what we want it to be. We do well when we read the Psalms as songs–not history or science. We read Genesis 1 as a pre-Modern classic epic Hebraic poem, not a Modern era scientific and historical account of how the world was made. We read parables as parables, stories as stories, plays as plays. (Yes, there is a play in the Bible. The book of Job is actually written in the format of an ancient play–similar to the structure of an ancient Greek play complete with hero, chorus, and Dues ex machina) We take each book and section for what it claims to be and then we discern what it is actually trying to communicate to us and then, by faith, we believe it.

    If we insist on interpreting a pre-Modern text through a Modern-era scientific and historical lens, then we will miss the actual truth that I believe God and the writers were trying to communicate to us through it.

    Penny #2:
    I quit my undergrad course on The Gospels. Because I couldn’t understand how the professor could challenge the historical truth of the stories and still be a Christian, I actually quit the class in protest. But I was the one who lost out. Oh, how I wish I had stayed in that class now. Maybe I would have gained an even deeper appreciation for the absolute genius and divine inspiration of the texts, because I would have been challenged to see more in the text that could be glimpsed with my Modern era eyes.

    1. These comments are really helpful. I would like to take the thoughts a little further and discuss evangelicals and their view of history. To put it simply: evangelicals often display a lousy view or understanding of history. Evangelicals either reject history entirely, using their biblicism to argue that nothing important (or at least nothing good) happened after Jesus died; or they use history to moralize and whap people over the head. Or they think that God’s intentions can clearly be seen in history, and thus make judgments that no student using the tools of the discipline is allowed to make: God caused this, or God was unhappy about that, or the holy spirit was clearly present, or whatever. Finally, evangelicals often have no historical imagination, clinging to a wooden objectivism which matches their view of scripture. Meanwhile, the rest of the history-writing world has moved on, liberated from the Enlightenment understanding of history. Scholars now freely write from particular perspectives; narrative is always circumscribed by context and power relationship, and the prison of objectivity has been replaced with community studies, perspectival narrative, creative interpretations, etc. Good history still treats what happened with seriousness, but engages the truth of what happened creatively and openly. ALL THAT TO SAY…perhaps evangelical Christians could rediscover and discover a new relationship to history – both ancient and contemporary. By finally abandoning the Enlightenment project, they just may find a different way to read the bible too.

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