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.