Bored as Hell: The Well-Behaved Bible and the Stunting of Spiritual Growth

This week in my Sunday school class, we began a study of Peter Enns’ book The Bible Tells Me So: Why defending scripture has made us unable to read it. I was proud of myself because I actually made it to class (more or less) on time (and there are witnesses who can attest to this, I promise!). Some of my WHBC friends know that I’m usually the one who pops into Sunday school about twenty minutes before class ends.

I could blame this on my preschoolers (and some mornings, believe me, they deserve it!), but if I am perfectly honest, I have to admit that for years, I’ve been a bit ambivalent toward Sunday school classes. In fact, for a few years of my life, I was ambivalent about church itself and rarely went except for the weekends when I happened to be visiting my parents.

I never turned away from my faith, and I never strayed (too far) from the moral code that came from my church upbringing. So why did I take a three or four year vacation from having a church home and spiritual community?

Well, there are several reasons, but here is one of the biggest: I felt like I had no more to learn, and I was bored. By the time I got my undergrad degree, I had pretty much earned my “church diploma” as well. So why go back?

I know what you’re thinking. Of course I had more to learn. No one knows it all at the ripe old age of twenty-two.

Which leads to the next question: Why did I feel that way? And the answer: Because the churches of my youth weren’t actually teaching very much, particularly when one has a whole lifetime to spend learning it. 

I figured out this connection between boredom and my disengagement with church several years ago, but our discussion of the beginning of Peter Enns’ book gave me some clearer ideas about the root of the problem. Enns writes that Christian conservatism requires a “well-behaved Bible” in order to function. The Bible is too often treated as a clear-cut “heavenly instruction manual,” and preachers and teachers jump through all sorts of hoops trying to make an ancient and complex group of texts live up to unrealistic expectations that include everything from historical facticity to scientific accuracy.

The parts of the Bible that are too messy or challenging–the ones that Enns says “don’t behave”–are either kept out of sight or are treated awkwardly. On the other hand, the parts that support the particular focus and ideology of conservative evangelicalism are trotted out and led around like docile prize ponies in a never-ending circle. Or at least that’s what it has sometimes seemed like to me.

As Enns notes, the task of making the Bible “behave” takes a lot of energy and creates a lot of stress, and as I look back on my early Christian education, I can see that it was shaped at least in part by avoidance (of biblical difficulties and of alternate interpretations) and by ignorance (of well-meaning teachers who were also hampered by a limited theological and Biblical education).

As I left my teenage years behind, I began to grow weary of the repetition. Every Sunday school quarterly seemed to have to same lessons on the same stories. All the object lessons had the same obvious and familiar morals. And no matter what text the pastor chose for the sermon, it invariably came down to the exact same point: the status of my personal salvation.

Did I need to walk the aisle and accept Jesus as my Savior? Nope. Did that when I was six. No hellfire and brimstone for this kid.

Did I need to rededicate my life to God? Maybe. But I’d done it a few times already, and besides, as a southern Baptist, the phrase “Once saved, always saved” was pretty much branded on my backside.

Did I need to be freed from the evils of smoking, drinking, drugs, or promiscuous sex? Nah. I had managed to grow up into a relatively decent and self-controlled person without any serious detours down the road to perdition.

According to the lessons of my youth, I already knew what I was supposed to believe, do, and not do. And frankly, when I went to church, I was bored as hell.

I kept growing as a person and a scholar, but for the most part, my spiritual maturation came to a halt because I had mastered understanding and believing in a narrow view of the Bible and Christian life.

The meaning of the Bible came down to being almost exclusively personal: it was about my salvation in the afterlife and my personal moral choices here on earth. (Of course, I was also supposed to worry about everyone else’s eternal salvation and their personal moral choices, but that was secondary, and besides, I had paid my dues by spending three summers as a student missionary.)

I appreciate the lessons that I learned as a young Christian and the values that I still retain from that part of my education. However, ten years, two churches, and several wonderful spiritual mentors later, I know that what I got as a child and young adult was only a small portion of a much larger picture.

I have come to know (or at least believe) that Christianity is about much more than guaranteeing the future of my eternal soul, and that the apex of my life as a Christian was not the day circa 1984 when I walked down the church aisle to “ask Jesus into my heart.” That was only the first, and perhaps the easiest, of all the questions I needed to learn to ask. 

The central message of Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, is not a personal invitation to escape eternal punishment that we need to accept and then share with others. The real invitation is to become a citizen of the kingdom of God here and now, and to actively participate in creating that kingdom on earth by giving love, making peace, and promoting justice.

It’s not about saving ourselves; it’s about sacrificing ourselves in the pursuit of God’s passion for justice and peace. It’s about radical transformation, both of ourselves and the world. It’s about wrestling with a complex, unruly Bible that offers us glimpses of God’s dream for the world and how we can bring it about. That’s the work of a lifetime, and now I know that I’m a lifetime student.

Needless to say, I’m not bored anymore. And I’m looking forward to Sunday school next week.


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A Glorified Tramp Stamp and a Seat at the Table, or, Thoughts on Christian Unity

There has been a stir in the progressive Christian community recently about the label “progressive” and what it means, since there are some on both the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum who try to police the boundaries of what is progressive and what is Christian. Bloggers who are too liberal or agnostic in certain areas are chided or even attacked as not being Christian, while other bloggers are told that they are not progressive enough because they still hold to this or that belief associated with more conservative faith traditions.

As David Henson beautifully articulated last week, the gift of progressive Christianity is that it makes room at the table for people all along the spectrum of faith and doubt. However, policing from either side threatens to turn this diverse and inclusive community into another closed system that draws hard lines about who is in or out, who is Christian or not, and who gets a place at the table and a voice in the conversation.

This is worrisome for those of us who have come to progressive Christianity precisely because we have either been excluded (often painfully) from church communities or because we have naturally evolved away from fundamentalist systems of belief.

My own journey away from conservative evangelicalism began in college, and I consider myself lucky that when I was in grad school, I accidentally stumbled into a church where my spiritual evolution and growth were encouraged and accepted, rather than being kicked out of one because of that same process.

I have met enough recovering fundamentalists and evangelical rejects–folks who carry deep spiritual wounds from being ostracized by their church communities and even their own families–to be extremely grateful for my former church, Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, and my current one, Weatherly Heights Baptist Church (WHBC). I have had  experiences of being marginalized as a woman and of being excluded or even insulted because of my theology (I wrote about one of those experiences here), but I am fortunate to have a community where I belong.

I have been planning to write something about WHBC for the blog in part because in creating “Prone to wander . . . lured by grace,” I have further co-opted WHBC’s beautiful rose window. I am going to digress a moment to talk about that before I come back and tie this thing together.

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I think of the rose window, which symbolizes the presence of God in our sanctuary, as partially mine because back in 2013, I had an interpretation of it tattooed on my lower back, where I already had a dragonfly tattoo from about a dozen years earlier. Back when I decided to get that first tattoo, lower-back designs on women weren’t extremely common (at least not in my corner of the world) and had yet to earn the disparaging nickname “tramp stamp.” If I had anticipated that, I might have made a different choice!

But regardless of that, years later, after spending many contemplative moments of worship staring up at WHBC’s lovely window and finding God’s presence in the multi-colored beams of light pouring through the stained glass, I went under the needle again (with the fabulous Caroline at Blue Rose Tattoo) and emerged with what I joked to a friend was now a “glorified” tramp stamp.

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I love the combination of the tattoos because of the way they join together the parts of who I am. The dragonfly simultaneously represents my origins (envision south Georgia summer evenings with dozens of dragonflies zipping through the dusk in the wide yard of my childhood) and my transformative journey away from those origins and into independence, into the courage that it takes to discard the expectations of others and simply and unapologetically be oneself.

The rose window, just as it does in our sanctuary, symbolizes the presence of God, but more than that, it symbolizes my openness to divine love and light and my hope that that light also shines through me and into our world. It represents the constancy of God’s grace and my aspiration to an ever more illuminated spiritual life. It also reminds me that being a Jesus-follower requires sacrifices of my time, my body, and my resources. It reminds me that this is a beautiful but costly, and sometimes painful, journey.

And that brings me back to my community, my fellow travelers.

In 2007, when I left my beloved Broadus Memorial Baptist Church to follow my career to Alabama, I worried whether I could find another church that would support me and my journey, and where my contributions would be accepted and valued. I knew that after finding a real spiritual home, I would not be able to thrive in a community where I would have to keep my head down and my thoughts to myself for fear of being reprimanded or rejected.

When I browsed churches online, I was immediately drawn in by WHBC’s tagline: “An inclusive, discovering fellowship,” by the highly visible presence of female leadership in the church, and by the language of the vision statement: “heartfelt Biblical faith,” “intellectual integrity,” “social justice,” “genuinely care for one another,” and so on.

Over the last seven years or so, WHBC has more than lived up to that original impression. It has been a place where my evolving and at times even faltering faith has been affirmed, renewed, and expanded. It has been a place where I have found essential mentors and faithful friends. It has been a place, most importantly, where I have found a true sense of belonging.

And the most beautiful thing is that I don’t belong at WHBC simply because everyone else there is as progressive, intellectual, liberal, feminist, and tattooed as I am, because they aren’t. 

I belong because the WHBC community values unity over uniformity.

Because we scoot over our chairs to make room at the table for someone who is perhaps not entirely like ourselves.

Because we respect the faith journeys of others even when they don’t follow the same path as our own.

Because our ministers respect our individuality and recognize that we all come to faith in unique ways and bring valuable perspectives and talents to the table.

Because we genuinely love and care for each other and our larger community.

WHBC is my community, a place where I fit . . . glorified tramp stamp and all.

I thank God for my church, and I pray for those who have been rejected from communities and have subsequently left the faith and for those who can only find the acceptance of fellow Christians via the internet because the churches in their area have not welcomed them (or worse, have actively rejected them) because of any number of factors–from physical appearance to sexual orientation to theological nitpicking.

Here at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, my prayer is twofold. First, I pray that every person seeking an authentic spiritual community will find one where his or her whole person is welcomed and accepted, because when we belong, and when we are able to be true to ourselves and vulnerable to those around us, that is when true community and exists and true transformation is possible.

Second, I pray that both in churches and online, all Christians–most especially those who claim the label progressive–will step up to the task of making room at the table for everyone who desires a place there.

Let us all come to the table to break bread together.

Let us fill each other’s cups.

Let us not only say grace, but give and receive it freely.

There is more than enough to go around. 


*My thanks to our guest minister for today, Rev. Christie Ashton from Hope Presbyterian Church for providing some of the inspiration for this blog post, and my thanks and love to all of my BMBC and WHBC friends who may be reading along!  

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