The first Bible I ever saw was at St. Mathias Church in Hampton, a German Catholic town in rural Minnesota where even Lutherans were exotic. It was huge and red and had gold edges. Before reading from it, Father Hermes would kiss the Bible. During special occasions, he would waft incense over it. The message was clear: the Bible was sacred and only for the select. I yearned for unfiltered access.
When I was 15, my brother started to study to become a priest. I knew this meant he had a Bible in his bedroom. So, one quiet afternoon, I waited until he had gone. I snuck into his room, carefully removed his Bible from his bookshelf, and cozied up to it on his bed. I had to be careful, though. My dad was home, and I felt sure he wouldn’t approve of this violation of the unspoken rules. When his chair creaked upon his rising to go to the bathroom, I would hide the Bible under my brother’s pillow and act as if I was doing something more acceptable.
Eventually, I found my way to the Gospel of Matthew. I read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with fascination. For the first time, I could read Jesus’ words directly and in context. Then, one day, Father Hermes and I were talking and he “swore” he was going to follow through with a promise. I smiled to myself: Jesus said to never swear an oath (Matthew 5:34). Now I had power.
I acquired my own personal Bible during high school, and it accompanied me during many of my transitions to early adulthood. In college – while everyone else was drinking beer – I consumed the despairing book of Ecclesiastes, desperately searching for where hope was to be found. As I anxiously waited for my first graduate school class to begin, I found a dim concrete staircase nearby to read Proverbs, to center myself for the challenges of the day. When my relationships were struggling, I would meditate on 1 Corinthians to learn how to love better.
But I was changing, my hometown “bubble,” broken. I was learning about science and history and literature and honing my critical thinking skills. My friend group had expanded to include Buddhists and Jews and atheists and agnostics and Quakers and even Lutherans. Some didn’t care much about the Bible. Others hated the Bible, telling me it was the source of more falsehood, prejudice, and violence than any other in the history of the world.
The Bible started to challenge me in other ways as well. Sometimes, I would read passages and exclaim “that’s not true” or recoil, aghast, at what I stumbled across. “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Psalm 137:9), I read one day. What? This is supposed to be “sacred” scripture? With time, I experienced seasons where I lost interest, months when I would pass over the Bible on my table in favor of other reading material. There even were times when I secretly wondered if my Bible-hating friends were right about the destructiveness of the Bible.
And, still, the Bible continues to call me.
Ever since my mom died when I was 14, I have been accompanied by a fear of medical procedures, particularly those involving anesthesia. Somehow, I made it until I was 45 without needing any, but recently, I did. The anticipation triggered buried memories and feelings about my mom’s death, and I was petrified of losing control. A few days beforehand, I was reminded of a Bible passage: “in your day of trouble, God will keep you safe” (Psalm 27:5). As my consciousness started to change with the injection of anesthesia, I realized I had a choice: freak out or trust the Bible. I trusted. I relaxed. And I was indeed safe.
I used to believe the Bible was sacred because of its inaccessibility; now I believe it’s sacred because of its intimacy. If you saw my personal Bible, you’d know what I mean. Every year, this Bible looks more and more tattered, its green paper cover increasingly torn from years of bouncing around in my backpack and being bungy-corded to my bike. If you inspected more closely, you’d see in its pages a record of my spiritual history. There are asterisks by verses that especially struck me, question marks by passages I didn’t agree with, and margins filled with thoughts that have “bubbled up” during moments of insight.
If this Bible survives as long as I do, I wonder what people will think when it accompanies me to the memorial of my life. Will family and friends also explore my Bible, looking for clues of my inner life? Would the highlighting in its pages remind them of who I actually was and not merely who I tried to be?
Everyone needs a hook on which to hang their hat.
Andy Tix, Ph.D., teaches in the Psychology and Religious Studies programs at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota. He is a recipient of a John Templeton Award in Humility Theology for his research in the psychology of religion and regularly blogs at The Quest for a Good Life: Intersections between Psychology and Christian Spirituality.
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