great moments in uncomfortable confessions, or, why i’m just like the apostle paul

One of the more discomforting pleasures of reading scripture is realizing just how frail I am when the text acts as a mirror for my soul. In the same vein, one of the great comforts of reading the text from the three-dimensional perspective of exposition is the fact that if we read the text for understanding, we realize that the principals are just as frail as we are. The greatest drawback of divine authorship/inspiration and inerrancy is that the text becomes a didactic field manual—a poor one at that—rather than the story of the interaction between God and man via covenant. Ancient texts are cold enough without having that kind of arctic pedantry.

So, as I’ve reintroduced myself to regular scripture time (I absolutely and steadfastly refuse to call it ‘doing devotions’) for the first time in years–many Evangelicals and fundamentalists will gasp in horror at that admission, that is, if they’re not so eager to stab me in the trunk with their books asking ‘where’s your sword, huh? where’s your sword?!’–it has been a welcome change of pace to experience it, this time with the human dynamic in mind. Suddenly, these characters in the text aren’t heroes of the faith or any of that other pedestaled, mythic garbage, but they’re human; they’re me.

For example, it has been argued that 2 Timothy might be the only authentic Pauline letter of the later set precisely because it is such a radical departure from his works addressed to a public audience. Instead of the grandiose and idealistic language of his works directed to a community, the letter takes on a personal tone, and one that reveals a man worn down from life in custody. In fact, Paul is not merely human, but fantastically insecure. This writer can relate.

Here is the closing of 2 Timothy, summed up: My life is over, I did my job, I can die now. Come visit. Please come visit. Demas bailed, Alexander was a back-stabbing prick. Luke’s still here, but I really can’t stand him. Please come. By the way, you still have my jacket and those books I let you borrow forever ago? I want them, too. You owe me. So, please? Pretty please?

The repetition, that almost whiny voice: I can hear myself saying those things. Crap, who am I kidding? I have said that. I relate to that feeling of being alone, rejected or abandoned; with the right company, very, very alone, rejected, abandoned. And I haven’t had a Damascus road experience, I haven’t spoken to rulers or defied authorities. If Paul can feel these things—and posthumously endure the embarrassment of having one of his postcards canonized for millions to read and cherish forever—then it’s perfectly okay for us to as well.

I struggle with feeling isolated. When someone says no to me, even something trivial or miniscule, I take it personally. I treat drifting apart as outright rejection; and I know better than that, most of the time, but I cannot control how I process those experiences. There is no evidence that Timothy ever showed up with robe and parchments in hand. In all likelihood, he didn’t. Paul probably had a minor existential crisis, if my experiences are any indicator of a general human response to such a situation.

He loved his protegé and long-time companion, but let’s face it: he was probably more than a little pissed off when Timothy didn’t show and the snowflakes were flying. The absence of our friends, or worse yet, their polite declinations, hurt people like us. Or a people like me. Or, um, me.

You see, when we read sacred text as though it were God talking, we miss out on these human elements because we redact them in the interpretive process. Here’s how ev-fundies go about interpreting the text: God doesn’t get pissed off, and it’s not the tribulation, so this is Paul happily encouraging Timothy to visit before it gets cold. But it’s really God moving Paul to write this so you can be a better Christian in three, alliterative steps which ultimately have nothing to do with the text itself. Not only is the human element gone, but so goes with it the respect the text deserves because we are the ones investing our time into it. The warmth and humanity of the story is gone, replaced by our own preset doctrinal or epistemic commitments. Why even bother with the story at that point? At the very least, it’s confirmation bias, at the most, it’s treating the principals, and by extension, the god who is claimed to have written the text, with zero respect. Perhaps it’s better to not read at all; perhaps I was right in stopping my devotions because I engaged it to 1) fulfill a duty, and 2) get what I want out of the text, and then delude myself into thinking the Holy Spirit made the words jump off the page. I can say with complete clarity of conscience that that-jumping-off-the-page-thing has always happened with my eye toward the humanity of the written word and never with inerrancy in focus. After all, if the entire anthology is verbal plenary, shouldn’t all the words be that amazing all the time?

And let’s face it, if Christians lack the human component when we engage the text, we will inexorably lack the human component when efforts turn toward evangelism, a word which is rooted historically in the deliberate, artificial marginalization of others to, in kind, deliberately, artificially restore others. In short, we hit them because we love them.

We share in appreciating God’s grace extended into the utter frailty (and often humiliation) of our shared human experience by treating the text as we treat those we love, and not being afraid to be frustrated, rejected, hurt and otherwise experiencing the sweet as well as bitter moments of life. In baring my weakness, I realize that I am desperately in need of affirmation and love.

Like Lewis, I read to know I am not alone. I do so because I live feeling like I am.


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