Is the Bible a guidebook for life, or is it a recipe? The former implies that the reader needs to discern what is being said, how it is said, and what those words meant for the people who first received them. The latter, on the other hand, implies it needs to be followed exactly (that is, literally) in order to gain the hoped-for result. Which is it? Looking around at the hundreds and thousands of expressions of Christianity around the world, there is clearly no one understanding of how to read (and by implication, follow) the Bible.
My own past includes a conservative, evangelical Bible School where I studied subjects such as exegesis, hermeneutics, apologetics, and old and new testament history (among many other subjects). It was the first time I’d ever had to actually LIVE on a campus that was run on conservative values, and it was not an altogether pleasant experience. I’m a questioner. Two and three year olds go through a phase where they ask “why?” all the time; I never grew out of it. So, I would ask “why” about some of the rules that were in place for college life, and I soon learned that questioning was not a good idea. Firstly, many of the answers didn’t make sense, and secondly, if you continued to question, you were labelled “rebellious” – and we all know what the Bible says about rebelliousness, right? It is akin to witchcraft. So, the ultimate answer is “Be quiet”.
For all her faults, my mother always encouraged questions, so simply being quiet in the face of rules that did not make sense was extremely hard for me. However, the harder I tried to do so, the more the internal damage began to build. I would castigate myself for not accepting what I considered “stupid” rules, and wonder what was wrong with me. Others didn’t seem to have the problems I did. At least, most did not voice any problems. One example was clothing. There were many rules surrounding what we could wear. To lectures, women had to wear skirts or dresses, although dress pants were also acceptable (so I guess the Bible College wasn’t ultra conservative). But, were corduroy pants “dress pants”? Big debate. Not among the students so much as the faculty. The answer, for one semester, was yes. However, this changed the next semester to a “No”. Flip-flops were not allowed to be worn to lectures, but did that include expensive dress shoes that had a bar between the big and second toe? Answer: “Yes”. To me, it seemed so petty, arbitrary, and in my book had nothing to do with the Bible.
I remember that it was at about this time I started thinking about people from other cultures. If women were not supposed to wear anything other than dresses or skirts, what of the Inuit people? Were their women supposed to wear dresses and skirts if they wanted to be Christian? And where, exactly, in the Bible was there an edict that women had to dress so? And then there was the ever-present “modesty” issue. When working around the college at practical tasks, women were allowed to wear shorts, provided they weren’t “immodest”. One of my friends was asked to change out of her shorts because a “brother” had complained her legs were causing him to stumble. Her shorts came half-way down her leg! Surely if our “brother” had a problem, he should be doing something about it himself, not complaining to the faculty about her. I believe we are in charge of ourselves and our reactions, and we should not demand that others change for us. That incident, even today as I remember it, smells badly of the excuse rapists used to make (and still do), namely, that “she asked for it”. It makes me wonder if the judges would accept a woman saying “Well, he took off his shirt while he mowed the lawn, and the sight of his lovely body turned me into a woman possessed. I just had to rape him, your honor. It wasn’t my fault; he was asking for it!”
Anyway, it was living in that kind of environment that initiated an awful lot of questions in my mind. Was this how the God of the Bible really wanted people to live? Were the small, and multitudinous, rules so, so important to life? Is that what Christianity was all about, or were many Christians becoming like the Pharisees that we so loudly condemned?