Monday, September 15, 2014

Full-circle cynic

Photo by Joka Okada

It was February in Minnesota when I first sat in the front row of his "Hebrew Bible" class and pulled out my notebook and an NRSV Study Bible. I was bright-eyed and open-hearted, ready to be struck with glory, ready to be changed. The summer before, I'd slowly and painstakingly read through the first five books of the Old Testament--the Torah--and I'd been amazed by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now I was about to learn all the hidden and glorious messages of God within these texts.

I knew, of course, about tough questions and challenging passages. I knew about critical scholarship. I knew that somewhere deep in my gut there lived nascent questions and doubts. I'd seen those questions before: in prior religion classes, in the emotional bruises of deep and intense friendships, in the experience of engaging a foreign culture.

But I was hopeful. I'd just spent four weeks in Bangladesh, and I had written in my final paper that love was the answer to poverty. Jesus was the answer to all sorrow. I walked by faith, and some things were still simple.


My professor, who was popular with students, cracked sarcastic jokes about fundamentalists, and I sometimes wondered if I was included in his classification. He assigned a text called The Secular Bible and spent the first few weeks not delving into the mysteries of the text but rather making us very comfortable with words like "legend," "saga," "myth."

Only I wasn't comfortable. I believed the Bible was True--by which I meant science, I meant history in the modern sense, I meant it had been recorded without error from the mouth of God. If the myths were borrowed from other cultures, if the geography didn't line up, if there was no Adam and Eve...if some of it wasn't true, how could any of it be true? How could Jesus be true? How could the life I'd built be relevant?

There was no one to pat my back and tell me it was okay, that story was the vehicle of theology in the ancient world, that there are still so many incredible and unique and maybe even miraculous distinctions about the Judeo-Christian tradition, about the way it's been passed down.

There was no one. Only my professor, who called me a Bible-thumper, who answered my earnest questions in his office hours with academic explanations and justifications when what I needed were pastoral affirmations.

And so after six weeks in the class, I bailed. I bailed not to run away from the evidence; in fact I knew I'd never be able to ignore it again. I bailed because it was too much, too fast, too heavy, and my mind and heart were being crushed. I bailed because I needed silence in order to hear the whispers of God. I bailed because I couldn't bear to lose my faith. (And you can pick up the rest of that story here.)


Eight years later, as I prepared to start seminary at Duke, there was a tiny piece of me that wondered if I'd have to go through it all again. I had learned to reconcile my questions and still my heart. I had learned that scholarship is not contrary to God but a means of honoring God. I had learned that science and archaeology and faith don't have to be at odds, that God can transcend some of the imperfect ways God's word has been communicated. But had I only reconciled these things because I wasn't facing the questions directly every day?

Meanwhile, my politics and theology had evolved (left, I suppose I must say, though I am wary to identify with any ideology).

I was internally clear that these shifts were good shifts, shifts made in pursuit of truth, in pursuit of Christ.

I also saw how they correlated with increased skepticism of religious language, increased internal resistance to some Biblical interpretation, increased walls of defense. Maybe I was afraid of judgment from those who still held the beliefs I'd left behind. Maybe I was sometimes afraid of my own thoughts.

I didn't like the ways I had become jaded and cynical, defensive of my beliefs, skeptical about the work of the Spirit.


In the first week at Duke, the trees behind the chapel windows formed the most sacred kind of stained glass; the bread of the Communion brought together the many as One; songs were offered by broken, beautiful voices.

I walked into my Old Testament class. I was somehow again open-hearted, which was in itself a miracle.

This time, my open heart was met with a beautiful fullness.

Because the lecture that day was about a Creation story sprung from the spirits of an exiled people affirming their God.

The lecture shimmered with art, and faith, and authenticity. The lecture fully engaged history and archaeology and literary genre and found in the scripture something good and beautiful, something redemptive, something far richer than the simple reading I gave it at twenty. The lecture took into account patriarchy and ecological destruction and all of the evil that may come of power and was not glossing over the objections and yet still finding something in the story worth remembering, worth thanking God for.

I wanted to cry, for my twenty-year-old self, for her questions restored and recast in a beautiful framework.

And it goes on like this, day after day. My cynical nature has met its match. Every question, every doubt, every troubling implication is anticipated. Every day now, I walk out of my Old Testament class with a heart that is aching for the terrifying goodness of God.

Note: Since some people have asked, my professor is Ellen Davis. And I highly recommend every book she has ever written. Particularly lovely and accessible is Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament.


  1. Yea! This is great, and I'm happy you are having a good experience at Duke so far. M. loved Dr. Davis, and I enjoyed reading Getting Involved With God during his first's very accessible to lay people, too!

  2. Yeah! Thanks Libby! There are so many anxiety-inducing elements of being here, too (grades, ordination requirements, etc.) but it's been good to practice the art of backing up and see how beautiful an opportunity it really is.

  3. I know it can be really crazy--glad you are able to take it all in.

  4. love reading your blog Katie :-) What an awesome journey