My friend Nat Case, from my own Twin Cities Friends Meeting, has a blog I hadn’t paid much attention to until a month or two ago. I don’t know how much of my inattention is because I hadn’t noticed how smartly provocative his writing is, and how much is because, as a cartographer, he’s been writing less for a mapmaking audience lately, and more for Quakers and other people who question the meaning of religion. People like me.
This post expands on a brief comment I made on his post Fragments of a Religion That Never Existed, where Nat writes in part:
“What I’m interested in here is the idea of scripture not defined by its innate qualities (e.g. dictated by God), but by its functional qualities. What does scripture do? I find scripture-as-community-glue interesting, but my sympathies lie with scriptures-taken-to-heart. I do have a series of books, passages from books, poems, some formal religious texts, ballads, and films that form what I believe is similar to the sort of scripture-taken-to-heart that orthodox folk might have. Except I do not have a community that draws from the same set of texts.”
I most certainly have my “scripture” in the sense Nat speaks of here. A fair bit of what’s in the Bible qualifies, including Genesis, Exodus, Job, Ecclesiastes, and others.
Unlike most liberal Friends I have spoken with, I find almost nothing in the Gospels as compelling as these books of the Hebrew Bible. The teachings of Jesus are certainly remarkable, but for the most part I don’t turn to the Bible for direction on how to live my life; I turn to it for illumination of how life is. I prefer Job to the Sermon on the Mount not because it gives better advice, but because it strikes me as more accurate–more true to the nature of life on earth. If God existed in the sort of world we live in, I think he would terrify like the voice out of the whirlwind, not comfort like a loving parent.
The birds of the air Jesus speaks of may be arrayed better than Solomon in all his glory, but a great many of them starve before they give birth, or are eaten alive by other birds of the air. This is how life is shaped, sayeth the scripture of Darwin. The plumage of the birds of the air is lovely because it is tinctured with blood.
When I tell those who take the Bible as their one essential scripture, that I read the Bible the same way I read Melville or Dostoevsky or Kafka or Cormac McCarthy, they tend to take this as a dismissal of the Bible. It’s not. Literature like this plays a powerful, crucial role in my life, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. At its best these works unveil to me a rare and breathtaking view of the usually hidden essential nature of human existence. What is revealed is sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying, sometimes–most revealing of all–both at once.
I suppose if I had to choose one volume to serve as my scripture, the Bible would be a pretty good choice. There are stories and passages in there as soul-shattering as anything I’ve ever read. But I don’t have to choose one volume, and I think there’s something to be said for not choosing.
(In reply to this last point, Nat suggests that perhaps we don’t choose our scriptures so much as our scriptures choose us. Yes. The only way I know I have found my scripture, is when I read it and it electrifies me. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”)