My Old Bible
I found my old bible last week. Actually, to be precise, my wife found it as she was doing a massive purge of the basement bookshelves. Our sixteen year old twins are working at camp this summer so we spent a few days with hazmat suits and masks in the dark and terrifying underworld attempting to restore a sense of order (or at least hygiene) to the chaos of teenager-land. And there, amidst the clutter of dusty kids’ books that hadn’t been cracked in years, was my old black, leather bound NIV bible. My name engraved on the front. Duct tape barely holding the spine together. An inscription inside indicating that it had been presented to me by my grandparents on Christmas Day, 1985. Thinking back to what an ungrateful wretch of a child I could be, I cringed to think that I might have been more excited to discover this bible last week than I was to receive it as a ten-year-old.
I began to examine this intriguing artifact. What clues about my childhood spirituality and reading habits (or lack thereof) might it yield? Well, the first discovery was that I wasn’t much of an underliner. Four passages in the whole bible:
- John 3:16 (obviously)
- Genesis 1:27 (created in the image of God)
- Ephesians 2:1-3 (all about being dead in transgressions [i.e., being ungrateful for bibles], gratifying sinful desires and being by nature objects of wrath. I was, apparently, a morbid youth)
- Jeremiah 17:9 (the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? Who, indeed)
If we were to construct a theological skeleton based on my sparse underlinings, it would look something like this:
You’re a very bad sinner. But you’re created in God’s image. And God loved you enough to send Jesus.
I suppose you could do worse. You could also do a lot better.
The second discovery was an unhappy one. There were three major chunks that had been at least partially torn out of my old bible. It looked like a dog had just taken a big bite out of my bible in three places. I have no recollection of what caused these jagged wounds, but if I were a betting man I would say that it had something to do with the general inattentiveness and carelessness with which I moved through my days.
At any rate, I was intrigued by which parts of God’s grand narrative I would have to do without if I were to press this bible back into regular service (which, being embarrassingly nostalgic, I was keen to do). The first section was a biggie: large portions of Genesis 1-4. Creation, fall, exile from Eden, Cain and Abel… I would evidently have to forage on fragments when it came to the origins of the world, the nature of humanity, and the seeds of the existential predicament that has plagued the planet and our species ever since. But I could resume the story with Noah and the flood and the near destruction of humanity. Whew.
Next, it was a few chapters that stretched from the end of 1 Kings into the first chapter of 2 Kings. This is, admittedly, not a part of the bible that I go to frequently for comfort or instruction. But the word of the Lord it remains, so I went to see what I was missing. Turns out, I would have to do without a list of the exploits of a certain Jehoshaphat, son of Asa, king of Judah. Jehoshaphat was apparently an improvement upon the divided kingdom’s previous collection of degenerate monarchs. He was said to have done “what was right in the sight of the Lord.” But the facts on the ground seem a bit more ambiguous. He left some of the rituals and symbols of idolatry untouched. He exterminated the male temple prostitutes (!). He built some ships to go and procure some gold from Ophir, but they were destroyed en route. Perhaps the peope of Ophir were not so eager to be relieved of their gold. Or maybe it was all just fake news dreamed up by an over-zealous press secretary. At any rate, interesting as Jehoshaphat and his exploits were, I thought I could probably survive a bible without them.
The last major gash in my bible was in the book of Romans. Like, most of the book of Romans. Vast sections of Romans 4-15 were just missing. Now, while St. Paul and I don’t always see eye to eye, and while I couldn’t say that I would miss passages that talk about the role of Israel in God’s plan of salvation (which is endlessly misunderstood and fought over), and while I could do without Romans 13 and the difficulties that this chapter presents to Anabaptist sensibilities, and while I figured I could get enough about justification by faith to cover my bases in some of Paul’s other letters, and while Paul’s logic about the relationship between law and grace is sometimes difficult to follow, even I had to concede that missing most of Romans is a bit of a theological problem. Romans 8 is, after all, one of the most beautiful chapters in all of Scripture. So are chapters 14-15, in their own way. But, even given all this, I consoled myself that at least the four gospels remained undamaged, aside from a few coffee stains. The words of Christ in red letters, even. That surely ought to be enough. If it was good enough for Leo Tolstoy, it would be good enough for me.
I was pondering all of these deep matters while absently thumbing through my old bible when I discovered one more tiny little omission. This time it was just the top of one page that was missing, and only one verse. James 2:10:
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
Well, isn’t that just great. Presumably you have to have the whole law in order to keep it. And that would include Genesis 1-4, 1 Kings 22, and most of Romans. Crap.
Seeing no way to use my old bible without incurring the guilt of lawbreaking, I set it on the shelf behind my desk. There it will sit as a treasured, if risky, artifact. But I may just break it out when I’m reading the gospels. And as I read the red letters I will give thanks for grandmas and grandpas who love their grandkids, for tortured adolescents with deceitful hearts and sinful desires who can grow into a faith that has some better ideas about what all that means (and what it doesn’t mean). And for a God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son.