I was raised without a religion. As an adult, I found my spiritual identity as a Pagan--not the people "of the Book," as we like to say, but "of the library." The Bible never held any special place for me as a religious person. Over the years, I have managed to find satisfying and reliable paths for encountering Spirit that in no way related to the Bible.
And as a liberal Friend in a very liberal monthly meeting, I suppose I could go a long time without ever opening That Book.
On one level, that would make perfect sense.
Surely most of us have had the experience of having had the Bible used on us as a blunt instrument: of having been whacked upside the head with it by proof-texting preachers, as sure of their own salvation as they are of our need for it. This is especially true for non-Christians, like me: something about my mere existence seems to provoke some folks to heights of fearful rhetoric. You'd think I was personally Babylon the Great riding her Beast, come to usher in the end times.
I have been Jesus-ed at for more than one lifetime.
The other experience I've had that I suppose must be common, is of encountering the kind of liberal Christian who thinks of Christianity as the Source of All Niceness. The Bible is not to be taken literally, but exactly how it is relevant to this very polite, intellectual, not particularly life-changing religion of Niceness is never made clear. It is taken as a given, however, that singing the right songs (not too loudly) and attending a Nice church on Sunday is simply better than not doing so. In somewhat the same way that chewing with your mouth closed, or not wearing plaids with plaids, is better. The idea seems to be that we should all be Christians because it's what is in good taste.
I just never saw the point, frankly.
But a funny thing happened to me when I became Quaker.
In Quaker worship, I can feel the direct and immediate presence of a Spirit of love and peace. It's a Spirit as powerful as a river in full flood, and as deep and still as a lake at dawn. Worship can be as physical and visceral an experience as being tumbled by waves onto a beach when I'm body surfing: silent worship, hearing vocal ministry, giving vocal ministry. (Damn right Quakers quake!)
Now some of that is quite familiar. Pagans also know the direct and loving touch of a Spirit (or spirits) of love and truth. But some of it is bran-spanking new, at least to me: For the first time, as a Quaker, I have encountered the Bible used as a conduit for a living and present Spirit of love. Among Friends, when they are faithful, when they are led, and when they take pains to stay close to the root, the Bible becomes a language of power and heart.
I guess somebody must have figured it out before me. Probably that's where that bit about reading the scriptures "in the Spirit in which they were given forth" comes from. But I've been surprised.
I can still remember the first time I heard the words of the Bible spoken from the depths of worship, and felt them, really felt them, all the way to the soles of my feet, and knew that those words, at least, were True:
Walk humbly with God.
Of course, without the Spirit in them, they're just words. A bumper sticker. It's pretty easy for us humans to take in the Word, and make it into... words. Just words.
But if lived?
Do I? Do I act justly, in all things? Well, no. I try. But I forget a lot. I screw up a lot. And sometimes even on purpose. (Crap.)
Do I love mercy? Well, mostly. Sort of. Except when I don't.
Do I walk humbly? Ouch. Not so much. (I want you to walk humbly first. As Mark Twain once said, "Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits.)
I get glimpses, though. I get flashes, of what it would be like, to be really fully faithful, even to this one flash of Truth. And in the lives of some Friends, I get more than flashes, and it's pretty breathtaking.
Brent Bill wrote last week of the idea of a "life verse" from the Bible, a kind of inward compass for our spirits. I don't think I can claim Micah 6:8 as a life verse. I think it could take everything I've got, and everything Spirit and my community can lend me, for me even to approximate living into this one. But what a thing to try! What a hope to set my sights on.
If I can take in the Spirit I have begun to hear in the Bible, in Micah and elsewhere, and find a way to stay faithful to that--to resist the pull to kill the words and put them, safe and dead, on a bumper sticker I will never really read in my heart... well, to the extent that I can do that, I will be richer for it. The people around me will be richer.
So I am trying. Bit by bit, as Spirit illuminates a verse here, a story there, I am finding my way into a Bible I hadn't known existed until recently: a Bible that is not owned by humans, not a flag to stand under or a loyalty oath to take or a license to become complacent. Instead, this Bible is a language for listening in.
Maybe it's not the Seed. But it is at least fertile soil in which, at the right time, the Seed can begin to grow.
I'm good with that.
Cat Chapin-Bishop is a member of the Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting of Friends. She earns her living teaching 9th-grade English, and maintains the blog Quaker Pagan Reflections together with her husband Peter.