Arguing with God about the Bible

Once upon a time, I told God to start sounding more like Cheryl Strayed.

You might have heard of Strayed’s most famous book, Wild, which became a movie by Reese Witherspoon. She’s also the advice columnist Sugar, originally on The Rumpus and now a podcast from WBUR. I love Strayed’s work the way most normal people like rock bands. I am a groupie.

Anyway, the day I recommended God imitate a woman who changed her last name to ‘Strayed’ on purpose, I was sitting at my desk with an Exacto knife, a rainbow pile of cardstock, and an old Bible.

I had an assignment: cut windows into pages of said Bible and see what I saw on the other side. (By “assignment,” I mean “an idea I decided to do.”)

I was making that old copy of the Bible into an art journal. Thus far, I had covered over the paper cover, made a baby picture of myself pop up from the page of Psalm 139, cut a cross-shaped hidey hole into 1 Kings and glued mustard seeds inside.

Quite honestly, I did not know if the project had God’s stamp of approval. My husband, who is generally more conservative than I am, felt uncomfortable with it. So did a member of my extended family. A friend told me she could affirm me doing it, but would never do it herself.

I got their objections. I really did. I respect the Bible, and think the impulse to keep things sacred has value. But I didn’t put a Bible and an Exacto knife on my desk at the same time because I thought it would be cool, or fun, or interesting. I did it because I was ready to throw that Bible into the trash. That particular copy had been my companion—my hair shirt—during some of my worst years of faith. And I could barely touch it anymore.

Trashing it felt like more of a desecration than an art project. What did I have to lose?

Inspired by a kick-ass book called Wreck This Journal, I came up with 52 mini-assignments to transform the pages of the Bible.

Thus: pop-up picture, hidey hole, exacto knife, colored paper.

The page that faced me was Psalm 119, my least favorite psalm. It’s an ode to God’s law, the longest chapter in the Bible, and a famous acrostic. I find it incredibly tedious (sorry, Jesus).

It begins:

Happy are those whose way is blameless,

Who walk in the law of the Lord…

Back in college, I’d underlined the entire first column, and written in pencil next to it, Are any of us happy?

Reading those words again, along with the underlines like leaden cuts, made me wince.

Back in college, I served in a conservative parachurch ministry at my school. The theology didn’t fit me very well, but I didn’t leave. Instead, I lopped off my objections, my questions, my hesitations, and other large parts of myself to fit.

In college I thought Psalm 119 was telling me that it costs everything to follow God’s law, to be blameless, and that “everything” is worth even if you become a shadow of yourself. I thought happiness was for wimps, and that righteousness would incinerate the parts of me I despised (which was most everything). And so I used the Bible to torch my fragile heart.

That penciled-in question represented all the ways I had confused following rules with wholeness. I was done making that mistake.

Looking at the page, I wished that in college I had read Dear Sugar instead of Psalm 119. Instead of the formal strictures of the acrostic, I would have learned how to heal from trauma, how to say no, how to be yourself.

So I covered the page in sky blue paint, cut little windows in a few places, and behind them, pasted quotes from Cheryl Strayed:

This is who I am even if you’ll crucify me for it.

The place of true healing is a fierce place.

NO is the kind of power the good witch wields.

But after I finished debating with God about the contents of my least-favorite Psalm, I wrote something quite different over the drying paint.

I scrawled a prayer from the Psalm: Open my eyes, Lord, so that I may behold wonderful things in your law.

Reading that prayer layered over Cheryl Strayed’s defiance still surprises me. It turns out when I’m given freedom, whom I really want to be is God’s child. I don’t have to choose between Sugar and the Bible. I can be fully myself and be beloved, all at once.

I have come to realize that there is more than one way to read the Bible, more than one way to hold things sacred, more than one way to seek the righteousness of God. I thought in college that only perfect compliance would bring God’s favor, but the more I (ironically) read the Bible the less I value unquestioning faith.

Here’s why: I was afraid of turning my Bible into a big mess, but it was a mess in the first place. It’s a book of arguments about how to be whole, starring broken people, contradictions, hard-to-interpret poetry, and glimpses of freedom far more profound than even Cheryl Strayed can write.

And part of what has helped me see that freedom, to see the Bible with new eyes, has been the project of arguing with God about all the ways I have read it broken. Even saying that Cheryl Strayed should rewrite Psalm 119.

I wasn’t sure what I would find when I made windows showing the other side of those verses. When I did, I discovered a longing to see them with new eyes. To trust Scripture with my whole self, not just the ‘acceptable’ bits. To learn afresh the unforced rhythms of grace.

I told God to start sounding more like Dear Sugar, but even as I did, I realized what I really longed for was for God to sound like my Savior, no matter how far I might stray.

Photo by Luke Palmer on Unsplash

Heather Caliri
Latest posts by Heather Caliri (see all)