“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. Pearls are bone marrow; pearls come from oysters. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium.” Maxine Hong Kingston
When I was eight years old, I read the King James Bible cover to cover. I did this in secret, at night with a pen light, cross-referencing, marking up passages I felt were contradictions, as if constructing a map for a prison escape.
I was traveling with my maternal grandparents, my biological father, and 70 young men across the country for 10 weeks, performing in a play called Penniless. My mother wasn’t with us, but I was held tight under the umbrella of the rules under which she had been born. She believed in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and ordered by his own father to suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, dead and buried. She believed, like Abraham, she was called to sacrifice her children as a testament to her devotion to our Lord. In exchange, God would bless her, and multiply her seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and her seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.
My mother considered her children lilies of the field, which God would provide for, in his own way and time.
I didn’t have formal schooling past the second grade, and I travelled in the margins of mainstream culture for the rest of my childhood. When I was a young adult, in college and graduate school, I often felt like I was digging myself out of an insurmountable hole. I had no context for pop culture references, had missed the songs and sounds and trends of my youth, the films and albums and actors and musicians upon which generational identities are formed. I didn’t know basic U.S. history, had never memorized the names of presidents, the years of wars, or the capitals of countries or states. All I really had was the word of God inside me. In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.
Ruth, my maternal grandmother, spoke often of the seven seals of the apocalypse, so we would be prepared for the end of times. She taught me about the sixth seal, the great earthquake, the sun black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon as blood. She made me repeat to her about how “the stars of the heavens fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.” And she asked me, when the great day of his wrath is come, how I would be able to stand. I would describe to her how “the heavens departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”
I don’t know if I have escaped his wrath. Leaving still feels like the greatest betrayal I have ever committed.
I was taught loyalty to our clan, that my commitment should always be to my people, that “where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
When I was a young adult and left my familial community and religion behind, all these words and images felt like useless knowledge, an esoteric burden strapped to me like a mule.
But lately, I have reconsidered the value of being raised with the Bible as the only book readily available to me. After cultivating a career, a home and a family, I recognize that reading the Bible, memorizing verses, studying the various translations, cross-referencing the gospels with a pen and a concordance, gave me a foundation for the work I do, both in and out of the classroom.
Eventually, I left my family, but the word hasn’t left me. I carry the cadence of old English inside me. I have an ear for poetry, storytelling, psychology, metaphor, history and Judeo-Christian culture, and I have the discipline to search for slow answers in semiotics. But perhaps most importantly, the Bible taught me “to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.”
A former student approached me this week, earnest and intense. “I’m an atheist,” he said, “but I haven’t read the Bible. Do you think that makes me a hypocrite?” I looked at him, assessed what I knew of his academic and career goals, and told him no, I don’t think a belief system is tied to a manuscript, one way or another.
He looked noticeably relieved.
“Nevertheless,” I added, “you’re a philosophy major, with a strong interest in history, politics and literature, and a Biblical context is deeply useful. I recommend you read it.”
“The whole thing?”
“Yes,” I said. “Bits and pieces won’t give you the same perspective.”
“Challenge accepted,” he replied.