Sometime in my mid-to-late teens, my flanker brothers (the ones on either side of me, chronologically speaking) and I went on a float trip with my 7th grade gym teacher and her housemate, who had become friends of our family. I’m pretty sure there were other people on the trip, but my mental photos are too blurry for me to identify them.
The sharpest memories I have of that float trip are of playing in the river with my brothers. We had all been competitive swimmers, and we played in the water with an exuberance and creativity unbound by worries about things like drowning, snapping turtles, or water moccasins. Well, okay, I was a little worried about the turtles and the snakes. Drowning never occurred to me.
As I remember it, we stopped for lunch on a long beachy area right next to the river. The current was really fast along this stretch (the river was named the Current River for good reason.) My brothers waded out to the middle of the river, where the water was about chest high. They turned so that they were facing upstream, and jumped up as high as they could (getting about waist high out of the water). The current promptly seized on their legs, pulled them under the water, and carried them feet-first downriver. Then it became a guessing game as to where they’d pop back up. After doing this once, my younger brother emerged from the water so excited it was as though the outline of his body was a jagged line, like in cartoons. “It’s like surfing INSIDE the water! Except your body is the surfboard! It’s so cool! You HAVE to TRY it!”
What I remember about “surfing inside the water” was how hypnotic it felt to be carried along. Not floating on top of the current, but in the middle of it, under the surface of the water. I remember being able to feel different temperatures of the different currents interacting with each other along the length of my body. Eventually, the hypnotic effect was undercut by my need to breathe and my frantic scrambling to get back on my feet. But those moments of being carried along in the river, and how it felt, are burned into my memory.
River surfing came to mind recently when I was reading some letters in the Boston Globe speaking out against same-sex marriage, after the equal marriage victory in New York State. The “religious” arguments against same-sex marriage usually cite the same litany of scriptures that are deployed as proof that God “himself” sees same-sex marriage as unnatural, immoral, and just plain wrong.
One letter writer seemed thrilled to have come up with a whole new (to me) angle proving the religious prohibition against same-sex marriage. He cited the commandment “Honor your father and mother” as proof that God wants only families with one father and one mother. Ergo, marriage can only be between one man and one woman. The letter oozed with a kind of self-righteous “Gotcha!” The man clearly thought he had come up with an airtight argument for why God’s definition of marriage is one man and one woman.
From my perspective, people who look to scattered verses in the Bible to reinforce their unshaking certainty around issues of sexuality and marriage, they are like people who look for boulders in the middle of a river that they can use to pick their way across to the other side without getting wet. They jump from one verse to the next, as though the verses are as solid and unmovable as boulders. Meanwhile time rushes past them, flowing around the boulders. The value of the Bible to these people seems to be that it rewards their stasis. The verses don’t change, so we don’t have to either!
But here’s the thing. As PW is fond of saying, the Bible is not a book of facts, it is a library of possibilities. It’s a library full of stories of deeply flawed people repeatedly finding new possibilities, finding a way out of no way. There are also a number of stories in the Bible about God changing God’s mind. In short, it seems to me that if we don’t want to change, the last source we should cite to support stasis is the Bible!
This is why I love what I call Heretic School so much. Every other month, a group of 10-12 of us gets together early Tuesday morning at Emmnauel for the opportunity to surf inside the water of the Bible. Most of us will wade out into the passage we’re contemplating, jump up, and give ourselves over to it. Some days, some of us don’t want to be carried too far by it. Some days, some of us don’t want to be carried at all. Some days, some of us get carried almost out of sight. We all bring our own degrees of openness or resistance to different passages.
More often than not, though, most of my Heretic School-mates and I get picked up, moved, and deposited somewhere else after we spend an hour together talking about and listening to what we notice, what is speaking to us, and what might be different for us after encountering a snippet from this library of possibilities. It’s not always an easy ride. There have been some days where I felt like it took me the whole week to get my feet back under me. Other days, I walk out of the room exhilarated, wanting to approach strangers on the street by saying, “You HAVE to try Heretic School!” Sometimes it takes weeks for me to detect any shift or movement at all.
Referring to what most of the church-going world calls “Bible Study” as “Heretic School” has made it possible for me to surf inside the river of this library of possibilities with that same sense of abandon that I had that magical afternoon at the Current River. When my Heretic School-mates and I encounter one of the snapping turtles, snakes, or drowning pools in the water — you know, one of those verses or stories that gets used like a weapon against queers, or women, or non-Christians, or anyone who finds themselves outside looking in — we have a built-in buddy system for helping each other surf through it so we can emerge from it in a new place, with new understandings and possibilities.
The last thing I want to do with any work of art, which is how I would broadly describe the Bible, is to freeze it in some sort of time capsule of meaning. If I’m honoring the art, I’m approaching it with a posture of elasticity, of being ready to go with the flow. The work should have the freedom to evolve, to land differently in me, to move me differently, to pick me up and carry me somewhere new each time I approach it.
Hopefully, as John Hiatt sings it, “No two journeys are ever quite the same.”