Church was a constant in my first seventeen years. My family and our moderate protestant church provided a safe space for asking questions, exploring the biblical stories, and observing the impact of church on everyday life. For reasons unknown to myself or my family I never rebelled. While I did stand firm in the tradition, I also left for college with lots of questions. There I had my first introduction to a serious scholarly approach to the Bible and, unlike many of my classmates who found this approach distressing and dismissive of their beliefs, I was delighted to engage the questions and push the boundaries. Fast forward a number of years and I found myself continuing to hunger for more and more exploration of these fascinating (and, for me, sacred) texts, completing two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. I enjoyed a fulfilling career as New Testament and Christian Origins professor and, as an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in PC(USA), was able to serve both the academy and the church for many years. And to the surprise and wonderment of many (who never failed to be surprised) my scholarly pursuit of the text and my Christian belief were never mutually exclusive.
Through all the years of my study every exegetical move, every dissection of the text made me more and more intrigued with this body of writings that has not only survived these many centuries but has also survived all our pushing and probing, our analyses and dissections. In this study, and in my life of faith, not only have I learned to live the questions, but I have developed a tolerance for ambiguity, and I have come to understand the Bible as a collection of reflections of ordinary people of faith who over time have struggled to understand that which is greater than themselves. This I find to be a fascinating and illuminating idea. Acknowledging the humanity and the diversity of those responsible for the composition and compilation of the Bible and the development of early Christianity allows me to see the depth and breadth, the variety and idiosyncrasy of the parts, much like a beautiful tapestry.
If you’ve ever done needlework or taken time to really look at it, it is interesting to note how different it looks depending on your perspective. If you simply stand back and look at the front of a tapestry you may be captured by the intricate design, the impeccable detail. If you get very close to the work and look at one small section, you may be able to see the color and texture of the threads– but it is much more difficult to see the pattern. And if you turn it over—well, often it appears to be no more than a chaotic tangling of different colored threads with no apparent pattern at all.
This is not, I would argue, unlike our approach to the early Christian writings. Our perspective surely impacts what we see. Each reader approaches the study of the New Testament from his/her/their own perspective. With each new study we are invited into the text as well as some aspect of the world of early Christianity. As I think about some of the comments and questions of readers/interpreters it seems to me that as we approach each reading, we are often so busy with the process of weaving our own stories (defending our own views) and the focus can be so concentrated on making the outcome of the picture to our liking ― that we’re not paying attention to the details on the other side.
However we view this tapestry, this world of the text and the lives of early Christians, it is fascinating to explore the back and so I invite you to do just that, to turn it over, take a new look, to get lost in the colors and textures and patterns. Find a class, ask for a class, and be willing to take note of the knots, the imperfections, the bumps, the smears of color. At times it looks and feels random and chaotic. Yet every knot, every bump, every stitch plays an integral part in these aspects of our human history as a people of faith. And as if this weren’t enough, it is important to recognize that in approaching the text honestly and openly it will not only in expand our vision beyond educated analyses of the past events but also call us to live responsibly and generously in the present, thus creating a tapestry for the common good.
Here’s to a year of good study, good conversation, and charitable acts.
By Judy Yates Siker, Parish Associate