After a boozy party chez parents to bid farewell to my emigrating brother, I come back to London with two Bibles to complement each of my hangovers. First up, we have my mother’s: a slim, navy blue volume that she used for bible study classes in the ’80s, then we have my enormous childhood brick of 365 illustrated stories.
Now, I really love that book, but at 27 it doesn’t seem wholly appropriate that my primary source of bible info should be a tome where everything’s lovingly rendered in watercolours. I need to read the Bible. Properly. I’ve spent the last few weeks using the internet to research points, but as most of what I look at is analytical, that raises more questions than it answers. This is emphasised when I read Cracked.com’s Five Things You Won’t Believe Aren’t In The Bible which shows that at least three of the things I thought I knew actually stem from culture and/or Hallmark cards.
Much as I love the internet, I can’t ignore the fact I need to find a Bible of my own. But which one? Type ‘Bible’ into Amazon and thousands of options pop up before you: Good News, the King James, The Message Remix 2.0: The Bible In Contemporary Language. I could even get a metal-cased Bible with a ring pull and the word “Thirsty?” on the front. I won’t, but I could.
Despite all this, I still manage to entirely forget last week’s homework, picking my favourite story about Jesus, until I’m on the train on to class. Frantically flipping through the pages of both my books, I realise how many stories I’ve forgotten in the years since Sunday School. I get a couple of curious glances from the people sitting opposite me, but after a moment’s paranoia put this down to the frankly ridiculous sight of me diving from one book to the other, rather than being the mad Bible woman of Waterloo.
I choose the parable of the fig tree. It makes me think as well as getting my feathers ruffled. We’ve got a different vicar leading the class this week, who attempts to steer us along a defined route of study rather than the free-form jazz ranting of last week. How do we see Jesus? Shepherd, teacher? “Hippie cult leader,” one woman says brightly.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a popular story choice among the group, as is the feeding of the 5000. One woman reels off an incredibly fluent rendition of Jesus, the ship and the storm, which I only very dimly remember and makes me feel even more like I haven’t done my homework. Which, of course, I haven’t.
Another popular one is The Prodigal Son. Ironically, I’ve just had an email from an aunt saying that my discovering Christianity now reminds her a lot of that story. I have to say, while I can see her point – errant son comes back to the ways of the father – I really don’t feel like I’ve been away from the faith aspect at all, nor have I been driven back out of desperation as is the case in the parable. It’s just all been squirrelled away on my terms.
But onto the fig tree. Jesus sees a fig tree and goes to pick some fruit, but it doesn’t have any to give because it’s not the season for figs. Instead of going to find another tree, he curses it to remain withered and barren and storms off. Used to the image of Jesus as shepherd, a martyr, forgiving, Lamb of God, small baby wrapped in swaddling clothes etc, I’m baffled. Why didn’t he just find another tree? Or another fruit?
I can see it’s a parable about belief, but what if you’re not a Christian? It doesn’t mean you’re a bad tree, surely. Shouldn’t it be the person you are inside, religious or not, which is the one that is “judged” after death? As long as you’re a good person, why shouldn’t you go to heaven if that’s what there is after (I believe, but I don’t know. Is that reconcilable?). I refuse to believe that being gay, or a woman, or an atheist, means automatic damnation, any more than someone gets a default golden ticket just because they go to Church for an hour on Sunday and merrily raise hell the rest of the week. I think – hope? – you earn your place in heaven, in whatever shape that takes, by not being awful.
The vicar points out that none of us have chosen stories about Jesus himself, rather stories that have him in. It suddenly dawns on us that we’ve essentially picked the greatest hits from his career, instead of stories that are really about him, who he is and what he is. What proportion is divine versus man? We all look a bit glazed and a bit awkward about our lack of in-depth knowledge and it suddenly sinks in that I really, seriously, actively need to start reading the Bible and not just turn up each week ready for some ecclesiastical finger clicks and general seat-of-the-pants-ing.
As has become very clear from the interesting conversations arising from comments left on each blog, I might want to defiantly fold my arms and take confirmation on my terms, but there is an awful lot that I need to learn before I can even take that step. Just because I was brought up C of E, doesn’t mean that I am C of E. Not yet, anyway.
This post was originally published on The Times Articles of Faith blog.