I threw my Bible away recently. Actually, I threw away six, in three different languages. That’s what a good missionary I used to be. The only ones I kept were the beautiful gold-edged King James version I was given for my christening and the Russian one given to me by a woman whose house I stayed in for a while, shortly after the end of the Soviet Union. It is worn and the marker ribbon is transparent from use, but she’d kept it through years of pressured faith and I couldn’t part with it. But I threw away the others, including the one which was marked up and underlined and colour-coded and annotated and highlighted and everything else you can possibly do to a book. It was crammed with so many notes on loose pieces of paper that a friend once referred to it as the New Exploding Version. And I remember clearly when I bought it and sat in the garden doing a spot of colour coding as the thought went through my head, “Do I really have to do this for the rest of my life? Can’t I ever just arrive?” Of course, I banished the thought immediately, apologised to God and berated myself at length.
What strikes me now is the sense of striving that went with all of that – the unease that I would never be good enough, never know enough, never do enough, never keep the rules enough. No wonder I burned out and spent three years with M.E., having spent the previous three years living – sorry, ‘serving’ – in a community thousands of miles from home, with serious issues of poverty, domestic abuse, gang violence, endemic HIV, TB and alcohol and drug abuse, in a culture very different from my own, functioning in a language I hadn’t spoken a word of when I arrived. I often wonder now if I was in the wrong place, despite feeling at the time that I had clearly heard God tell me to go. I’m still not convinced I was wrong, but the way I went about it was problematic. If anyone had suggested a need for some kind of theology of suffering, or of rest, I’m not sure I could have taken those on board at any more than a theoretical level. Either way, I continued to work for mission agencies and/ or a tangled web of mission, law and politics for another 16 years, coming close to burnout a couple more times.
Perhaps part of it was a need for approval. Perhaps it was my inability to fit my blurry-lined, shades-of-grey thinking into a black and white theology (“But why is that a sin?”). Or perhaps it was a genuine sense of anger at injustice and poverty and exploitation.
There are things I’m still angry about, still make me want to throw something (or someone). I am angry with those who controlled, manipulated and shamed others in the name of God: I remember the public shaming of a friend whose sexuality was forcibly outed. I had trained as a professional dancer, and yet was made to feel ashamed of my (very covered up) female body, lest I cause the poor men to stumble. That body – that ability to move – gave up when I became ill. I was told I had a ‘spirit of rebellion’ (it’s always a ‘spirit’, isn’t it?) because I questioned my leadership and failed to even notice hierarchies, and that I would never find a husband (the ultimate goal) because I was too strong and independent. When I did get married, I went into it not having a clue about myself in relationship, taught only about a form of marriage which simply doesn’t apply to 21st Century UK, yet feminist enough to have solemnly promised my beloved that I would never, ever do his ironing (so far, so good). I am angry with myself, at times, for taking so long to see through the bullshit that had nothing to do with God and for spending decades feeling like a universe trapped in a matchbox.
And yet… how much better off would I have been outside the Church? Aren’t there also unhealthy relationships and warped views of sex; controlling people; chronic striving; sexism; othering and, in this age of identity politics, the terror of breaking the rules of this new sort of purity culture? Maybe not so much justifying it by taking God’s name in vain…
I notice the two Bibles I kept have something in common: I kept them because of the people who gave them to me. And the reason I still don’t think I was in the wrong place was the people who gave to me: those who loved me in deeply sacrificial ways, who exposed me to the richness of other cultures, who sent me to bed when I wasn’t well, who noticed and stood up for women when they were being overlooked or ignored, who introduced me to feminist theology, who I can still turn to. Also the group of friends who went after the man who attacked me, and beat him to a pulp. Don’t we all need those kinds of friends from time to time?
I threw the Bibles away because I needed a fresh start. I needed not to be reminded of the angst every time I looked at them, or to cringe at the certainties I once flung at others. For a long time now, I’ve felt like a snake sloughing off its old, dry, itchy skin. The new skin is sensitive, but it feels fresher, healthier, a relief. There are times when my faith seems like Schrödinger’s cat – can it be alive and dead at the same time? I know there are those who would say it is stone dead: I’ve had the slippery slope, all heart and no head (that one had more than a hint of misogyny about it), woolly liberal, heretic discussions, and I probably would have said the same once upon a time. But I’m not so sure I like the binary nature of that cat any more than the binary nature of the rules, the judgements, the othering. Maybe it’s a whole different kind of cat.
A few years ago, I began to wonder what happened to that dancer, so I re-trained as an actor. These days I’m learning to let go, to love uncertainty. I listen to Russian Orthodox music rather than worship bands and read more Mary Oliver than scripture. The first lines of her Wild Geese…
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
…blend into the last lines of The Summer Day:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Does anyone know of a good, modern Bible translation?
– Olivia Jackson