The Strange World of the Bible
I was a teenager when I started reading the Bible every night.
I’m aware now that most American teens probably weren’t doing that in mid-90s, but I didn’t think much about it at the time. I was always involved at church growing up, first in our children’s ministry and later in our youth group. At some point, the message got through to me that I ought to be reading the Bible regularly. It just seemed to me like something grown-up Christians did, like singing the hymns in church or knowing the Lord’s Prayer by heart.
I was given a Bible in the 3rd grade that I’d never bothered to read, but one day—I don’t remember how old I was—I opened it up started at the beginning of Genesis. I read it each night in my bed before falling asleep, and it became a habit. My goals were modest; I only had to read enough each night to turn the page once before falling asleep. That made the tough chapters in Exodus and Leviticus a bit more manageable, and it kept me moving at a consistent pace. By the time I graduated high school, I had read the whole Bible front to back.
I soon discovered as I read, though, that the Bible was much more than what I thought it would be. I’m not sure what I expected—a handful of stories I already knew and some moral instruction, maybe? Yet what I found were fearful stories of a man with a tent peg driven through his temple; a murdered and dismembered woman; prophets who did strange things and said even stranger things. Even the familiar stories from Sunday school were different somehow. They were shorter than I thought they’d be, but managed to say more than I thought they could say, and I struggled to understand all that they could mean. I wrestled with my frustration that the people of Judah couldn’t obey God and kept getting punished in Judges through 2 Kings. I felt confused and saddened when their chances ran out and they were conquered and deported by Nebuchadnezzar’s army. It wasn’t supposed to end like that, was it? But I wasn’t even halfway through, so it couldn’t possibly be the end yet. Still, the things that came afterward hardly brought about anything that seemed like resolution.
Though some of it was foreign, unexpected, and confusing, the Bible was not opaque. I did comprehend some of it, and grew to understand more as I familiarized myself with its world. Over time, I gradually came to be formed by the Bible. I’m convinced of this. Despite my imperfect understanding, the words I read shaped me and I grew to love my nightly encounter with them. During my first semester of college, I took Introduction to the Old Testament, where I learned about the history and geography of ancient Israel and Judah, read Hammurabi’s code and other ancient near Eastern texts, and came to understand the reading techniques and methods of study that would help me explore the Scriptures more deeply than I’d thought possible. I went on to major in religion, then got a Master’s and a Ph.D. in theology and biblical studies. What began as a nightly devotional practice became a quest that would last more than a decade to understand the Bible and the world it opened to me.
Around the time I started reading the Bible, I was also being introduced to the world of physics. My 8th grade class went on a week-long field trip to Washington, DC, and at some point I found myself in the gift shop of the National Air and Space Museum. I had loved the museum itself, but in the gift shop a book caught my eye that would, as hokie as it sounds, set me off on an adventure of learning. The book was Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension, by Michio Kaku. I can’t say for sure why I decided to buy it, though I suspect it had something to do with the fact that the word “hyperspace” reminded me of Star Wars. I blazed through the whole thing, from the introduction all the way through an odd idea called string theory. That book was my introduction to the strange, mind-bending world of theoretical physics.
I was a smart, curious kid, and all of a sudden I was reading these heady ideas about the nature of reality and the possibility of wormholes and 10-dimensional superstrings. I felt like Alice jumping down the rabbit hole. I learned about higher-dimensional space, and how we can only conceive of it through analogies. I discovered special relativity, and how time is not a thing separate from space, but makes up the fourth dimension of what is called spacetime. I learned about how spacetime itself can be curved and warped in these higher dimensions, which on the one hand explains gravity and on the other hand opens the theoretical possibility of time travel. Wrestling with these ideas, and similar ones in books I read after it, helped me see that the world around us contains an unfathomable depth of reality, of which our everyday experience offers us only the most fleeting glimpse.
Deep Reading and Exploring New Worlds
These formative experiences from my youth have been on my mind this week because I’m reading a book titled Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. The author, Maryanne Wolf, is a neurologist who studies what happens in our brains when we read, and how learning to read actually shapes the circuitry of the human brain. She describes the importance of reading deeply and attentively, taking our time to process the words and the ideas they convey, letting them carry us into new worlds where our minds are free to question and explore. She shows how the neurological process of reading is inherently malleable, which makes it both adaptable and fragile. Wolf wants to protect the skill of deep reading and the deep thinking in an era where digital reading drives us to read shallowly, impatiently, and with minimal attention.
As Wolf described the importance of literature in her own life, particularly how it influenced her as a young person, I recognized myself in her story. Both my introduction to theoretical physics and the gradual growth of my love for Scripture came about because of the freedom and the patience to read deeply and intensely, with all the close attention that’s necessary to understand a 4-dimensional hypercube or to follow Paul’s reasoning in Romans. I see how important it was that I had space to read, reread, ask questions, and make analogies. I’m ready to join her crusade to protect this kind of reading for adults and (especially) for young people.
Most of all, though, Wolf has helped me to see that the real value came from holding the world of Scripture and the world of physics together in my mind, allowing my understanding of each of these worlds to shape my understanding of the other. Over time, without even realizing it, I came to understand that these two worlds were leading me to the same place. I wanted to understand reality and nature, but realized that endeavor would find its completion only in the knowledge and love of the Creator God. I wanted to learn about my religion and serve God faithfully, but came to recognize that reason and observation of the world around me were gifts to help me on that journey.
In both physics and faith I discovered ample room for mystery, and I found that exploring both together bore fruit more often than it presented an obstacle.
That was my experience as a young person, and it continues to be my experience today.
What about you? How has reading and exploring new and different worlds shaped you? How do you stay open to new ideas, inspired to learn and grow through strange new worlds?