So, here’s the deal. I was raised evangelical, am now kinda agnostic, but mostly still ID with Christian. I’ve made a huge effort over my adult life to relearn how to read scripture from a liberationist perspective, but have slipped off on Bible reading on the regular cause it’s hard not to feel the evangelical background rearing its head when I pull out my Bible.
I’m also queer and have been in an open relationship with a wonderful woman for a year now. She told me in October that she’s converting to Judaism, and I’m really excited for her — it’s clearly filling a spiritual need for deep inquiry and questioning. She’s been really good about giving me resources to learn more and to explain and follow along with her.
The issue I’m running into is that, while I want to join in with her by being supportive in the weekly Torah readings and talking about things, I’m having real trouble sitting down to read as it brings up all the evangelical muck and shit from my years living in evangelicalism. How do I move past my own religious shit to support my girlfriend?
Bringing Up Bible
“My own religious shit.” What an evocative phrase.
For those of us who were raised in religions that made great demands of us, even bucking it as an adult does not rid us of it. We have religious shit. And to each of us, it is our own.
The bad news, Bringing, is that religion sticks with you — it’s immanent in your worldview in ways that you can come to recognize and understand, but never fully outpace.
The good news is that there can be value in coming to terms with it — with an inalienable part of yourself, one that you’ve since come to regard with distaste.
I notice that, throughout your letter, you reference your evangelical background in stark terms, but without specifics. Your past evangelicalism “rears its head”; it brings with it its “muck and shit.” You talk about your years in it like they were a kind of imprisonment. From the fact that you’re queer and in an open relationship, I can guess some of the reasons for your alienation. The rest, of course, are your own. And they come up most strongly when you engage with the Bible, whether trying to reclaim it through progressive theologies, or when seen through the prism of your girlfriend’s journey.
It seems that contact with the Bible brings up tremendous pain for you, and the great, brutal, unwieldy text of it resonates not just with historical memory, but with your own smaller history, one that has its own private darkness.
Conversion is an intense, transformative process, and your desire to be fully present in this major moment in your girlfriend’s life is understandable. You indicate that you’ve actively sought out resources to try to understand her religious life better, and you want to “be supportive.” I have to wonder — does this have to include reading the Torah?
Talking to her about your own past and your own limits may feel selfish — she is, as you’ve indicated, engaging in something that goes to the core of her spirit, and you may be seeking to maintain an uncomplicated, supportive presence throughout the process. But trying to do so is proving to be a major strain on you for the simple reason that your feeling towards religion — all religion but especially one rooted in the iron word of God and the Patriarchs — is, in fact, very complicated indeed.
The journey you sketch out here is one of escape from a smothering God, and unsuccessful attempts to integrate a softer one into your life. This is difficult to do for many reasons, not least of which is the Bible itself. Reading the Bible makes a kinder Bible difficult to imagine: it is full of the grotesque. In this book a man eats honey from a lion’s carcass. In this book, a wife’s bride-price is a mound of enemy foreskins. In this book a concubine is dismembered; there are seven separate genocides; a woman sleeps with her father-in-law in the guise of a prostitute. Prophets writhe in agony across the pages, queens die in slicks of blood lapped up by dogs.
Perhaps you will never be reconciled with the Bible and its God. Perhaps years and decades are not enough time to let saccharine bits of Bronze Age wisdom roll off your tongue. Perhaps you will never find a god you want to allow into your life, because the commandments you were given, when you were young and learning to know the world, knocked the breath out of you, and left you bruised in ways that still linger.
I think that your girlfriend, in the sincerity of her spiritual inquiry, will not be offended if you tell her this is complicated for you, and that you may be able to offer only general solicitude, rather than long Torah-study sessions. I hope that there are those in her new religious community who can fulfill that role instead of you.
But it’s clear from the pain in your letter that your own religious shit isn’t done with you yet.
What I want you to give yourself is permission to retain the rift between you and the Bible. It’s what the Hebrew writer Micah Yosef Berdichevsky called “the tear in the heart.” It’s the place where the stories you recall and the pain you escaped still linger in you; you can see the light of home in them, flickering through the letters, whether in Hebrew or in English. And yet it is a place you cannot enter, one that you never want to return to.
These crossroads are an uncomfortable place to be sometimes. Yet there’s freedom there, in the uneasy place between an unforgiving God and an uncertain self. There can be a sacrality to that tear in the heart, if you take time to study your own discomfort, to give it the time it needs to assert itself fully. Allow yourself to close the Bible and Torah alike until you are ready to return to them without the need to integrate them into your soul. They are already part of you; you do not need to immerse yourself in refracted pain to learn its lessons.
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