Last night, sitting at the dinner table, my husband and I discovered that we both used to hate those stupid multiple choice questions on English Lit exams. You know the kind I’m talking about, the ones that asked things like, “What is the major theme of this book?” Then you have four or five options, at least three of which seem like they could apply.
The funny thing is, we disliked those questions for opposite reasons. My husband is a big-picture thinker. He doesn’t like to pin things down to just one way of looking at a situation or problem. In his opinion, trying to find one single theme in a story is pointless, since different people would come to equally valid conclusions. I hated those questions because I always thought that if there were a right answer, it ought to be obvious. I want clear, precise direction, no ambiguity allowed.
I suppose that’s why I always liked math and science, even though I’m significantly better at language and communication. Math has right answers. If you add two and two, you get four. It’s basic, simple, and numbers can be plugged into a formula. There is no room for lying. Even in exceptional cases, such as imaginary numbers, there is still a clear method for understanding how to work with them. Science isn’t quite as black-and-white, but it’s close. If we don’t actually know everything, there is at least the potential that everything is knowable. New discoveries are made all the time, replacing old notions. It’s comforting, somehow, to believe that somewhere out there, the Scientists are Finding Things Out.
Our discovery that our polar opposite personalities converge in this way came about while discussing (what else?) the Bible. I had mentioned that when my Sunday school students played Jeopardy! in class, I had a hard time with one of the questions. In theory, it should have been easy. The kids were answering Bible trivia for 5-10-year-olds. I know the Bible pretty well at this stage of my life. As expected, most of the questions were simple, factual information about what’s actually written in the text., such as which Disciple denied Jesus. The one that gave me trouble was, “What is the theme of Jonah?”
The answer my students gave, and which turned out to be correct, was “Listen to G-d.” I suppose that’s true enough, at least in some sense. I mean, who wants to get eaten by a fish? At the same time, at least three other themes occurred to me: It’s never too late to repent; sometimes life isn’t fair and things don’t turn out as we expect; and G-d, not we, is in charge of the whole repentance/forgiveness department. From other things people have written about Jonah, I gather that there are even more layers to the story than that.
As we played the game, I felt my annoyance level rising. It was like being back in high school English class. I never did well on those theme-related questions, because I invariably saw something different in the text from my teachers (and fellow students). This often left me embarrassed. I had the same sense of shame that my students could come up with a pat answer about Jonah, but I could not. (Not that any of the other adults were aware of my predicament, as I managed to keep my mouth shut.)
This isn’t unusual for me at church. I think there are multiple good answers, and sometimes none at all, to the question of themes within Scripture. Unfortunately, too few people are interested in exploring more than a single right answer. Sunday after Sunday, we’re drawn into the concrete world of “correct” interpretation. But how can we possibly make sense of it all when branches of Christianity, denominations, and even individual churches disagree on the right meaning of Scripture? How can we be certain that the important message of Jonah is that we must listen to G-d, when someone else says that it’s really a message of compassion for sinners? And if, as I suspect, both are equally valid, then what do we do with that–how does it change how we live?
It can be so easy to just sit in the pews every week, waiting for the pastor to give us the answers. I used to be like that. Not that it didn’t affect my life during the week; I’ve never been a Sunday morning Christian. But I used to believe that the pastor could supply the answers and I could then put them to work in my life. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that kind of faith to be flat and dull. As much as I rebel against a big-picture, nebulous, abstract approach to the Bible, I know it makes more sense. I can let go of the shame in finding alternate meanings, embracing it with my whole heart. I can see the richness of the multiple themes in Jonah and rejoice that G-d has given us something so beautiful.
Where do you want to expand your views of the Bible?