Once, I was in need of a Bible.
After a couple failed attempts at local booksellers, I did what many other self-identifying Christians would have done first: I went to a Christian bookstore.
I don’t frequent these places. There’s being a Christian, and then there’s being a Christian.
But anyway, I’m in the store for a Bible, and I’m feeling the cultural gap big time. Duck Dynasty devotionals sit proudly out front. There’s Casting Crowns or something on the store radio. Posters push the latest devotional from some pastor who probably thinks I’m a little too queer and a lot too interested in 1970s Italian cannibal movies to be a member of his church.
Ultimate question: did I get the Bible I wanted? Yes, but I also got a big dose of something else.
It wasn’t just the tchotchkes, the music, or the implied politics that discomfited me. It was the uniformity, the sameness, the lack of substantial discourse seen when browsing the shelves. It all seemed to point to one way of inhabiting Christianity, a way that leaves room for so few of us.
If I belong in a church at all, and I think I do, I belong as a queer man married to a Jewish woman. I belong as a man who struggles with bisexual erasure. I belong as a man who listens to Cannibal Corpse and reads Jacqueline Susann. As a man who finds some bars just as welcoming as church pews. As a man whose favorite non-canonical story about Jesus involves his circumcision and the rings of Saturn.
Surely, there’s room for me, for you, for all of us, not in spite of our identities and beliefs, but because of them.
Once, a friend shared a beautiful story about two Bible scholars who met daily at a local park to discuss the meaning of a difficult scripture. Days turned into months, months to years, and each meeting, the scholars discussed the same passage. One day, both scholars were shocked when a stranger approached them during their regularly heated discussion.
“I have been sent by God to tell you the true meaning of the scripture about which you argue.” The messenger proceeded to explain the correct interpretation.
Rather than being relieved, the two scholars were visibly angry.
“Why would you go and do a thing like that?!” they cried.
“But, God watched you argue for years, so–” the messenger began.
“Watched us argue? Why that was nothing!” one scholar cried.
The other scholar turned to the messenger with a patient expression.
“Son, the scripture was merely a pretense for meeting. While we met to discuss our disagreements, we also grew as friends. We supported one another through sickness and sadness. We celebrated our joys. We loved one another. How presumptuous of you to try and take that away from us!”
Suitably chastened, God’s messenger vanished.
While some might balk at this story, it carries an essential truth: in our differences as a people of faith, we can actually find avenues to friendship with one another. Moreover, those differences are essential to our health as a community. The pale, queer metal head. The person of color who is done playing nice about police violence. And yes, even the person who thinks Christian bookstores are just lovely, thank you. The hidden truth in most churches is that, under the surface, an enormous amount of these differences already exist in belief and practice, but they only find their expression outside the church community. This is a tragic loss.
When our sanctuaries become places for all to find shelter, compassion, friendship, and community, rather than ‘re-education centers’ in service of some singular ideology, then we will have realized the dream of the Prophet Isaiah, who, as if speaking with the voice of God, wrote, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”
Jon Propper is an author and educator living in West Michigan. A former student rabbi in the Reconstructionist tradition, Jon is now a Congregationalist Christian, as he promotes interfaith sensitivity and Christian literacy.