Reading the Bible with a Red Pen



The first time I read the Bible I read it with a red pen. I was a teenage atheist in search of ammunition. I marked out, word by word, the insanity and the violence, the patriarchy and the oppression. I highlighted the abandonment of the tortured concubine and the dashing of babies’ heads against the rocks.

I had already begun my college major in Theatre when Matthew Shepard was crucified on a fence for being gay. Not a year later one of our friends, another young gay man in the rural West, went missing. We skipped our classes and our rehearsals and wandered helplessly around the streets. It wasn’t until the search parties started going out on the mountain that I realized what was really going on. Years passed before they finally found his body … cast away on the hillside, washed down to bones.

I swore then that I would never ever be a part of anything—not a religion, not a culture, not a club—that would teach, even accidentally, that certain kinds of people were people that God would want to punish. I would never be a party to the murder of the concubine.


The second time I read the Bible I read it backwards. I hurtled through it, backwards. I was reconverted with that special young fire that only new converts have, and I was breathless for things I couldn’t name. At first it was three chapters a day, marked down in a little cornflower blue notebook, but before long it was as much as I could get, whenever I could get it.

I didn’t believe it was possible, but I asked anyway. If gay Christians weren’t unicorns, where would they be? I was a recent transplant to New England from the opposite corner of the country. I had no connections. I asked a friend of a friend, someone I had never met. If I wanted a church, if I needed a church, and I couldn’t go through a door that would be closed to Matthew Shepard … where could I go?

I took the train into Boston on a Sunday morning and stopped because I didn’t think I had the address right. I thought a church that would let gay people preach probably would be meeting in a basement. But this was a building that dominated the city block, with stonework and stained glass and a towering steeple. It was a church with all the marks of authority and power, and yet a rainbow, clear as anything, right there on the sign. I stood across the street, across three lanes of traffic from the giant Gothic doors, wide open on their hinges, and I cried.


Now, I read the Bible and all over the thin and crinkling pages I see the madness. I see the hatred, the nationalism, the patriarchy, the appalling injustices. I see Jael, who invited her enemy into her tent and nailed his head to the ground with a tent pin. I see Saul, who lost God’s favor for failing to annihilate his enemy down to the last child and head of cattle. I see the language of homophobia, misogyny and violence … woven right into the fabric of redemption.

I see God’s story of love and liberation, woven tighter than I ever dreamed with the reality of suffering. God’s threads, tied into our threads. God’s eyes, on the darkest places of the heart. No life unredeemable. No hatred or oppression invisible. No suffering too unspeakable to be given voice.


I lost the red pen with which I used to read the Bible. I lost it somewhere in between my couch cushions, along with my party affiliations and other trappings of identity. I lost myself to my own spiritual hunger. One day I wasn’t sure which character I was supposed to be, and then it all slipped out.

I don’t like this, but I think it’s true. We are all threaded into this earthly world, tied right into this history of bloodshed and domination. When are we the ones who are sinned against? And when are we the sinners? We can’t always tell. This fabric is woven tighter than we thought.

Of course I could wish that I was born into a different story. Of course I could wish that threads of cruelty and domination were woven through every soul but mine. But the sweeping, all-inclusive story of Scripture calls me to a harder, more beautiful lesson about who I am.

Though I might know and love compassion—and I do—yet still I have given my voice to the mob, sometimes by choosing silence. Yet still I have given my arms to stones that kill. I have been wrong as well as right. The Bible cries out to my heart to seek redemption, transformation, and holy hope.


The next time I read the Bible I will read it like food instead of words. I will drink it like salty water. I will feed the thirst of my soul with it, even with this brutally rendered portrait of a broken world, confessing itself at every turn in need of redemption.

May I receive the gifts of outrage, lamentation, and exhortation. I do not want my rage or my love to sleep.


Image credit: theilr

Esther Emery
Esther Emery used to direct stage plays in Southern California. But that was a long time ago. Now she is pretty much a runaway, living off the grid in a yurt and tending to three acres in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She writes about faith and rebellion and trying to live a totally free life at
Esther Emery
Esther Emery

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Esther Emery


  1. pastordt says:

    Powerful. True Necessary. Thank you. I heartily recommend Pete Enns’ little book, “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.”

  2. Stephanie Sauer says:

    “The Bible cries out to my heart to seek redemption, transformation, and holy hope.” Well put. I love that you keep coming back to your Bible with fresh, honest eyes depending on the stage of life you are at. So true for so many of us. It’s far too complex to fully understand in one sitting, just as life is, and our messy roles in it.

  3. Holly says:

    Esther, I’m going to ride the coat tails of your bravery and pronounce, with language foreign to me, something that I feel in my bones–your words here feel anointed. There is a stirring, a holy swirling happening and I do believe you hold the spoon, friend.

    • There is a stirring, yes. A holy swirling is exactly what I would call it. Now watch out, because this is how you get caught up in the liberation story, the Exodus story. And I’d warn you that once you feel it you will crave it again!

  4. Jamie says:

    What a powerful piece, thank you!

  5. Esther, when the connected spirit of us speaks through you, I fall head over heals in love. Thank you for bringing to us these rich reflections. For weeks I’ve been ready for some radical scripture reading, but I’ve put it off. I suppose I’ll get started at sunrise.

  6. Sarah Joslyn Sarah Joslyn says:

    I look forward to the day you and I get to sit at the edge of one of our home-built porches and share some of the Truth that spills out of your words. Thank you for this, Esther.

  7. Esther, I am so deeply proud of you for daring to write this piece and share it with the SheLoves community. I’m in a place right now where I have a hard time trusting Scripture, and I have a hard time trusting Church. Is there a place that I can walk into, that would also let Matthew Shepard in, here where I live? If there is, I haven’t found it yet, but your story makes me want to keep looking at a time when I’m tempted to give up.

    • Thank you so much, Bethany. There are more affirming churches than we think. Of course no church is perfect. But if you’d like me to ask that friend of a friend for you I’d be happy to. 🙂 Thanks for supporting my voice telling this story.

  8. Bev Murrill says:

    Emmanuel. Somehow, in the midst of it all… God loves us.

  9. Fantastic. WHOA.

  10. Esther, so much here. Thank you for your honesty, for your struggle, for your richness of faith. Thank you for calling us alongside to discover and revel in the inscrutable nature of the Word.

  11. Suzanne Terry says:

    This made my breath catch – “God’s threads, tied into our threads. God’s eyes, on the darkest places of the heart. No life unredeemable. No hatred or oppression invisible. No suffering too unspeakable to be given voice.” Yes. So much yes.

    • It’s amazing, isn’t it? This is my favorite thing about stretching my capacity to see both the cruelty in the world and the potential for goodness. God is so big. And so amazingly powerful and potent. It just blows my mind.

  12. “I don’t like this, but I think it’s true. We are all threaded into this earthly world, tied right into this history of bloodshed and domination. When are we the ones who are sinned against? And when are we the sinners? We can’t always tell. This fabric is woven tighter than we thought.” Yes. So few say this, and this is so close to my heart. You make me wanna read my Bible.

    • You make ME wanna read my Bible. So much love and thanks.

    • that was my favorite passage too. I think we like to think we are the good guys more than we actually are.

      Love this, Esther.

    • Trevor says:

      Don’t worry Tanya,
      God can and will undo all the wrongs man has done in due course.
      all we should do in the meantime is try our best to imitate God and His son
      and promote Faith in them with as many people as possible.

  13. Peggy says:

    Esther! You are on fire….burn brightly and hot!!!

  14. Kim Murden says:

    Not-on-the-same-page-people, looking for words and stories and faces that can locate them back in time and place. I’m really appreciating Esther’s writing just now.

  15. Anne-Marie says:

    Esther, another stunning piece. I’m still thinking about the one with you and your sister sitting under a blaze of stars on the mountainside. but oh, the young men left to become bones on a mountainside or a fence. Oh the sorrow. I’m amazed you still go through the doors, rather than choosing a side exit. Thank you for this offering. I’ve been struggling with a recent prayer meeting where everyone assumed we were all on the same page politically. I was not on that page at all. The stories – those real, violent stories in the Bible – when i’m honest are a reflection of the world as it is and as we’ve made it, which makes it more outrageous that he reaches out to any of us. Love this. Best to you.

    • It is so outrageous that God reaches out to any of us. But I’m living proof that he does. He does. What an amazing, glorious miracle it is.

  16. Deb SaintDeborah Coles says:

    Awesome writing. I love being woven together with you, even though I am certain we don’t vote alike! You always, always give me food for thought. Be blessed, be very blessed!

  17. DJ Brown says:

    Exquisitely written and deeply true. Thank you, Esther.

  18. Every time I read a SheLoves piece by Esther Emery, I am blown away. Haunted, even. It’s the kind of stuff that sticks with you for days, and it doesn’t go down without a fight. This piece is no exception. I will be mulling over it for some time, I think. And I’m so grateful for that. This is what I need to hear right now–a reminder that love and beauty are woven into the hate and corruption of this world, because God is still good. And a reminder that I’m no exception to this phenomenon, but that there is redemption and renewal for my soul. YES.

    • There is redemption and renewal for our souls! Amazing, amazing, amazing grace! This piece, to be honest, has been on the desktop for a long time. Bethany S. just had the guts to share it with the world, so we have her to thank for that. I’m glad it touched you.

  19. I come away from your words amazed that you kept reading! Red pen, outrage, disbelief, thirst, breathlessness — whatever we bring to the Word, He meets us there. Frederick Buechner said, “If you beat a path to God long enough, He will meet you on that path bearing the gift of Himself.” Thanks be to God that He keeps us on the path.

    • I’m amazed that I kept reading, too. God called me and came for me, and that was that. But I so agree that whatever we bring to the Word, God meets us there. Thanks be.

  20. Saskia Wishart says:

    This made me cry – for its real and raw words. I tried to find my favourite life, but it’s just all of it, the beautiful, the painful, and the ugly.

  21. Esther, I love your heart. I love your voice. You write words I need to hear, and we need to hear. Thank you for this.


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