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