Judge a man by his questions rather then by his answers. ~Voltaire
Clyde Edgerton is the master at a particular brand of irony. His novels are steeped in the complicated, often hypocritical, yet nonetheless profound culture of Southern Christianity. Even in his made-up stories, Edgerton delights in the reality that truth is stranger than fiction.
As a perfect example, consider his novel, The Bible Salesman. Henry is a young man who strikes out in the 1950s to make a living selling God’s Word. The funny thing is that Henry actually starts reading the Bible only after he begins peddling it as merchandise. In contradiction to the blind faith of his childhood, Henry’s study leads to questions. How can the first chapter of Genesis claim that animals were made before humans and then the second chapter turn around and say that humans were made before animals? Why does Genesis, chapter six, describe the sons of God procreating children with the daughters of the earth? Then he reads the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar, in Genesis 38. After reading about Tamar duping her own father-in-law into impregnating her by disguising herself as a prostitute, Henry goes outside, looks up into the starry sky, and pleads of God, “What in the world?”
Amen, Henry. Amen. Does it surprise you that a pastor like myself would appreciate such questions about the Bible?
I would submit that asking questions is an essential part of our faith development. As Paul famously wrote, when we are children, we are nourished on milk; but there comes a time when we require solid food (1 Cor 3:2). Colorful and friendly illustrations in children’s Bibles should not sustain the faith of critically-thinking adults. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there is some weird stuff in the Bible! The irony, however, is that by questioning the Bible, we began to deepen our faith. We no longer swallow what’s spoon-fed to us in Sunday School, so that we can explore what faith means to us in our lives.
Henry has some adventures as a Bible salesman, including a brief career in organized crime. However, the most amazing, miraculous part of his story is that he finds someone to share his journey. Marleen is a young woman who runs a fruit and vegetable stand, but she and Henry eventually run off and get married. On their honeymoon, Henry reads to her from the Bible:
“For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:19–21, KJV)
Henry grew up believing that people who accepted Jesus in their hearts went up to heaven when they died. He was taught that’s what the Bible said. Yet he quotes a passage that seems to question this basic premise of his childhood faith. Henry, however, is not disillusioned with the Bible; au contraire, he is amazed by it. He enjoys wondering about its complexity and aweing in its mystery with the woman he loves.
Some might say that questioning the Bible is a slippery slope. They might warn that you will lose faith if you dare to speak outloud, “God, what in the world?” But I suspect many of these same people did not read the Bible on their honeymoons! For all of his questions, Henry is truly living out his faith. Ironic, isn’t it?