The abrupt temperature increase hit my face like a wall as I climbed the steps into our attic. The acrid smell didn’t bother me as much as the humidity—that caused me to break into a sweat almost immediately—did. But as a kid, nothing enticed me more than this mysterious room with its numerous and unknown artifacts. I was Indiana Jones on another archaeological dig, my parents’ old belongings the relics of a not-too-distant past. I’d flip through old astronomy books, learning about the Horsehead and Crab Nebulas. I’d narcissistically venture to my pre-K and early elementary boxes and rifle through old crafts. In a race against the heat, I would see how long I could stay up there and explore before needing to return to the relief of cool air below.
On one particular journey in my preteen years, I stumbled on a box of old paperback books, tanned and frayed with age. Always anxious to find something new to read, I grabbed as many as I could and skampered down out of the attic. On reaching the bottom of the stairs, I dumped the books into a mound and began sifting through them.
That’s when I saw a book by an author I never thought I’d see in my house. An author of horror novels—something my community of faith avoided at all costs.
Growing up in a conservative Christian household and having several friends from school who were also of my background, I knew well the hyper-clear distinctions regarding what we should and shouldn’t read. C. S. Lewis, good. Goosebumps, bad. J. R. R. Tolkien, good. This particular author? Very bad.
Grabbing one of the books with my index finger and thumb as if it were a dirty diaper, I delicately walked it to the kitchen where my mother was cleaning. “Mom, did you know these were in the attic?”
My mother looked my way and immediately recognized the front cover. “Wow!” She responded. “I completely forgot I even had those. It’s been a decade or so since I’ve read them.”
Her nonchalant response stopped me in my tracks. It was like she wasn’t even ashamed to admit this was hers.
Her nonchalant response stopped me in my tracks. It was like she wasn’t even ashamed to admit this was hers. In that moment I had to make a very crucial decision, arguably one of the first in my short life. Would I judge my mother based on what I understood about the books, or the books based on my understanding of my mother?
Too often, we forget that our own upbringing, our culture and experiences, our biases, even personality—all of these particulars inform our beliefs and adds walls of subjectivity to what we think to be true. Even our Bible translation—no matter how close to the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek—falls ever-so-slightly short. Every hermeneutic is a subjective one.
My point isn’t that we should avoid placing our faith and trust in the Bible or the theological tenets that have been passed down to us. We’ve relied on them for hundreds of years, and with good reason. But our knowledge of God’s vast authority shouldn’t support or prop up our “I’m-right-you’re-wrong” attitude—it should make us quiver with humility. That posture of surrender—along with acknowledging both God’s vast omnipotence and Christ’s example of love and service—should bring us all to a position of grace toward others, rather than critique and division.
We can, at times, hold our beliefs closer than our neighbors. The Jewish author Abraham Joshua Heschel put it well: “We worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love.” In His teaching, Jesus sets an example of how we should live and act in this world. Whether in parables or the Sermon on the Mount, He places very little emphasis on what we need to know, but instead on what we need to do.
Our knowledge of God’s vast authority should make us quiver with humility.
Matthew 25 is a beautiful example of Jesus revealing where our hearts should be. In describing the day of judgement for individuals, Christ reveals something significant about those who are accepted into God’s glory and those who aren’t. In the passage, God does not commend or chastise our beliefs, our doctrine. He only talks about how we treated those around us. Did we feed the hungry? Did we visit the prisoner? Did we invite the stranger in?
As a child, no matter how early I woke up for school, I would always smell my mother making coffee or see the yellow glow of the kitchen light from the hallway. I would hear the rustle of the turning pages of her Bible as she savored every ounce of her free time before the day started. Whether she was walking or driving her three children to the bus stop, every morning she would let us take turns naming a part of the armor of God from Ephesians.
I remember my mother loading us up and driving to another town, just to make sure another family wasn’t alone when meeting a father for custody arrangements. Or how she would make time for us to serve in areas of need around our town. Because I had years of knowledge about my mother and had seen the kind of person she really was, when confronted with the sort of cognitive dissonance finding the books created in me, I was able to critically look at the information presented and make a reasonable determination. I judged the artifact based on the person, not the other way around.
That day in the kitchen, my mother and I sat together, the book on the table between us. She asked what I had heard about the author in question, and in her own loving way, commended me for my convictions. She took me back up to the attic, and together we carried down several other books by the same author, dumping them onto the kitchen table. She picked through the pile and one-by-one explained the plot and purpose of each story and how they inspired her.
A theme slowly started emerging from each example: a protagonist, despite insurmountable conflict, still chose to do the right thing. It was as if I could see my mother in these stories, fighting evil with good. Choosing the good in spite of the odds or difficulty. I was surprised when she picked one out of the stack and recommended it to me. I grabbed it and went to my room—excited to read and find out more about my mother.