Keep the Bible Weird
How the most bizarre passages in scripture taught me genuine worship
I have weird taste in pretty much everything. My favorite movie is a black-and-white thriller about math and religion that nobody I’ve watched it with has ever liked. My roommate once revoked my music-picking privileges in his car because I thought Sea Shanties would be a fun soundtrack for our voyage downtown. A few years ago I made this surprisingly polarizing video for a math department event:
So perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve found myself drawn to the weirdest, most inexplicable, most (for lack of a better phrase) genuinely batshit crazy parts of the Bible.
There’s the part where demons sleep with human women and create a race of cannibalistic giants that Joshua has to fight. Or the battles between God and various multi-headed and fire-breathing sea monsters. Or the acid trip that is the book of Revelation or the physical descriptions of angels resembling eldritch horrors:
These probably aren’t the most important part of the bible. If you asked me to introduce you to the essentials of the Christian faith I would not tell you to start by studying the saga of the Nephilim.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be gained by venturing into the strange, the uncanny, the parts of the Bible that leave you asking “what the hell just happened?” and “why are they on fire and covered in eyes?” and “I’m sorry, did you say cannibalistic giant half-demons?”
As we read the Bible and mature in faith we naturally we learn more and more about the God we’re worshipping. We start to get used to the main contours of the Bible’s story, we become more and more familiar with God’s attributes, and we find ourselves having opinions on ever more specific theological questions. This is all natural and good.
In an ideal world, this would be kind of like the first few years of grad school: the more we learned about God, the more we would realize we fundamentally don’t know. We don’t know what he thinks about, or what the battle between heaven and hell is like, or what he does with moons and nebulae too far away for humanity to ever even be aware of. We don’t know why he loves us, or precisely how the cross defeated Satan, or what it even means for a being to exist “outside of time.”
We do our best to guess his will, but in the Bible his actions consistently surprise even the people who know the scriptures best. God’s “ways are higher than [our] ways” and his “thoughts are higher than [our] thoughts” and if what little he’s deigned to let us understand about him hides his sheer otherness I worry that we’ve missed the main point.
But too often and too naturally that’s exactly what happens. We start to put God in our own little box, reducing the most powerful and complex being who’s ever existed into a single “belief for heaven” transaction and a handful of rules about sex. And so awe and terror and curiosity and amazement collapse into a sort of small-minded certainty as we pretend the enigma of the one who splits the seas can be captured in three or four simple “doctrinal statements”.
This affects every part of the Christian life. Our worship suffers when we pray to a shrunken-down caricature we can control rather than the God who blows up stars for reasons we’ll never understand. Our ethics suffer too — “participating in the work of God” becomes following a handful of well-defined rules rather than doing anything and everything we can to love our neighbors. We become so sure that we know what’s right that we’re unwilling to adjust when God turns out to be moving in ways we didn’t see coming. And we lose the creativity, the initiative, the willingness to step out in faith in unexpected ways that it takes to genuinely apply Christian love to new and unforeseen situations.
I think this is something the weird parts of the bible really do have to offer: they challenge the tiny portraits of God and the rest of the spiritual world we don’t even realize we’ve painted. They blow our minds and give us a route back to the confusion and awe and fear we owe the God we’ll never understand the tiniest sliver of.
Have “the ways of God” started to feel familiar and small? Look upon one of his angelic servants:
Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels. I heard the wheels being called “the whirling wheels.” Each of the cherubim had four faces: One face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a human being, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.
Or watch God do battle with a dragon:
Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth.
What is this language describing? Certainly there are direct lessons we can draw but something about this that’s just fundamentally scary and bewildering! How strange, how terrifying, how absolutely other is the spiritual world that the pictures we paint of it are so fantastically weird and frightening?
And how must these passages challenge us to rethink the stories we’ve become familiar with? Isn’t it bizarre to think of a man rising from the dead, or loaves and fish multiplying a thousandfold, or a man (who’s also God) walking around doing battle with demons? Isn’t it completely insane that we celebrate our Lord’s death by eating his flesh and drinking his blood?
How little we understand the world, and how much less we understand its creator! How small we find ourselves, rocked by spiritual waves we lack the words to understand. How dependent we are on the One who knows and perceives realities we could never even dream of.
So yes. Of course you should read the gospels first, and you should do your best to understand the main points of Jesus’s message.
But if you find yourself getting complacent, check out the weird stuff and remember how little we truly understand.