For my twelfth birthday, I had chicken pox. I was on the cusp of puberty and they hit me very hard, right before my birthday. In an attempt to calm the scratching, my mother sat me in a bath of baking soda, which made my skin feel awful. I was as physically miserable as I had ever been. And there was almost nothing to read in the house!
So I picked up the Good News Bible. (Now stay with me, I promise I was not converted.)
You may remember this very popular 1973 edition, with its modern “newsprint” cover, orange highlights and Roman text. Inside there were clever little line drawings that I used to look for as a break from the long rivers of text. I had a rule that I had to read all the way to the picture before I could look at it — I have always been very big on rules.
I don’t imagine I read every single word, as I was just barely 12. I’m sure I skipped anything I found boring, for example. But it takes a while to recover from chicken pox and I think I got through most of it.
All this reading did not engender a love of religion in me, but I did immediately love the stories. The House of Saul, troubled by an evil spirit. David, who struggled and triumphed and failed, and triumphed again, like all of us do, although he was a great king. How the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David. Queen Esther and Mordecai — and Haman, who was hanged on the scaffold he built for Mordecai. Goliath and Samson, whose great strengths were not enough to save them. Bathsheba, whose beauty led to murder and a royal curse. (Even then I could see none of that was her fault.) Judith, who cut the head off a man! Salome, who asked for the same thing!
I was astonished that my mother was letting me read about all this. Maybe anything was better than having me complain about the scratching.
And then, in the New Testament: Jesus. Coming to it fresh from the Old Testament, and with no particular religious training, I could immediately feel the power of the idea.
I was probably also feeling better by then.
Religion comes wrapped in so much context, and we all know you’re supposed to pick sides, but step back and just think about the life recorded for this man. The prostitutes and lepers, the moneylenders in the temple, the loaves and the fishes, the raising of Lazarus… the death flanked by thieves, in humiliation and terrible pain.
It did not make me a believer, but it did make me an English major and a lifelong lover of powerful stories. And the stories that come from that time and that place are humanity’s greatest stories, no matter which text you read them in.