I live in an apartment.
At my apartment, my roommate and I each have a designated parking spot, painted with our address number to indicate who should park there. There is also a “visitor” spot, not specifically assigned to our apartment, but for our complex. It’s right beside our spots, and right in front of our front door, so due to its proximity to our apartment, it’s usually understood that our visitors should park there. It’s painted with the word “VISITOR.” The spot is usually empty.
But sometimes, someone parks in the visitor spot. There is a car sitting there right now, as I type this article.
They don’t know us, and they never say anything to me if I’m outside. In fact, they usually try to avoid eye contact with me. I suppose they fear I will say something rude to them. And while I don’t care much about people using the empty visitor spot, it annoys me every time I see a car there unexpectedly.
It annoys me an unnecessary amount.
The people I see using the spot are almost always students. Our place is close to Wake Forest University’s campus, so I imagine these are students who couldn’t find a parking spot on campus and are just trying to get to class.
I know it’s hard to find good parking on any college campus. And I know what it’s like to be late to class because you can’t find a parking space, thinking of how your professor might call you out or penalize you for it. Yet, every time I see someone using the visitor spot, I get annoyed.
Technically, cars are not supposed to be parked there unless the driver is visiting someone in our complex. Technically, it is not solely my visitor spot, although it feels like it is due to its placement. I don’t really have any authority over the visitor spot, but I also know some of the people parking there are not allowed to be there. It irks me.
“It feels a lot like the way I get annoyed when I read difficult Bible stories.”
In trying to understand my visitor spot annoyance, it feels a lot like the way I get annoyed when I read difficult Bible stories.
You know, those stories where you think there’s one message, or maybe you’ve been taught one message, but you just can’t get over that one character’s choices, or that one detail just irks you. Maybe you no longer like the message you’ve been taught to believe about that story, or you’re struggling to figure out what you think about it in the first place. And you go back and forth about how you feel, wondering what interpretation is best. Or maybe you ignore these questions because they make Bible reading too complicated.
Whatever it might be, something about the text makes you itch. And you need to wrestle with it to figure out why.
Just like I wrestle with the visitor spot. Do I tell my landlord? Do I let it go? Is it worth thinking about so deeply? (Probably not).
In studying biblical interpretation, I’ve had multiple professors tell me I should pay attention to things that stand out. The meanings we don’t like, and the ones we hope to find. The details we get caught up on. You know, the things that irk us. Paying attention to these things helps us explore why these stories are important.
And if we really admit that what irks us is irking us, it tells us a heck of a lot about ourselves.
Take the creation narratives in Genesis, for example.
I remember the first time someone taught me there was not just one, but two creation stories in Genesis. I didn’t believe them. And when this person showed me how these stories were unique from each other, I still found it hard to believe. I was a senior in high school.
“I remember the first time someone taught me there was not just one, but two creation stories in Genesis. I didn’t believe them.”
The text was right in front of my eyes, and I could clearly see how there was one narrative in Genesis 1, then another narrative in Genesis 2-3. Some Bible translations even label them. Yet I never had read it like that.
This irked me. I was itching with discomfort.
There’s no way the world was created twice, I thought to myself. How could there be two different creation stories in the Bible, when the world was only created once? Surely only one is right. And if one of them was the truth, why is the second one in the Bible?
What this taught me about myself is that I was afraid to let go of my comfortable faith, with my comfortable interpretations of the Bible that made me feel good. I also was asking whether these stories were true at all, or if they were metaphorical in some way. But this struggle was hard to admit. It felt easier to ignore these questions.
It was not until I got to Wingate University that I started unpacking my questions, mostly because I had to for a class. Thankfully, my professor did not ask us to figure it out alone or demand answers we did not have. She gave us some articles written by scholars to help us out and encouraged us to talk with our classmates. That was when I realized a few things:
I really was irked by these narratives. Even if I ignored that uncomfortable feeling I got every time I read Genesis, I couldn’t stop myself from feeling it. I also couldn’t take these stories out of the Bible. Those narratives were there, in my Bible, and they weren’t going away. If I was going to read and believe in this text, I needed to unpack these stories.
I wasn’t the only one irked by these narratives. Along with myself, I had a lot of classmates who were confused, agitated or bothered by the fact there are two creation narratives. And evidently, a lot of people outside of my classroom were, too. I didn’t have to explore this on my own.
It’s OK to ask those questions I was afraid to ask. While I was afraid that unpacking these stories would shake my faith, it strengthened my faith instead. My professor taught us how to extract meaning out of the text using our questions. We explored the genres of each story, and that helped. Genesis is not a science textbook, so I can’t critique it like one. I can, however, use these narratives to explore what each author’s way of storytelling teaches me about God and the world.
“I was not going to dismantle my entire faith system by asking a question.”
No question is too big for God. I’d worried that by pointing out this seeming contradiction in the Bible — in God’s holy word — I was leading myself to start questioning my belief in God. Would God be mad or disappointed in me for not being satisfied with the text? Are these questions a failure of belief? Of course not.
What kind of infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing God would be threatened by my worries? I was not going to dismantle my entire faith system by asking a question — God has likely heard others ask the same thing. In fact, I think God gets excited when we explore the Bible so much it makes us want to be in conversation with God.
It’s like the visitor spot.
What would happen if I struck up a conversation with someone getting out of their car one day? Or, what if I stopped to consider why this irks me so much? Do I care this much about cars?
I probably would feel a lot better about it if I just took a moment to acknowledge how much it annoys me, instead of just letting myself remain annoyed. To have a curious outlook on the world before me, rather than a negative or self-serving one.
How would our faith be different if we let ourselves unpack the feelings, situations, Scriptures and questions that make us itch? We would have a lot more room in our spiritual lives for curiosity and joy.
Mallory Challis is a master of divinity student at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. She is a graduate of Wingate University and is a former Clemons Fellow with BNG.