My Grandmother had a large illustrated Bible sitting on a table in the center of the living room in her very modest four-room mill house. It was too heavy to lift. As a child, I was at once enchanted and disturbed by the artwork depicting tales of a man-eating whale, people drowning in a flood, and a gentle man named Jesus who was murdered for trying to change the world with love, not violence.
She was a quiet, godly woman who loved her church, her children and her grandchildren. When I stayed overnight, I would watch bull fighting and wrestling with her on a 19-inch black and white TV with rabbit ear antennas and three channels. I was always adjusting the antennas to get a picture we could see.
This was her escape. Escape from an alcoholic husband who went to work, got drunk, came home, and got in his bed. My memory of him is the glowing end of a cigarette moving up and down in the dark bedroom as he listened to a baseball game on the radio. He was never a grandfather to any of us or much of a husband to her. She stayed married to him because the Book said so.
My birth name is Thomas, as in the doubting disciple in the Bible. As a child, I was always honest about my thoughts, and I questioned everything. This drove the Bible teacher who visited our school on a monthly basis crazy.
Her name was Miss Sales. She wore caked-on makeup, bright red lipstick, a heavily hair-sprayed beehive hairdo, and she was a chain smoker. Her voice was gravelly, she had a thick southern accent and her grammar was poor. She never seemed happy, which didn’t speak well of the book she was teaching.
On a day I will never forget, she asked everyone in our class to raise their hand if they were a Christian. I was the only kid that did not raise their hand. Frankly, I was the only honest kid, because none of my classmates really knew what that meant. They had heard their parents say so.
This didn’t go over well with Miss Sales. She scolded me and sent me to the principal’s office. The principal happened to be a minister’s wife. Not a good day for little doubting Tommie.
Years later I heard that Miss Sales had taken her life with an overdose of pills. Lonely and lost, the Book did not save her. I never hated her for that moment of rebuke and embarrassment in front of my classmates. I don’t know why, but I had always felt sorry for her. Even though I didn’t know her, I shed tears at the sad news of another lonely soul lost.
When I was in college, my father answered “the call” at the age of 41. He quit a good paying job and entered a Bible college to become a minister. After all, God would take care of everything, the four children, the finances, and a place to live. The book said so.
Answering “the call” ended with my parents divorcing and my younger siblings enduring psychologic pain that still haunts them today. My father moved in with my grandparents and lived off their kindness. My mother shamelessly threw herself at every man that crossed her path and remarried two more times. Where was the book?
Even with all the times the book had seemingly failed, I still loved the book for its mysteries and mystical qualities. While recovering from a long-term illness, I had time to really dive into the book. I collected over 50 different translations, and I read the theological works of all the great theologians.
I had to know the Book’s origins, understand the original meaning of the languages in which it was written, and know who its real authors were. I wasn’t satisfied with the English translations of others, so I studied Greek, dissecting words and phrases. Doubting Tommie had to know for himself. Sunday school and 30-minute sermons wouldn’t do.
There is a longer story to be told, but in short, I came to know that the Book had been hijacked by imposters. At first this was painful, and I grieved over the loss of innocence and the responsibility of “knowing.” The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 2, rang in my head.
Jesus said: He who seeks, let him not cease seeking until he finds; and when he finds he will be troubled, and when he is troubled he will be amazed, and he will reign over the All.
Studying early Christian origins I learned of the Gnostics, and I read their Gospels. I studied their hermeneutics and the biographies of theologians like Valentinus. Through the lens of the Gnostics, hard to understand passages of Paul’s letters and puzzling inconsistencies in Jesus’ sayings became clear. To follow him, Jesus said, I had to hate my mother and father. Esoterically understood, it now made sense. The Bible became a completely different book for me. It came alive, and it was exciting.
I had come to know what the Church knew. Its secrets locked away in the Vatican library. The same Church that withheld the Bible from the masses for thousands of years. In 1536 CE, William Tyndale was burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English. Before being turned to ashes, Tyndale said that the reason the Church forbade the owning or reading of the Bible was to control and restrict its interpretation and to protect their own power and control.
Ignorance and repression are still with us. Mainstream religionists vilify groups and individuals who would dare to offer alternative meanings of scripture. The denominations separated by differing interpretations of the book even vilify one another. Thankfully, they aren’t burning anyone at the stake as far as we know.
There is an escape from all the bickering. We visit safe places in private like this to read and share mystical insights and esoteric interpretations of scripture – the true spirit of scripture. The Book itself warns against its misuse by literalists who follow “the letter of the law”:
He [God] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 2 Corinthians 3:6.
The book that sat on my Grandmother’s table in the living room is not to blame. It’s the people who think they know what it says – interpreting it literally or contriving superficial meaning to support their religious and political agendas.
Love, light and truth is not confined to any book. It is already within us. God put it there. It is the divine spark waiting to catch fire, the seed waiting to grow, the life waiting to live. You might say that real scripture is written, not on paper, but in our hearts.