Surely the Lord Was in the Rare Books Room, Part 2 (Scholar’s Compass)

In Part 1, Paul Yandle described a challenge to his faith in Scripture brought on by study in the archives. Here he explores some aspects of his life experience that made that challenge especially strong, then tells the story of what he came to realize through it. 

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)

Reflection

One of the biggest mysteries of all is the fact that God works in the seemingly mundane. Though I was a Christian by the time I entered graduate school, I remained less than enthusiastic about reading Scripture.  Much of my lack of interest had to do with my cold heart and the fact that one of the earlier places I chose to become familiar with Scripture was, of all books, Leviticus. But at risk of blame shifting, I will venture to guess that my lack of interest came in part because I associated Scripture, like so many other things, with the culture in which I found myself as a young Christian. I was “supposed to” believe in Scripture as it was presented to me within the theological framework of the subset of the evangelical world to which I belonged. I was also “supposed to” read it every day.

I am a proponent (though not always a practitioner) of daily Bible reading, but I also know that “supposed to” tends to reflect law and leads to fear. If you HAVE to believe something, you will cling to any explanation necessary to make it reasonable, tenable and noncontradictory. Some of the apologetics to which I was exposed before graduate school did not sound all that convincing as much as they sounded like attempts to comfort people by affirming what we already believed.

The obligation to read and the mandate to accept specious sounding apologetics were made even more dreary by my ambivalence about the value of my own conversion. Why did others seem to progress in their faith and their certainty while I seemed to remain static? My penchant for questioning Scripture had as much to do with my own disappointment with God as it did with anything that I observed in the library (see part I). My life seemed rather unremarkable, and I felt as if the church promised me an experience that never materialized no matter how much Scripture I read or what I did.

Fortunately, the church I attended at the time I was working on my M.A. had an excellent pastor who, like many others, preached the Bible book by book rather than topically. Week by week, he introduced me to a Bible that was different than the one for which I had settled. He was a firm inerrantist, but he also read Scripture as if it was able to reflect something that was, oddly, far more mundane and far more wonderful than the most fantastic predictions that a preacher could dream up from farfetched interpretations of Daniel or Revelation.

Eventually I began to realize that if I did not think that an old man in a jail cell could write the very words of God, my definition of miracles was too constrained. So, as it turned out, was my ability to see God at work in my life. I think that God was preparing me in the rare books room to become open to something that, if I could put into words, might sound like this: “The reading that you were doing in the library that seemed to replace the mysterious with the mundane? That activity actually reflected Me revealing Myself to you. I work in the lives of Christians doing housework, examining spreadsheets, pulling petri dishes out of the fridge, cleaning toilets and looking at handwriting on pieces of paper in libraries. When two or more are gathered in My name—in any old place—I am present. On a few occasions, I have even worked in the lives of ordinary people to reveal myself in works that reflect their personalities and carry my words. And other ordinary people collected them over centuries.”

My main goal here is neither to convince people of the inerrancy of Scripture in 2,500 words or less (although I do believe in inerrancy) nor to urge them to shove their questions about Scripture aside. All of us have all kinds of questions about Scripture, and we will for the remainder of our lives. Rather, my main hope is that people not miss Christ Himself because they cannot always line Scripture or their own experiences up with what others tell them those things are supposed to be.

Christians in university settings can all too often find in the church and in academe two cultures that lead us to discouragement. The most uptight Pharisees can miss Christ just as easily as the most ardent skeptics by failing to see the God that they have misdefined in the first place. I have seen an atheist in a debate telecast “ask” God to show up in an auditorium hall within a set time limit, and I have read in the New Testament that Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign that He was the Messiah. His tendency to work in the everyday is actually evidence of His amazing condescension. He is joining us in the regularity of OUR lives, not performing magic tricks on command. If anything, any critical thinking skills that I have gained have made me more open to a God who would do such a thing. My studies have not stripped away the miraculous and made me settle for the quotidian. They have opened my eyes to the miracle of God’s willingness to walk with us.

But that is God’s work, not mine. Ultimately, my faith is not a collection of handy, contemporary American arguments that I carry with me in my back pocket or something that I try to muster in the face of discovery after discovery that explains what was once thought unexplainable. It is the gift of a loving God who pursues me and shows me Himself. It makes perfect sense to me now that a letter, or an ancient work the author of which we do not know, could be inspired by God. It even makes sense that the Bible would contain material that appears to be derivative of works purported to be older.

The biggest miracles are the ones we miss while we are bogged down looking for something else. One of my favorite authors, John White, once wrote that “the truth is a Person.” Ultimately, it is that Person who I believe, and His presence is the leitmotif I have found running through the portions of Scripture with which I am familiar. The very work that we do, along with the rest of creation, all but screams Christ’s name if we have ears to hear. He miraculously comes to us and we don’t realize it—whether it happens on the streets of Judea or a library in the southeastern United States. I pray that I see my questions as a quiet indicator of God dropping down Jacob’s ladder — and that I avoid building a minuscule piece of the Tower of Babel in my heart.

Further Reading

White, John. The Fight: A Practical Handbook for Christian Living. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976). 139.


Note: Part of both the Scholar’s Compass series and Paul Yandle’s Surely the Lord Was in the Rare Books Room series at the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. You can find Part 1 here.

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Paul Yandle

Paul Yandle is Assistant Professor of History at North Greenville University. He received his Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2006, and his current research focuses on infrastructure, race relations and regional identity in the nineteenth century United States. He teaches Middle Eastern, Islamic, British and United States history. Though he lives near the Blue Ridge Parkway and often imagines pursuing fascinating hobbies, he mainly takes naps in his spare time.

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