Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters--and How to Talk About It

By Krista Tippett

Penguin Paperback, 272 pp., $14.00










































































































Nobody’s Perfect

And that to, NPR host Krista Tippett, is the charm of the Hebrew Bible.

By Krista Tippett

In a small, captivating essay about Genesis, “Creation and Fall,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer described biblical stories as "ancient, magical pictures that we need alongside modern technical, conceptual pictures if we are to become wise." In England, I began to see in these ancient, magical pictures a response to the deepest real-world confusions of my years in Berlin. I was aching with spiritual and moral questions I could scarcely articulate. I was reading mystical texts and Buddhist texts and they thrilled me. But this Bible on the bookshelf, long unopened, was the foundational text of my spiritual homeland and mother tongue.

The Bible, as I read it now, is not a catalogue of absolutes, as its champions sometimes imply. Nor is it a document of fantasy, as its critics charge. It is an ancient record of an ongoing encounter with God in the darkness as well as the light of human experience. Like all sacred texts, it employs multiple forms of language to convey truth: poetry, narrative, legend, parable, echoing imagery, wordplay, prophecy, metaphor, didactics, wisdom saying. In the Christianity of the modern West, we've largely left the vivid storytelling of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, in Sunday school. We've consigned it to the world of childhood figuratively and literally. And in our time a superficial Christian rendering of these biblical texts underpins false dichotomies that plague our public life--chasms we've set up between sacred text and truth, between idealized views of the way human beings should behave and the complex reality of the way they do.

But when I came back to read the biblical text after many years away, I began to love the Hebrew Bible fiercely for the fact that it tells life like it is. It has no fairy-tale heroes, only flawed, flamboyant human beings as prone to confusion as to righteousness. Like us millennia later, they had trouble reconciling the political and the private, the sexual and the societal. King David--the forefather by whom the New Testament theologians traced Jesus' lineage--was, as the text tells it, brilliant and charismatic and passionate. He held God's favor. David was at once a great leader and also an adulterer. He was a military hero, and yet he sent the husband of his mistress to the front lines to die. These facts about him stand together and in tension with an air of sadness in the biblical narrative. They are neither reconciled nor do they cancel each other out.

Or consider Lot, who is famous in Sunday school around the world for heeding God's command to leave the sinful Sodomites without looking back, while his weaker-willed wife gave in to nostalgia and was turned to a pillar salt. We've internalized the unforgivable sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as sexual, and contemporary religious voices routinely equate private sexual sin with the moral decline of our nation. But in the Bible itself, that equation is inferred rather than stated. It states that not a single righteous person could be found among the Sodomites, and this was the reason for their destruction. There is one scene in which Sodomite men attempt to lure other men from Lot's household out into the street with them, presumably for sexual purposes. Our hero Lot, offers his daughters instead. But in a later biblical reference and analysis of the nature of the Sodomites' sin--one of very few--the prophet Ezekiel says that they were condemned because they had "pride, surfeit of food, prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." What if, with reference to Ezekiel, we began to understand the depravity of "sodomy" to be about a nation's neglect of its poor?

One of my favorite characters in the Bible is also one of the most human and flawed. Jacob, the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham, is a quintessential late bloomer, conniver, and egoist. The Bible calls him "clay footed" and yet, through foibles and false starts, God's beloved. He tricks his brother out of his inheritance. He later falls in with another trickster, his future father-in-law, who cons him into marrying the sister of the woman he loves. He works slavishly, marries both sisters finally, and becomes a successful man. In midlife, full of both pride and regret, Jacob heads home to face his demons and past mistakes. He makes his way across the land in which he has spent his adulthood back to the land of his childhood. His sins were great and his absence has been long, and he is terrified of what will greet him on the other side.

Jacob crosses the Jabbuk river. And in a moment cathartic for the sweep of monotheistic spiritual history to follow, he there encounters a mysterious man whom he afterward recognizes as a messenger of God or God himself. The "man" wrestles with Jacob, even putting his hip socket out of joint. Jacob wrestles back. "I will not let you go," he tells this stranger, who turns out to be the very source of his life, "until you bless me." At daybreak, he receives his blessing and a new name. Jacob becomes Israel--a word that suggests one who strives, or wrestles, with God.

This is a story beloved by many who have struggled with the gap between real life and religious ideas. True biblical faith expands and deepens as it incorporates mistakes, questions, catastrophes, and changes of mind and heart. Like Moses who "quarreled" with God, Jacob embodies the tense interplay of devotion and struggle at the heart of Jewish tradition. I've come to find in Jacob's story a model grappling honestly and productively with sacred text itself. It is true of the entire Bible--and perhaps of any sacred text for its believers--that if you sit with these bare-bones stories, pick over them, retell them, they begin to grow--take on nuance and possibility--before your eyes. One layer of meaning is lifted and another reveals itself. You sense that the text would respond to every conceivable question. In other words, if I stick with these texts--if I wrestle with them and insist on a blessing--a blessing will come. The only limitation is my time, my powers of imaginative concentration, and my capacity to listen to the interpretations of others.


Comment on this article here.

Email article Print article

Krista Tippett is the host of the weekly NPR radio show "Speaking of Faith" and is the author of "Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters--and How to Talk About It," from which this essay is reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © Krista Tippett, 2008.


Back to top


May 7, 2010

The Mother of Mother's Day
By Mary Beth Crain
Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother's Day, hated flowers, candy, and greeting cards. Our kind of mom!

January 28, 2010

Securing Your Pet's Post-Rapture Future
By Mary Beth Crain
What will happen to Christians' pets after the Rapture? No worries. These animal-loving atheists will feed them.

January 13, 2010

Whither Wheaton?
By Andrew Chignell
The evangelical flagship college charts a new course.

December 21, 2009

Ho, Ho, Hollywood
By Mary Beth Crain
My four top Christmas Movies.

December 14, 2009

Bad Dream Girls
By Mary Beth Crain
Sarah Palin and Carrie Prejean remind us that in America, dumb and dumber equals rich and richer.

July 16, 2009

The New, Updated Gospel of Mark
By Stephanie Hunt
In South Carolina, Vacation Bible School gets Sanforized.

July 16, 2009

Why Is a Spiritual Advisor Like a Lay's Potato Chip?
By Mary Beth Crain
Answer: Betcha Can't Have Just One!

December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Blues
By Ondine Galsworth
Your best friend is dead. Your mother is bi-polar. And you've lived your life as a fake Catholic. Where do you go from here?

December 23, 2008

Christmas Gifts of Long Ago
By Mary Beth Crain
What would it be like if today's techno-spoiled kids were forced to have a good old-fashioned Victorian Christmas?

November 25, 2008

Giving Thanks in Thankless Times
By Mary Beth Crain
In times of fear and despair, gratitude is sometimes all we've got left.

November 16, 2008

Seeing Red
By Stephanie Hunt
Obama's presidential victory is a huge step forward for our nation. But in the Carolinas, it's still North versus South.

October 29, 2008

Ghost Writer
By Mary Beth Crain
Our senior editor talks about her new book, "Haunted U.S. Battelfields," the perfect read for a creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, altogether ooky All Hallows Eve.

October 26, 2008

The Poison Seeds Spread by Dying Congregations
By Matthew Streib
Just as a certain presidential candidate has gone to the extremes of negativity in a desperate attempt to keep his campaign alive, so parallels can be seen on the religious front.

October 11, 2008

Palin Watch V: Troopergate, Poopergate!
By Mary Beth Crain
Confronted with a scathing indictment of abuse of power, Governor Palin thumbs her nose at the "Troopergate" report.

October 4, 2008

Palin Watch IV: Post-Debate Musings
By Mary Beth Crain
This hockey mom belongs in the penalty box.

To view more articles, visit
SoMA's archive

Copyright © 2019 SoMAreview, LLC. All Rights Reserved