I know I read and re-read that book at least 20 times, usually with Neil Diamond’s movie soundtrack album playing endlessly in the background (“Beeeee… as a page that aches for a word which speaks on a theme that is timeless…” Hey, I’m still not sure what that all means, but I did love the song!). Richard Bach’s deceptively simple story of a seagull who wanted to learn how to fly higher and faster than any other gull was for me an apt parable of how one person – including one kid who always saw himself as shy and terminally gangly – could reach for and attain a dream. For a time in my life, it was a book that meant a great deal to me (I even remember memorizing entire sections of it for a speech contest my sophomore year), as it did for a great many people of that era – but often for very different reasons than mine.
In fact, I remember well that during that one particular summer when the book was doing the rounds amongst friends and neighbors, everyone seemed to have something to say about Jonathan Livingston Seagull. One friend was quick to point out to me that Bach had essentially retold the gospel story, using an outcast seagull as the Christ figure; while one of our family friends – a strong and firmly evangelical Christian woman – saw it as a parable on matters of sin, salvation and life after death. Another friend, however, who was deeply in the midst of her own wide-ranging faith exploration, claimed that the whole story was steeped in Zen Buddhism. And then, of course, there were more than a few who couldn’t understand why any of us would have any interest at all in what amounted to a children’s story about a bird; and a mangy, scavenger bird at that! The most interesting response, however, came from one of our neighbors who at the time was going through a bitter (and sadly, very public) conflict in her marriage; she said simply, “This story is about forgiveness.”
Looking back on it now, I realize that hearing such a wide array of interpretations actually provided me an early lesson in the dynamics that often accompany Bible studies in the church! Indeed, over the years, pastorally and otherwise, I’ve had many opportunities to engage in sharing and discussion as to the meaning and message of Holy Scripture with groups both large and small; and it’s never ceased to amaze me how just about any bible passage you can name elicits so many diverse interpretations and emotional responses!
To be sure, some of this arises as a result of religious background and upbringing (I’ve certainly found that to be true of the UCC congregations I’ve served that have been veritable melting pots of church and denominational tradition: from Congregational to Roman Catholic to Pentecostal and back again!); and much of it owes to one’s own underlying belief about scripture (and, for that matter, faith) as a whole: is the Bible the eternal, fundamental, inerrant Word of God for this and every era; is it a book of ancient myths and philosophies that bear no resemblance to life and the world as we know it; or is it something in between? I can certainly tell you that some of the livelier discussions I’ve moderated over the years have involved the rub that sometimes comes between those with more progressive views of scriptural interpretation and others who subscribe to more traditional and evangelical ideas as to the place of the Bible in our daily Christian walk (not that there’s anything wrong with that: when such discussions happen openly, non-judgmentally and in Christian LOVE – there’s that word again (!) – it might not reach a common consensus but just might end up as something spiritually healthy and nurturing for all involved!).
Mostly, however, this kind of passionate diversity of thought has had less to do with figuring out what to do with what we don’t understand about scripture as it does with processing what we do understand; it’s the power of gospel truth, fueled by the movement of God’s Holy Spirit that touches the heart in such a wide variety of ways: like the man I knew years ago who discovered within the eloquent words of lamentations found in the Psalms that he had permission to release to God all the crippling anger and grief he’d been keeping locked inside of him since the death of his son; like the woman who’d spent most of her life laboring under the false assumption that she was alone and unloved until she was confronted by the God of Scripture who is relentless in pursuing and protecting those He loves; or still another who discovered the certainty of forgiveness and the joy that comes with it, all because of a simple story of a “prodigal” son and a father who ran “willy-nilly” across a field to welcome him home.
Granted, they’re not all as immediate or as dramatic as those, but I could share with you story after story of how God’s Word has gotten through in ways that nobody ever expected! I suspect that’s why Jesus’ ministry included so many different ways of teaching, from his often biting interpretations of “the law and the prophets” to the truths he only divulged in parables: though Jesus’ hearers might have reacted in a wide (and perhaps strange, unique, and maybe even – at first at least – mistaken) variety of ways to what he had to say, there was also the very good and glorious chance that they might truly hear his good news of the kingdom of God!
And that’s also why whenever I’m sitting around a table with church folk, bibles open and wrestling together with the texts of one Bible story or another, I tend to lean in close when someone starts to say, “Well, maybe I’m wrong, and I probably am, but here’s what I think it means…” Because that’s a good sign that the Spirit is moving and that God might well be at work!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry