Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
I recently had the honor of being on the radio show Deep in Scripture, a great weekly program run by The Coming Home Network International. When we were first making arrangements, the producer asked me to choose two Scripture verses to discuss on the theme of The Verses I Never Saw.
It was a daunting assignment. The show is known for fascinating Scriptural exegesis from both host Marcus Grodi and his guests, in which they expound on various passages from the Bible based on personal experience and years of formal study (Grodi's own essay about the verses he never saw is excellent). Though I've been immersing myself in the Bible as much as possible since my conversion, there was no way I could crack open the Scriptures at the same level as his other guests, many of whom were once Protestant pastors. I said to my husband, only half jokingly, that the verses I never saw were all the ones between Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21.
As the date for the show approached, I flipped through my Bible, trying to find something that had stood out to me back when I first read it. Suddenly, two verses came to mind. They're some of the least frequently quoted sections of Scripture, yet they had a profound impact on me when I was first coming to faith. They are Colossians 4:18:
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my fetters. Grace be with you.
And Luke 23:12:
And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.
When I encountered these two verses, as well as others like them, I was shocked. I actually put my Bible down so that I could absorb what I'd just encountered.
I had so little familiarity with the Bible that I had imagined it to be something totally different than it was. When I was younger my dad once showed me some passages from the Old Testament, as a secular educational lesson on the religion of Christianity; I read the Sermon on the Mount as part of a World History course in college; and I would occasionally see lines from Proverbs or the Psalms on decorative plaques in friends' houses. That was pretty much the extent of my familiarity with Scripture. And so I developed this cobbled-together image of what the Bible was like, based on the advice and poetry and exotic stories that I'd encountered in its passages.
When I bought my first Bible during the conversion process, I imagined that the whole thing would basically be like what I'd seen so far: Mostly a long list of commands and advice, with the occasional story of a talking animal thrown in. I knew there would be discussion of Jesus as well, but I expected it to be mainly the details of his instructions for us, or perhaps a dry listing of the key reasons why one should become a Christian.
What I didn't expect to find was a deeply human story, written by regular people.
When I read the New Testament, I was caught off guard by how earthy it was. There was talk of the goings on in this town or that one, comments about local politics, mentions of the health of people's brothers and slaves and children -- most of them identified by name. In his letters, Paul occasionally took a break from fleshing out Christian doctrine to offer shout-outs to men and women like Aquila and Prisca, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus. He sent warm greetings from prison to his friend Philemon, his sister in Christ Apphia, and to a man named Archippus who held church services in his home. In Colossians 4:18, Paul includes a personal aside to his friends. In Luke 23:12 the author includes a note that shows his personality as a man who is interested in the politics of his time.
The inclusion of these passages gave the Scriptures a raw, personal feel. I had expected fantastical prose and pushy indoctrination tactics, a book whose every sentence was polished and glossed and manipulated until none of the original writer's personality remained. Instead, in the New Testament I encountered a series of books that had a surprising intimacy. Each author's distinctive voice -- and even the occasional personality quirk -- came through in the text, so clearly that I felt like I knew these writers personally. The asides and the unpolished edges gave the text an immediacy that I would have never expected to find in a holy book. Each author's writing had an earnestness and a simplicity that showed an unshakable confidence in what he wrote. Each text had a certain kind of informality, an utter freedom from self-consciousness, that can only be found when someone knows that the words he speaks are the truth.
Needless to say, it was the more well-known, powerful Scriptures such as the accounts of the Crucifixion or the founding of the Church that had the most impact on my conversion. But the hidden verses like Colossians 4:18 and Luke 23:12 played no small part as well, as they helped me see these words as having been written in a specific time and place by real people -- people who believed with unfailing certainty that they were speaking the truth.