The Bible in the jungle: Ingrid Betancourt’s testimony

30 May

I’ve just finished reading Ingrid Betancourt’s fabulous account of her six years of captivity in the Colombian jungle, Even silence has an end. (Virago, 2010)

It is exceptionally well written. Her recall of the details of places and events within those six years is remarkable. She tells of the horror, hunger and humiliation suffered by hundreds of people, at the hands of the FARC group, variously considered freedom fighters or terrorists. While she is does not support the FARC campaign or ideology, nonetheless she writes of her captors with a desire to understand them and, in many instances, sympathy for individuals and their families.

During 2011, many Christian organizations are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the ‘Authorized Version’ of the Bible, the King James Version. In June, at Whitley College, we will host a conference on the theme of Baptists and the Bible: readers, preachers, teachers. At this conference I will present a paper on biblical authority, ‘Biblical Authority: what Baptists have done to the Bible and what the Bible could do for Baptists.’ I will offer some more of this in a later post.
Right now, I am interested to bring these two items together, by noting a remarkable feature of Ingrid Betancourt’s experience.
She had been raised as a Roman Catholic, and clearly her faith was meaningful for her and was one of the things that sustained her during the horrific time in captivity. So too was the Bible. She spent considerable time reading the Bible, and was deeply distressed when at times her Bible was confiscated.

In one passage she describes reading the Bible in a new way, using the metaphor of weaving (another of her activities) to explain her explorations. As she read the Bible, reflecting on her own life and relationships, she finds a new world of meaning and values:

In my boredom I read the Bible and wove. I had been given a Bible, a very large one with maps and illustrations at the back. Could I have discovered the riches of the Bible in any other way? I don’t think so. The world in which I’d lived had no place for meditation, or for silence. But given the absence of distractions, my brain kneaded the words back into shape, as if they were clay being moulded to create something new. And so I would reread passages, and I would discover why they had stayed with me. It was like finding chinks, secret passages, links to other thoughts, and different interpretations of the texts. The Bible became a fascinating world of codes, insinuations, and hidden meanings.
Perhaps that was also why it was easy for me to devote so much time to weaving. Thanks to manual activity, my mind entered a state of meditation, and I could reflect on what I had read while my hands were moving. (page 140).

There is something important here, about discovering the many levels of meaning and truth in Scripture: both through giving serious attention to the text itself, and through reflecting upon it whilst engaged in manual work.

As the book develops, Betancourt shares much of her own struggles, including many times of self-recrimination. She also reveals a continuous sense of trust in God, even though at times she questions why she is suffering. Later, she offers this reflection on how her relationship with God had changed:

I began to hibernate. There was no longer any day or any night, any sun or any rain. Noise, smells, insects, hunger and thirst, everything disappeared. I read, listened, meditated, sifted each episode of my life through my new thoughts. My relationship with God changed. I no longer had to go through others to have access to him, nor did I need rituals. Reading his book, I saw a gaze, a voice, a finger that showed the way and transformed things. The human condition that was reflected in the Bible became a mirror that sent my own reflection back to me.
I liked that God. He spoke, he chose his words, he had a sense of humour. Like the Little Prince charming the rose, he was cautious. (p472)

There is so much more of integrity, love, anguish and kindness in this huge, insightful and inspiring book. I simply offer these quotations as an indication of Betancourt’s journey with the Bible. It is a very specific testimony to the power of the Bible to shape human experience, leading a person into self-awareness, into deeper relationship with God and with herself. This is what it means to call the Bible the living word of God!

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