Note: This piece was submitted by a pastor at a mainstream evangelical church in the American West. Just before we went to publication, he requested that we withhold it or post it anonymously because of the controversial nature of the subject within his community and the rancor it could cause in his congregation. We obliged his request in part to highlight just how sensitive an issue biblical inspiration is among American Christians today.
The question of what the Bible is and how to read it has been much on the evangelical mind this year. The Bill Nye-Ken Ham evolution-creation debate, the release of Darren Arronofsky’s Noah, and most recently, the admission made by popular worship music artist Michael Gungor that he doesn’t read all of the primeval stories in Genesis 1-11 as “literal” accounts of historical events have highlighted how far we have to go in grasping what the Bible actually is, and how best to read it.
Gungor went seriously viral among evangelicals after he was accused this month of, as World magazine put it, “drift[ing] from biblical orthodoxy.” But what Gungor’s Christian critics may not realize is that when it comes to reading parts of the Bible non-literally, he’s not alone. In fact, historically and theologically speaking, Gungor is in great company.
As the pastor at the church Gungor helped plant pointed out, “The early church fathers interpreted much of early Genesis as allegory and insisted that to read such texts ‘literally’ . . . was to do damage to their intent.” In other words, faithful Christians throughout history — the keepers of the faith that has survived all these centuries — “have tended to agree with Gungor.”
Likewise, the great Old Testament scholars Walter Brueggemann and Dr. John Goldingay understand many of the great stories of the Bible to be “pedagogical fiction” and “historical parables” — made-up stories that tell us the truth about God and his purposes for his created order.
I wonder: Why are we so afraid of that?
As a parent of three children, I take it as a sign of their maturation when I’m able to use playful language with them. It’s a beautiful thing when they begin to “hear” me when I use language that is more poetic than literal.
You’re a real peach.
I love you like a million sunrises.
I just can’t get you out of my head.
Anyone who has ever been in love will tell you that imaginative language is the handmaiden of intimacy. Flat, rigid words buckle under the weight of love. There’s something so special going on here, we say, usually just before we move into playful linguistic flourishes that beauty — and truth — requires.
And what if the endlessly playful and inexhaustibly creative Triune God invites us into such imaginative exchanges by means of the Bible? The reality is it takes a full-bodied imagination to read this book we have been given.
The seed of Abraham. The burning bush. A shoot bursting up from the stump of Jesse. Ezekiel’s “wheel within a wheel.” The heavenly host. The chariots and horsemen of Israel. The witch at Endor. Cloven tongues of fire and the wind of the Spirit. The four horsemen of the apocalypse. The beast coming up out of the sea. The elders and angels and four living creatures. The sea of glass. The eyes that burn like fire. The voice that’s like the sound of many rushing waters.
All my life I’ve heard preachers say things like, “I just preach the Bible. It’s that simple.” But the truth is that the Bible is the most wildly fantastic and demanding compilation of truthful words in the history of mankind. If we pay attention to what it says, we’ll never be short on opportunities to love the Lord our God with all of our minds.
Yes, the Bible must be read on its own terms. And we must acquire the tools we need to read it properly.
Imagine if a heart surgeon tried to use a jackhammer to open up someone’s sternum for a transplant. That would end in destruction. Imagine if an emergency medical technician tried to pry someone out of a car not using the “jaws of life,” but by using old, dull scissors.
Well, something of the same thing happens when we read our twenty-first century lives into a book composed in an ancient and wholly different world. We destroy the book that way. We aren’t even able to find our way into it. Having the right tools matters. We read poetry — Psalms, Lamentations — as poetry. We read the book of Judges and Paul’s letters and Genesis in different ways, because that’s how we show faithfulness to this sacred and powerful book.
I am absolutely thankful that there is much in our Scriptures that is literal. I believe that a young woman named Mary had a son and named him Jesus. I believe that, as early church leaders put it, Jesus “was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and on the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.” I believe that “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” The gospel stories are written or drawn from eyewitness accounts, and they call for a different kind of reading, a different measure of belief.
Oddly enough, the people who want us to read every word of the Bible literally have failed to remember that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, saw fit to announce the Kingdom of His Father by means of a series of made-up stories we call parables. This same Jesus holds out a loaf of bread and a cup and invites his church to remember him in this way.
That makes me think that God’s not so afraid of us using our imaginations — or of reading the Bible with our imaginations fully engaged and just as provoked as the stories intend us to be.