Who’s Afraid of a (Partly) Fictional Bible?

How 2014’s Bible controversies give evangelicals a chance to read scripture more faithfully.

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.

 

OnFaith
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  • Martin Hughes

    You’re only beginning to face the difficulties. The Gospels do not really even claim to be transcribed directly from eyewitness testimony. Surely it’s likely that Mark was written in Rome after 70, at some distance from the events of Pilate’s Palestine and that Matthew and Luke were developed from Mark, but so differently that there cannot have been one distinct eyewitness tradition but only many traditions already difficult to interpret. John is again very different: much theological reflection seems to have gone into his understanding of things.
    We cannot have scientific understanding of most of the events of the Bible. We have only faith and doubt, which to my mind always go together.

    • nwcolorist

      Apart from archaeology, I don’t think we can have scientific understanding of any events of antiquity. So the question is what determines the authenticity of ancient writings? How do we know that Socrates existed and Plato wrote the dialogues, and at what date. And what about the Iliad and the Odyssey?

      If Homer and Plato, Thucydides and Herodotus are accepted, why not the Bible?

      • mikehorn

        The Bible is already accepted on the level of homer and the rest. I don’t think the Sirens or the Cyclops were real, but the historical artifact of the writings is clear enough: the ancients had some wonderful tales. I highly recommend Gilgamesh, especially for bible readers. Non-Abrahamic morality texts can be found by searching Ashoka. These things and many more all come from antiquity, but I claim none of them as literal, and none of them as evidence of a supernatural anything, much less recommend them as blueprints for modern life. Think of Tom Clancy novels: The ships and places and nations all existed, with background politics, but the events are fiction.

        The Bible claims a category far above any other ancient text. That is an extra claim requiring extra evidence, which will not come from archaeology barring some really amazing discoveries. Not even just the Flood, which European colonization starting 1600 or so increasingly provided evidence against. Work at Jericho disagrees with the Bible. Nothing in Egypt mentions Israeli slaves or plagues. The Bible further claims relevance today, on more than just metaphoric levels, adherents trying to affect education, science, healthcare, politics based on literal interpretations. Nobody is fighting over biology textbooks because of Homer.

        My opinion: biblical literalism is more than just shallow and wrong. It’s dangerous.

  • AnantaAndroscoggin

    How goes that project to re-write the Bible by conservatives on a website because the King James edition is just not conservative enough for them? I haven’t bothered to try keeping track of their progress.

    • nwcolorist

      Haven’t heard about that group. I’m sure there are a significant number of people over the centuries that have attempted to rewrite the Bible. Thomas Jefferson cut out all the sections in the Bible that referred to the divinity of Jesus

  • JM

    If these Christians insist on taking the Bible absolutely literally, there should be fewer of them with both eyes still intact. Matthew 18:9

  • TimTripod

    “Oddly enough, the people who want us to read every word of the Bible literally have failed to remember that Jesus Christ. . . [used] made-up stories we call parables.” The problem with this statement is that when Jesus told these parables, he clearly presented them as such — stories. The first few chapters of Genesis, on the other hand, are historical narrative.
    We have failed to remember nothing. “We” just take care to observe genre and context of the passages we read, unlike those who prefer to adhere to simplistic claims like “there are stories in the Bible, so Genesis 1 is just a story!”

    • http://www.mormon.org Daniel

      Right on.

  • cken

    The Bible is christian and Jewish mythology. It contains both truth and wisdom. Parts of it are literal and parts are allegorical. It is up to us to be sufficiently sagacious to discern the difference. Unfortunately the few who actually read the Bible read it through the tinted lenses of their indoctrination.

  • nice_marmot

    If some biblical stories are taken as allegory, then it’s equally valid to take them all as allegory. There are only two internally consistent readings of the Bible: That all the stories are allegorical or all are literal. If they are all allegorical, the story of Jesus is simply another metaphor. If the Bible is taken literally, it is impossible to untangle the stories from the seemingly endless contradictions in both narrative and message.
    The fact if the matter is that everyone cherry-picks scripture to accommodate the belief they want it to support. Justifying belief in the New Testament because it was “written or drawn from eyewitness accounts” is just as absurd as claiming that Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale or that Lot’s wife was really turned to salt. The only truthful justification for reading parts of the Bible as metaphor and parts as, well, as gospel is that one chooses to.

  • http://www.mormon.org Daniel

    How do you decide which parts of the Bible are “real” and which ones are allegory? The fear is that viewing portions of the Bible as allegory that are not explicitly labeled as allegorical is a slippery slope to atheism or unbelief. If important stories like the resurrection of Christ or the creation of the world are viewed as allegory, there is no point to Christianity. The Bible becomes a novel instead of scripture.

  • Malcom Warner

    “How 2014’s Bible controversies…”

    This is comical. “2014″? The debate over whether or not the Bible is literally true was a “controversy” in like 1814. Anyone in 2014 who still believes everything in the Bible is literally true might as well be a flat-earther.

  • Geno Luvsjesus

    I can tell you this…

    JESUS LOVES you…he LOVES each and everyone one of us…

    Have a blessed day…:-) love each other as CHRIST LOVES you…