Tuesday, March 30, 2010

WARNING: Long excursus ahead!

Okay, we're going to tackle the "mythology" question head on. Alert blog reader Bruce has raised this question more than once in the last couple months, and it is a critical question that cuts right through the heart of Christianity, especially in North America. The question is about whether we should read the Bible "literally". I'll let Bruce ask the question himself, which he did in a comment on my last column (thanks, Bruce! And thanks to others who comment -- I always appreciate your feedback).
Bruce said...

I have a sincere question: Do we not run into danger theologically when we claim that certain scriptures are myth? Is it not not wiser to assume that God's inspired Word is literal, except in such cases as the inspired author directly states that the intent is poetic, prophecy, or a parable?

With that said, I must admit that I am finding far more in Genesis than simply history. Thanks again for sharing you thoughts and theology!

It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand all the trends, movements, and patterns of thought we have inherited when we pick up a Bible. As readers in 2010 we do not -- we CAN NOT come to the Bible without a boatload of preconceptions and assumptions. It is important for us to know what assumptions we carry and make sure they're the ones we want to carry, as much as possible.

One fact that deeply colors our thinking -- and not just about the Bible -- is that we live in a post-Enlightenment world. So our thinking is shaped by the fact that we have inherited Rationalism and Humanism. Humanism is a movement or philosophy that began to invade western thinking in the 1500's, especially under the guidance of Erasmus who was a contemporary of Martin Luther. Along with Erasmus stood many other university teachers and leaders throughout Europe in the 1500's and later. The basic teaching of Humanism is that "man is the measure of all things" -- in other words, rather than receive divine teachings from the church without questioning them, we should evaluate everything and decide what is true and what is not according to some human-based standard of Truth. We are not subject to a greater authority and bound to obey it; rather, the human is the ultimate Agent, the ultimate one who can change things. Rationalism, the working partner of Humanism, teaches that the rational mind of the human being is able to make sense of the universe and that Truth and Fact should be determined by the scrutiny of the rational mind. So if you have a problem, approach it logically. Make a list of pro's and con's. This is a rationalistic approach, and by and large it is a good one. But biblically speaking, a rational mind is only one gift of God in creating humans. Oh, and by the way, humans are created under his authority, in his image, and expected to obey his will. We have to treat the assumptions of humanism and rationalism with caution.

Okay so far? Let's keep going.

People have been writing history for ages and ages, since at least the time of Homer, who wrote the history of the Trojan War in a little ditty we call the Iliad. (Brad Pitt recently redid this little piece, but I like the original version better.) History through the ages, as everyone knew all along, was written by the conquerors. In the process of writing history, part of the historian's task was to help the reader understand events. To interpret, if you will. To collect some events and not report others in order to help us make sense of the world. So for example, students in North America have usually been taught a great deal about the European Renaissance because we viewed ourselves as inheritors of Northern European culture. We have been taught (until recently) very little of the amazing cultures that came and went in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 2000 years, mostly because the writers of history felt we were little impacted by those cultures. We report some things and not others based on what we feel is important.

A few years ago -- about 185 years, actually -- a German named Leopold von Ranke wrote that the task of the historian is to portray things "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" or in English, "the way it really happened." Many, if not most, historians since that time have adopted von Ranke's philosophy with some subtlety and nuance, because historians know it's impossible not to do some interpretation along the way. The way it has trickled down to the average person, however, is that we believe -- because we are rationalistic children of the Enlightenment -- that history should be "just the facts, ma'am" and by the way, that news reporting should be unbiased (or at the very least, fair and balanced). Think about it for a while -- and listen to the evening news for a while if you can stand it -- and you'll see that this is pretty nearly impossible. When you report things, you choose some facts to report and not others. You bring your own sense of priority and meaning to the reporting, whether you're telling the story of a traffic accident or the Thirty Years' War. It is simply unavoidable, and in reality it's not even desirable -- because what we're really looking for as we hear those stories is meaning. We need to know what difference this makes. How is this event connected to me and to my world?

So we're looking for meaning, right?
Now, what is the best way to find meaning? Is it to look at unfiltered literal facts?

Think about getting directions. If you needed directions from Cub Foods in Elk River to Burger King (about 2 or 3 blocks) I could give you directions a couple ways. The first option goes like this: Exit the Cub parking lot to the east, turn right; follow that road through the stop sign and down the hill to the stop light. Proceed straight through the light and take an immediate left past the bank. Turn left into the Burger King parking lot.

Easy, right? That is because I have excluded every shred of information that doesn't directly bear on the question you asked which frames the meaning you're seeking.

The other way I could give directions (and some of you have received this kind of directions) is to share with you just the facts: Go out the Cub parking lot to the east, the Hollywood Video store across the way is closing down, I'm not sure if they're still selling out their old DVD's any more but I was thinking about seeing what they have in stock. On the southwest side -- back behind you at this point -- of Cub down below where Target used to be there's a fenced enclosure. I heard that about ten years ago there was a bear in Elk River that got trapped in that fenced area. Oh, and Target closed that store down, inconvenienced a lot of people who used to shop there, and moved to the big new Superstore in Otsego, just south of Rockwoods. They've got a white chicken chili at Rockwoods that's to die for. Well, they used to have it -- the last time I was there it wasn't on the menu any more.

What was it you wanted again?

Both sets of directions are based on facts. Difference is, one set of facts is filtered by a question of meaning. The other is totally factual but unfiltered.

Which set of directions is true? In one sense, both are true. Totally factual. But the first set is a correct answer to the question, "How do I get from Cub to BK?" It is the question that gives a filter that provides meaningful framework to the facts.

So what question is the Bible trying to answer? How does that filter change what's included? Do you see how important this is? We play this "filtering" game all the time. Murder mysteries use our natural filters to fool us. When you find out it was really the hired hand who killed poor Aunt Betty, a part of your brain screams at the unfairness of the whole thing. "Uncle Al would have to have seen him on the road between town and the farm if he had done it!" you think. So you turn back to page 34 and sure enough, you remember something you filtered out the first time around -- that as Uncle Al turned the corner at mile marker 29, "he saw a man in a jean jacket hunched against the cold November wind walking along the shoulder of the road. Something was vaguely familiar about the man's walk, but Uncle Al dismissed the idea and drove home ..." It was the hired hand walking back toward the farm to commit the crime, but you missed it at the time!

Hold that thought and let's come at this from the other end.

What are we really saying when we ask if the Bible is "literally" true? Are we saying that when the Bible reports history, that it is reporting it "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" -- "the way it really happened"? If so, we are taking our post-Enlightenment idea about history and imposing it on the Bible from our perspective.

Now for those of you who are worrying at this point that I'm going to throw out the historicity of the Bible, let me pause in mid-thought to let you know that I am not one of those who say Abraham and the Patriarchs never existed, that the Exodus never happened (I'm teaching a class on the Exodus starting on April 14, and I'm doing a ton of reading right now on Egypt and possible chronologies of the Exodus ... it's sort of a hobby of mine) or that David never ruled a unified kingdom, etc. People who deny the historicity of these things are called "minimalists" when it comes to the Bible, and to all those questions I choose to respond by siding with the historicity of the Bible. I am no minimalist. I see nothing in any of those stories that tells me the Bible is doing something other than telling me basically what happened, and then extrapolating meaning from a series of reasonably historical characters and events. So I accept the basic historical truth of the Bible's events when they seem intent on being taken as history.
But I don't want to risk missing the Bible's point by assuming that something is history if it's not intended that way.

There are times it seems like the Bible is doing something other than telling me what happened. I've made that argument repeatedly regarding the Genesis creation stories in Genesis 1-11. I think Jonah is another interesting example of a place where the Bible seems less concerned about what happened and more interested in the meaning of it. It's like a political cartoon, if you will pardon a trivial parallel. Is the political cartoon true? If it wasn't, it wouldn't offend anyone. It is the pundit's truth that earns him enemies. But sometimes to tell the truth we use an illustration or a personification -- or a myth.

We don't like the term "myth" much. We think it denigrates facts. We believe facts are more powerful than mere myth. If we're talking about simplistic stories of how the goddess Athena created the first spider out of a little woman named Arachne because Athena was jealous, maybe that's true. But those stories are myths because they once had great power to tell a people -- the Greeks in this case -- who they were and where they came from. Every ancient culture had myths. Modern cultures have myths, too. One of our myths is that education improves your life. Another is that America has the greatest potential workforce in the world. Another is that in 1969, a group of American astronauts walked on the moon. Many of our best myths have been written into movies. Have you watched Gladiator? It's pure myth -- not because it's about a Roman soldier, but because it is about us and how important it is for us to hold tight to family, strength, honor, and duty. It is a myth because when Marcus Aurelius whispers to Maximus that there was once a dream that was Rome, but it was so fragile -- he could as easily be talking about the freedoms of America, at risk from self-seeking politicians and the unthinking mob. Ohhh -- ouch. That's getting a little close to home. EXACTLY. That's what myth does.

Now, I understand that there is a long tradition within certain circles of Christianity that says the Bible's integrity rises and falls on our ability to affirm and defend its basic literal truth. So Genesis 1 has to be literal or the Bible goes down the sewer. One camp in the Darwinist Wars of the last century claimed this ground and fought themselves nearly to the death over it -- because as soon as they defined the ground, they realized that their literalist camp was divided between young earth and old earth believers, between literal seven-twenty-four-hour-day creationists and a-day-might-mean-a-million-years creationists. There are huge divisions in the literalist camp. And there are huge divisions in the Darwinist camp. And here's my deal -- I THINK BOTH OF THEM ARE MISSING THE POINT.

I sympathize with the creationists' idea that if the first few chapters of Genesis are mythology, then where do we draw the line? We're on a slippery slope and pretty soon Jesus didn't really rise from the dead, it's just an inspiring story about spiritual new life conquering all the deadly things in our lives. (Google John Shelby Spong sometime and find someone who really makes me mad.) I sympathize with them, because I want people to trust the Bible. But in the end their argument has huge holes in it. In fact the argument boils down to "inerrancy" which is a leap of faith which claims that the Bible -- not God, but the Bible -- is totally without error. Now, they realize that there are a few trivial errors -- discrepancies in body counts in two biblical accounts of the same battle, that sort of thing -- that have crept into the text. So the only way one can hold tight to this belief in inerrancy is by claiming that the original manuscripts -- which by the way we don't have and probably will never have -- were without error. What the inerrantists have done to the Bible is the same thing the Pharisees in Jesus' time did to the Law -- they build a fence around it and add in a little extra territory to protect it from all the unwashed masses like you and me.

Two major problems with this set of arguments:

First, inerrancy says the Bible I have right now is not trustworthy, even though it is based at two-thousand-years' distance on trustworthy manuscripts. Only the original "autographs" -- the first writings -- are totally without error according to a strict version of inerrancy.

Second, it totally neglects and ignores and rejects the role of the Holy Spirit in maintaining and transmitting the written Word of God with integrity.

So while I maintain the integrity and authority of the Bible against all challengers, I cannot in good conscience buy into the idea of inerrancy, because as I see it, inerrancy is about a rationalistic need for me to control the authority of the Bible through human means (i.e., an unprovable faith in perfect autographs), and I have more of a sense that the Spirit works in transmitting and translating the Bible to guarantee its integrity and authority. (NOTE: In the last year I have publicly put my job on the line, publicly argued and taught, and finally changed my own denominational affiliation over the issue of the authority of the Bible. I have no desire to undermine the Bible's claim on me or to minimize its authority over me.) Inerrancy is a problem precisely because it doesn't allow the Bible enough authority. If there's a discrepancy today I can simply claim that some error must have crept in since the time of the original writing. If I claim that the original author was inspired, then the text has to be in some sense inspired even if it's a little decayed and distorted with the passage of time.

In Bruce's original question (remember that?) he posits that inspiration rests with the author, and that it is the author's responsibility to tell us that what we're reading is poetry, parable, etc. If we receive no such notice, we should simply assume that it's intended to be taken as factual history.

Problem is (in addition to the above argument that the inspiration of the text decays over time if only the author is inspired) that the text doesn't often tell us what's what. None of the psalms start out with a notice that says "NOTE: This is POETRY. Don't take it literally!" Jesus rarely identifies his stories as parables, though he does so a couple times. In fact, under this system, we should assume that Jesus' story in Luke 15 about a man who had two sons is factual history, because Jesus simply says by way of introduction, "There was a man who had two sons ..." Most of the places where Jesus' stories are identified as parables, they are identified not by Jesus but by the writer of the gospel story. Matthew, Mark, and Luke (John doesn't have Jesus telling parables) were certainly inspired, but I think we'd agree that Jesus has higher authority than they do.

The other problem with this whole line of author-as-inspired way of thinking is that the Bible seems to talk about the text as inspired, even more so than the author. See 2 Timothy 3:16-17, or Hebrews 4:12-13, for example.

Okay, so enough of diatribes. One final (hopefully short) thing. What do I mean by mythology? I put it in the same genre as the story about Athena mentioned above only because both are stories designed to tell us the truth about who we are and where we come from. But I hold the Bible's "mythology" on a totally different plane as far as its inspiration, the method by which it was written, and the authority that resides in the story. The Bible is the story that reads me. Anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time must know that I take the biblical text very, very seriously. So seriously that I am not willing to let Genesis 1-11 be about what has happened in the past, though it obviously has very deep roots there. These are stories included out of the deep, deep memory of the Hebrew people, telling stories around the fire and beginning in different ways and different contexts to write them down, in order to tell themselves - and to tell us - who we are.

So when I come to these stories, I come humbly, expecting to encounter the God who created me, who knows me better than I know myself, who cuts through all my pretense and philosophy and learning and ignorance and changes my heart. I learn about the Enlightenment and humanism and rationalism so I can better understand myself and the baggage I bring to reading the Bible. I pray before I read so that my arrogance and my ignorance might not get in the way of being shaped by God as I read his inspired word.

I dare not make these stories simply about the past, because my heart, my life, my present is exposed in these stories and I have a sense God wants to use them to strip my soul bare and exchange my heart of stone for a heart of flesh.

No comments:

Post a Comment