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“Just a Story”?

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants on May 18, 2014 at 6:17 pm

BibleSome Bible detractors will say that this or that part of the Bible is “just a story.”  In the last month, I heard two different church leaders use the same phrase in their defense of the historic Adam saying that Genesis 1-3 can’t be “just a story.”

We can’t do much about the detractors, but I want to caution Christians from adopting the idea behind the phrase “just a story.”

The original audience of every narrative in the Bible would be very puzzled by this use of the word “just.”  It could not have been used to precede the words “a story,” after the Enlightenment–when we severely limited our understanding of truth and story.

Our post-Enlightenment worldview equates truth with information, and we believe that the best way to transmit information is in simple and exact language and that plain, literal human language is the best way to describe history and human experience. From this perspective, the pejorative “just” is makes sense.

But the writers of the Bible had a very different view of truth and story. They were more interested in relationships than information. And they communicate relational truths in narratives and poetic language full of metaphor and other figures of speech.   Truth was something that we experienced through story. Until 500 years ago, the truth in story transcended mere information.

In the first chapters of Genesis, the original audience would have heard stories that directly challenged the dominant narratives of the ancient world.  The Egyptian and Babylonian stories make it clear that mankind is nothing more than a slave whose sole purpose is to serve the gods, and their representative, the priest-king/pharaoh. The Adam story told it’s original audience that human beings are created in the image of the One God.  In the stories of Egypt and Babylon, women were even lower than men, but the first chapter of the Bible presents the radical idea that both Man and Woman bore the image of  the creator.  Think about the significance of this–here is a document that is thousands of years old which proclaims that male and female are of equal value.  Given the context of the creation stories in the ancient world, these are radical truths.

The Adam story tells the original audience that the material world matters to the One God and that he created it for humanity.  Consistent with the value attributed to human beings by the creator God, Adam and his offspring are given the task of being stewards of this newly created world.  In a shocking turn, Adam even names the animals; in the other ancient stories, naming was something that only gods could do.

There’s are many more truths we learn from these first chapters of Genesis.  We learn that God wants a relationship with the people He created.  We learn that human beings are moral beings with a strong tendency to choose Evil and that we are responsible for our choices.  We are presented the truth that we need divine action in order to live our life as it was intended to be lived.  How, deep down, we want to live it.  We are taught that the Creator God loves us enough to accomplish this life on our behalf. It’s not crystal clear from Genesis how this will be accomplished, but we do learn that it will be by the actions of another human being who will defeat death and evil.

To summarize:

  • All human life is valuable.
  • Male and female are of equal value.
  • Human beings have been honoured with very important tasks.
  • The Natural world is very important.
  • We have moral choices and are responsible for them.
  • We usually choose evil.
  • This isn’t the way the world was supposed to be.
  • The Creator of the vast Cosmos loves us and wants a relationship with us.
  • It is only by the actions of this God that our relationships with Him, each other and the natural world will be restored.
  • This restoration will be by the actions of another human being.

These are some of the truths of the story of Adam and Eve.  These are the truths that it’s shocked original audience would have heard.  The author of these stories didn’t write them so that his listeners simply know this information;  his intention was that they experience these truths at the level of their identity and live them out in their lives.  I don’t think this purpose changes now that that 21st century Christians are reading the stories.

Whatever it is we do find in the first chapters of the Bible, we do not find “just” a story.

Christian or Humanist? — Yes!

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants on May 13, 2014 at 4:45 am

Science versus HumanitiesLast week, I stuck a link on Facebook to a short blog post I wrote for Abbotsford Christian Schools blog, InsideOut called,” My Coffee Cup and Genesis 1.” I received some heat for this post; I was called “yet another science bashing Christian.”

This appellation, I believe, is misapplied.

Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, so separate out my “Christianness” from anything I do or say, I think that it might be just as appropriate to call me “yet another humanist insisting that science has limits,” (humanist in the sense that I think like a humanities person).

What science does, it does well, but it’s not very useful for what it doesn’t do. This idea ought not offend anyone, unless they believe that science can do everything. Many scientists and nearly all philosophers would have no problem with the limitations I suggest. Science looks at the material world, it cannot tell us about everything, unless everything is material. There are some, many of them scientists, who suggest this is the case.

But as soon as anyone suggests this, they are no longer in the realm of science, but of philosophy. Scientism, philosophic materialism are among the names for this philosophy. Once in the realm of philosophy one must play by the rules of philosophy.

Philosophy is one of the humanities–there’s a lot of critical thinking in philosophy. Like science, it seeks objective knowledge, but it is not limited to the physical reality–one of the branches of philosophy is metaphysics. Other branches include logic, epistemology and ethics. Although philosophical materialism can be argued, it’s not easy because there are pretty good arguments from each of these philosophical disciplines that challenge the fundamental tenets of Scientism.

History is another of the humanities. History helps contextualize the current age with those that have gone before. Without history we might think that, just because we are progressing technologically, we are progressing in other ways as well. One well supported reading of history suggests that humanity is not, essentially, progressing as Scientism often assumes.

Literature, my favourite branch of the humanities, explores ideas with imagination–it asks, “What if?”  From Frankenstein to The Wise Man’s Fear literature warns of science stepping beyond its natural limitations.

Humanities and science complement each other. We are all the weaker without both being strong.  One of the many tasks that those of us in the humanities have is to maintain this complementary relationship.  My Facebook critic is not alone in thinking that arguments promoting the humanities are a defense of a bronze-age mentality.

I believe that science (mathematics, physics, biology), philosophy, history and literature–freed, within their natural boundaries, to do what they each do best–will lead to the truth. As a Christian, I believe this Truth to be Jesus Christ.