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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.

I Think the Bible is True

In Why I am not a "Liberal" or "Conservative" on February 10, 2014 at 6:40 pm

BibleMost liberals like parts of the Bible–they usually like what Jesus said, but there are other parts of the Bible that many reject outright.

I am not like most liberals because I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and, as such, it’s true and it’s relevant, and it’s also authorative.

But let me say that there are certain parts that I am really uncomfortable with as well.

But, I can’t easily reject them for two reasons.

One reason is past experience.  I have frequently misunderstood what the Bible is saying.   This is most often the case with the parts that I don’t like.  It frequently happens that realize I had been misreading the Bible my whole life.  I’ll be reading something or listening to a sermon and I find a beautiful resolution to these puzzling passages.

Take, for example, the problem of hell–how could a loving God send people to hell.  That really bugged me for a long time, but then I read C. S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” and saw that God’s role is not so much sending people to hell as allowing people to choose to walk away from him–we were made to be with him, and to not be with him will be hellish.  This idea of God allowing human beings to choose is central to the teachings of the Bible (and I might point out, liberal democracies).  The problem of hell is still with me, but I’ve discovered enough through reading the Bible and other folks much smarter than I am that it is not necessarily incompatible with a loving God.  By the time I got to reading Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I benefited from his critique on the Christian approach to the idea of hell, without accepting many of his conclusions.

Yesterday I came across another thought in Dr. John  Patrick’s keynote from last year’s Apologetics Canada Conference.  The idea was this:  It’s not too hard to accept that God is both pure Love and pure Justice.  Just as it is inconceivable that a loving God allow people to be in hell, it is also just as inconceivable that a just God would allow people into heaven, but nobody argues about that.  It is a puzzling paradox, but it makes some sense if God is both living AND just.

There are still passages that are puzzle me, or that I just don’t like.  But I am no longer tempted to reject the Bible because of them, because perhaps I am misinterpreting it.

The second reason why I don’t reject the Bible because I don’t like what’s in it is–If the Bible were truly the word of God, then I doubt it would say only things I agreed with.  I doubt it would only say the things that citizens of 21st century  liberal democracies liked.

If the Bible really were the word of a transcendent God, it is highly doubtful that it would present only those ideas that are palatable us, only here and only now.  That wouldn’t make any sense, especially since we keep changing our idea of what is right and wrong/good and evil every few centuries, or decades, or years.  I haven’t been on this planet for very long, yet in my mere 50 years I have seen a lot of change.  If the Bible perfectly conformed with culture, it would be reasonable to assume that authors of culture were God, and not the ultimate author of the Bible.

One of the arguments in favour of the Bible actually being the word of a transcendent God is that there are parts I am very uncomfortable with.

I understand that a significant barrier to acceptance of the Bible in (some) African cultures is that it demands we forgive each other.  In North America, we have no problem forgiveness, but apparently this is as hard for them to accept as, say, sexual constraint is for North Americans.

I think the Bible is true, even though there are some parts that we have a lot of trouble with.

In some cases, we are troubled because we think it’s saying what it actually isn’t.  In others, it’s actually putting its finger on an area where the Creator of the Cosmos is telling us we have strayed from the path of righteousness.

The trick is knowing which we are dealing with.