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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.

The Difference between Truth and Fact

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on April 28, 2014 at 12:29 am

I’ve been listening to conversations about “what the Bible says” and have been having a hard time articulating why I’m disturbed by the position taken by some Bible defenders.  I agree with them that the Bible is true, but I get the sense that they are using the term differently than I am.  Their “true” is much more concrete than mine.

Rothfuss2I am reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day Two). It’s a fantasy series that occupies a region between Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Rothfuss writes intelligent fantasy.

Below is a passage from the book that, I think, gets at how truth is more relational than informational. And that it has to be communicated in stories full of poetic language and metaphor that transcend explanation.

“TODAY,” ELODIN SAID BRIGHTLY, “we will talk about things that cannot be talked about. Specifically, we will discuss why some things cannot be discussed.”

I sighed and set down my pencil. Every day I hoped this class would be the one where Elodin actually taught us something. Every day I brought a hardback and one of my few precious pieces of paper, ready to take advantage of the moment of clarity. Every day some part of me expected Elodin to laugh and admit he’d just been testing our resolve with his endless nonsense.

And every day I was disappointed.

“The majority of important things cannot be said outright,” Elodin said. “They cannot be made explicit. They can only be implied.” He looked out at his handful of students in the otherwise empty lecture hall. “Name something that cannot be explained.” He pointed at Uresh. “Go.”

Uresh considered for a moment. “Humor. If you explain a joke, it isn’t a joke.”

Elodin nodded, then pointed at Fenton.

“Naming?” Fenton asked.

“That is a cheap answer, Re’lar,” Elodin said with a hint of reproach. “But you correctly anticipate the theme of my lecture, so we will let it slide.” He pointed at me.

“There isn’t anything that can’t be explained,” I said firmly. “If something can be understood, it can be explained. A person might not be able to do a good job of explaining it. But that just means it’s hard, not that it’s impossible.”

Elodin held up a finger. “Not hard or impossible. Merely pointless. Some things can only be inferred.” He gave me an infuriating smile. “By the way, your answer should have been ‘music.’”

“Music explains itself,” I said. “It is the road, and it is the map that shows the road. It is both together.”

“But can you explain how music works?” Elodin asked.

“Of course,” I said. Though I wasn’t sure of any such thing.

“Can you explain how music works without using music?”

That brought me up short. While I was trying to think of a response, Elodin turned to Fela.

“Love?” she asked.

Elodin raised an eyebrow as if mildly scandalized by this, then nodded approvingly.

“Hold on a moment,” I said. “We’re not done. I don’t know if I could explain music without using it, but that’s beside the point. That’s not explanation, it’s translation.”

Elodin’s face lit up. “That’s it exactly!” he said. “Translation. All explicit knowledge is translated knowledge, and all translation is imperfect.”

“So all explicit knowledge is imperfect?” I asked. “Tell Master Brandeur geometry is subjective. I’d love to watch that discussion.”

“Not all knowledge,” Elodin admitted. “But most.”

“Prove it,” I said.

“You can’t prove nonexistence,” Uresh interjected in a matter-of-fact way. He sounded exasperated. “Flawed logic.”

I ground my teeth at that. It was flawed logic. I never would have made that mistake if I’d been better rested. “Demonstrate it then,” I said.

“Fine, fine.” Elodin walked over to where Fela sat. “We’ll use Fela’s example.” He took her hand and pulled her to her feet, motioning me to follow.

I came reluctantly to my feet as well and Elodin arranged the two of us so we stood facing each other in profile to the class. “Here we have two lovely young people,” he said. “Their eyes meet across the room.”

Elodin pushed my shoulder and I stumbled forward half a step. “He says hello. She says hello. She smiles. He shifts uneasily from foot to foot.” I stopped doing just that and there was a faint murmur of laughter from the others.

“There is something ephemeral in the air,” Elodin said, moving to stand behind Fela. He put his hands on her shoulders, leaning close to her ear. “She loves the lines of him,” he said softly. “She is curious about the shape of his mouth. She wonders if this could be the one, if she could unclasp the secret pieces of her heart to him.” Fela looked down, her cheeks flushing a bright scarlet.

Elodin stalked around to stand behind me. “Kvothe looks at her, and for the first time he understands the impulse that first drove men to paint. To sculpt. To sing.”

He circled us again, eventually standing between us like a priest about to perform a wedding. “There exists between them something tenuous and delicate. They can both feel it. Like static in the air. Faint as frost.”

He looked me full in the face. His dark eyes serious. “Now. What do you do?”

I looked back at him, utterly lost. If there was one thing I knew less about than naming, it was courting women.

“There are three paths here,” Elodin said to the class. He held up one finger. “First. Our young lovers can try to express what they feel. They can try to play the half-heard song their hearts are singing.”

Elodin paused for effect. “This is the path of the honest fool, and it will go badly. This thing between you is too tremulous for talk. It is a spark so faint that even the most careful breath might snuff it out.”

Master Namer shook his head. “Even if you are clever and have a way with words, you are doomed in this. Because while your mouths might speak the same language, your hearts do not.” He looked at me intently. “This is an issue of translation.”

Elodin held up two fingers. “The second path is more careful. You talk of small things. The weather. A familiar play. You spend time in company. You hold hands. In doing so you slowly learn the secret meanings of each other’s words. This way, when the time comes you can speak with subtle meaning underneath your words, so there is understanding on both sides.”

Elodin made a sweeping gesture toward me. “Then there is the third path. The path of Kvothe.” He strode to stand shoulder to shoulder with me, facing Fela. “You sense something between you. Something wonderful and delicate.”

He gave a romantic, lovelorn sigh. “And, because you desire certainty in all things, you decide to force the issue. You take the shortest route. Simplest is best, you think.” Elodin extended his own hands and made wild grasping motions in Fela’s direction. “So you reach out and you grab this young woman’s breasts.”

There was a burst of startled laughter from everyone except Fela and myself. I scowled. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and her flush spread down her neck until it was hidden by her shirt.

Elodin turned his back to her and looked me in the eye.

“Re’lar Kvothe,” he said seriously. “I am trying to wake your sleeping mind to the subtle language the world is whispering. I am trying to seduce you into understanding. I am trying to teach you.” He leaned forward until his face was almost touching mine. “Quit grabbing at my ****” (253-255).