It’s quite common for Bible detractors to derogate this or that part of scripture by saying it is “just a story.” But in the last month, I heard two different church leaders use the negative of the same phrase in their defense of the Bible’s reliability. Defending a historic Adam, they insisted that Genesis 1-3 can’t be “just a story.”
By using this phrase, both the detractors and supporters of biblical veracity are making the same error. An error rooted in the way our modern minds understand story.
We can’t do much about the detractors, but I want to steer Christians from adopting the ideas that lie 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” in relation to the stories they heard. It is only since the Enlightenment, after which we severely limited what fell into the category we called Truth, that our use of the term “just” in conjunction with stories is possible.
Up till about the 17th century, truth came at us in many forms. We could encounter it in dreams, through traditions and previous generations. Truth was in our experiences, and it was in the stories we told.
In the Scientific Revolution, some people realized that in some contexts–scientific ones, for instance–it was beneficial to use only objective, observable, measurable truth. All sorts of wonderful things came out of this approach—a better understanding of the universe and the human body, advances in navigation, manufacturing, and agriculture, and bifocals.
The success of this narrowing of truth to fact when doing science was so exhilarating that we began to apply it to practically everything. Subjective, narrative and experiential truth came to be thought of as unreliable because they weren’t true in the same way a quantifiable or observable fact was true.
Truth Equals Fact
Our Modern approach equates truth with fact, and we believe that the best way to transmit factual information is in simple and exact language. It follows then that plain, literal human language is the best way to describe history and human experience as well. From this perspective, the pejorative “just” makes sense. Facts are true, and stories are not true. If the Bible is true, then it can’t contain “just” stories.
Unfactual Stories and Truth
Pretty much every culture in the world, past and present, that hasn’t yet bought into our Modern way of thinking, believes that stories can be true even if unfactual.
This includes the writers of biblical narratives, who sometimes put factual information aside in order to communicate far more important truths about relationships and human experience.
The Ancient Hebrew faith is about a relationship with, and experience of, a transcendent God. They communicate relational truths in narratives–the genre best suited to communicate such things. What’s the best way to get at the truth about your mother? Telling stories or offering a list of factual information about her.
In order to get at complex truths, we often will use the tools of literary language. The language of story is not nearly as clear, simple or exact as literal language, but it’s far better at saying things that cannot be said. It’s full of metaphor and symbol so as to help us articulate the truth about love and betrayal, beauty and death, despair and redemption. In order to communicate the truth about these subjects, we need more than literal language and fact–we need symbols and stories. This is as true now as it was a thousand years ago.
The Truth of Genesis
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 representatives, the priest-kings and pharaohs respectively.
The Adam story told its original audience that human beings are created in the image of the One God. And in a shocking turn, Adam even names the animals; in the other ancient stories, naming was something that only gods could do.
In the stories of Egypt and Babylon, women were even lower than men, but the first chapter of the Bible we find the radical idea that both Man and Woman bear the image of the creator. Think about the significance of this–here is a document that is thousands of years old which proclaims that humans are precious, and that male and female are equally valuable. Given the context of the creation stories in the ancient world, these are radical truths; truths that are the basis of our concern for human rights and equity in our culture today.
There’s are many more truths we learn from these first chapters of Genesis. We learn that all of creation was declared “very good,” and 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 we, deep down, 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 achieved, but we do learn that it will be by the actions of another human being who will defeat both evil and death.
These are some of the truths of the story of Adam and Eve. Communicating these all-important truths was, I believe, the purpose of the author(s). These truths are true, whether or not the people or events actually happened in the way it’s presented in the story. Truth is truth, however it is communicated.
What is true for the first audiences of these stories, is true for the modern one. We will need to have conversations about the degree to which individual biblical stories are historical, but whether they are or not the truth they contain will have nothing to do with the degree to which they conform to modern assumptions about what constitutes truth. The authors of these stories didn’t write them so that his listeners would know things; his intention was that they experience truth at the level of their identity and live them out in their lives—this is the power of story.
Whatever it is we do find in the biblical narratives, we never find “just” a story.