Friday, January 05, 2007

Bible and History

How much of the Bible is fiction with meaning and how much actually happened? Does it matter? If the resurrection is a myth we're all in trouble but what about Jonah and the large fish, Noah and the ark, Adam, Eve and the snake? Surely you can only understand these stories if they didn't happen…

I was thinking. I hate it when that happens because it normally ends with upsetting someone. But I was thinking about stories. I spend some of my time writing stories, so that’s hardly thinking out of the box. But, here’s the thought – the Bible is full of stories. I know, I know, your world remains unshattered. Bear with me a bit.

The Bible contains stories that were originally meant to be heard as stories, not histories.

This first occurred to me during a sermon on Genesis 3. The preacher said that we shouldn’t worry about whether or not there was a real snake. I have never taken Genesis 3 as factual and this stopped me in my tracks. It suggested that up to that point the preacher thought the animal naming ceremonies, tricks with ribs and tree of life stuff was real. Really real. I don’t know if that’s what he meant but that was how I understood it.

I preach myself from time to time and have often approached the passages with dubious historicity by looking at the lessons they teach, rather than worrying about whether they actually happened or not. But I now realise that it does matter.

People find the Bible incredible. Running Alpha courses at various churches I find many of the questions are versions of ‘You don’t really believe that do you?’ Then I met Rachel (not her real name). She came to Alpha on the basis that none of the Bible was ‘true’ and that it was all metaphor or story. As she came to faith she began to encounter truth, and I believe has now met Jesus who is the truth.

Rachel likes stories and learns from them. As a devourer of fiction she learns lessons from characters in books. Discovering truths from people in the Bible was child’s play for her, but it did get a little complicated when she began to feel that there were certain things that had to have happened.

She also knew more about snakes than me. She told me she could just about believe in a talking snake but as snakes had no ears, she found it hard to believe in a snake that could listen. Hmmm.

You see it’s not only taking the Bible too seriously (joke, maybe ‘factually’ would be a better word here) that gets us into trouble. It discredits our thinking processes. Another friend at church told me she believed that the Garden of Eden really existed and was created after the dinosaurs had been wiped out. ‘You’ll accuse me of intellectual suicide,’ she said. Well I’m too polite to do that but I can’t think what else to do.

The historicity supporters have to answer questions that the story lovers don’t:

Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?
Where were the woodworm on the ark?
Why wasn’t Jonah digested?

The answer ‘God could sort that out if he wanted to’ doesn’t wash. It’s what leads people to disparage Christians.

But if the texts of Genesis 1-11, Job and Jonah are great stories (packed full of godly meaning), then I reckon we can start to learn lessons from them. They expound truths about relationships, especially our relationship with God. They tell us about what the world is like and how it works for the best.

I once produced Bible study notes on Jonah for 11-14s published by a Christian organisation. In eight Bible studies I included one question to help the young people think about whether the book was historical. The question was ‘Is it good to introduce young Christians to the idea that the Bible contains some truths that are not necessarily based on fact.’ The editor removed it. Don’t we trust our young people to think about such things for themselves?

This letter appeared in The Independent (18/2/04) from a Mr Burke of Manchester: ‘…In America, schools teach no religion and sixty-eight per cent of the people go to church. Here we teach RE and the figure for church attendance is only seven per cent. Only by exposing our kids to mumbo jumbo at an early age and allowing them to compare it to provable disciplines in other subjects will we continue to ensure the continued and welcome decline in religious beliefs.’

Mumbo-jumbo eh? He must mean talking donkeys, towers that reach the heavens, fish vomiting on command, and all that apocalyptic stuff. Anyone now got me marked down for the lake of burning sulphur? I’ll take my chance.

Jesus was the greatest storyteller that ever lived. We accept his parables but not that there may be other examples of such literature elsewhere in Scripture.

Don’t worry. I’m not going near the resurrection. It may be a matter that requires faith, or a verdict based on evidence, but the Bible makes claims for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:1-19), which it doesn’t make about other things – even his birth.

When Mrs Thatcher famously said that no one would have remembered the Good Samaritan if he hadn’t had money, she blurred the edges between history and story too. It’s a bit like saying no one would ever have remembered Toad of Toad Hall if he hadn’t bought a car.

So, I believe the first eleven chapters of Genesis are stories – full of truth but without a grain of fact. They are stories designed to answer questions about how it all began. For example, in answer to questions about misbehaviour a first sin was invented. In an area where floods often happened a story about a great flood was told. You get the picture.

I love the idea that once upon a time a storyteller sat down and invented an outrageous account of an event in the life of a real prophet, Jonah son of Amittai. He imagined the man running from God, causing a storm, being thrown overboard to calm the storm, being swallowed by a fish and not digested, being vomited up back on the beach (in the direction he should have gone in the first place), preaching repentance in seven words to a town the size of Nuneaton, having such success that the king commanded even the animals to wear sackcloth and then getting annoyed when God decided to cremate a shade-giving plant.

Stories rule. You think Jonah is factual? Sorry you’re walking hand in hand with the purveyors of mumbo jumbo and it’s dangerous. You think that the reference to a real prophet is enough to make it history? Then how about this:

‘The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Duke of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on today.’ Surely that sets the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby pretty firmly in history too?

At college, my Old Testament tutor (conservative and evangelical) made the suggestion that Job might be a play. His comment unlocked its secret for me. ‘Many years ago, a man named Job lived in the land of Uz’ (Job 1:1, CEV). How’s that for a ‘once upon a time…’ beginning?

Can you imagine any other circumstances in which God might say to Satan and the angels, ‘Hello, what you been up to?’ (Job 1:7) It sounds more like Joey asking Chandler, ‘How you doing?’ And Friends isn’t real either. Actors come and go with their big speeches: God, Satan, Job, four comforters, and God’s finale. There’s even a ‘…and it all ended happily ever after,’ conclusion (Job 42:10-17).

Jonah is a great story, designed to help those listening to the storyteller appreciate that even Ninevites could come to God and repent. Job is a drama about the meaning of suffering in three or four acts. Both have truth to teach us.

Those of us who believe in fiction aren’t bad people. People will believe more about God if we confess that our stories are stories. Every now and again we can tell them a true story. That empty tomb. You’ll never believe it, but…

Steve Tilley is a writer and vicar in Nailsea, where he intends to begin to annoy the various congregations by asking them to think for themselves. This material was first produced for publication in CY magazine in early 2004 but not used and the magazine is no longer published.


Col. said...

At last.

St, you may have found the answer. For years now, I have been convinced that I would get a better understanding of the book of Job if it were to be acted out. I have always hesitated from doing so - not because of my complete lack of acting skills - but because I do not think it would make for an entertaining evening.

Is the Bible meant to entertain?

I am sure that there are people who could make a good go of 'Job - The Play' but I cannot see it attracting large audiences. Now perhaps if Disney were to get hold of the script and introduce a few musical numbers, breeze quickly over the tragic events that begin the book, add one or two cute animated characters, include the voice of Eddie Murphy... On the other hand, perhaps not.

Darren said...

and that editor wasn't me :-)

great post and in total agreement, one of the problems with certain christians is that they don't believe any truth can be found in story, or in the case of Job also very good poetry (as my OT prof said)

BTW happy new year

Anonymous said...

Steve your article is very thought provoking, a pity it wasn't published. Thinking about the way Job is written, the format certainly lends itself to a play. One question that came to my mind having read your article was how you decide what actually happened as a historical event and what was written as a story with a point. I take the point that some of the bible is written in poetical form and therefore may not have happened literally.

Interpreting the book of Job as a story raises quite a few questions. Why was the story written? Why were certain particulars chosen (for example the chaldean raiders, the identities of the comforters, the numbers of sons and daughters among other things)? I'm no writer, but aren't details usually put in for a specific reason? Why write the speeches in that particular format? I seem to remember that one of the comforters only speaks twice and the other two three times. If it's a story then those speeches were written for the characters, and the speech of God was also written. Isn't it rather dangerous to put words into God's mouth like this?

Some of these questions make me uncomfrotable with the idea of Job as a story, and makes more sense if seen as an event that actually happened. Thinking about it now though there are questions which could be raised about interpreting it as a history. (who wrote it down? How did God speak? for example).

I would certainly disagree with the view that no truth can be found in any fictional story, but then I would have to ask why these particular stories? What about taking lessons from the stories of other great works of fiction where they are to be found, or from other religious books, or TV programmes with an underlying message? (My personal favourite is scrubs)

while there is some, and perhaps a great deal of, truth to be found in stories, I think the bible should pose a far great challenge to people than fictional TV series because the events it describes are true and actually happened. Real events are harder to dismiss than stories. Any thoughts?

Robin Killick

Caroline said...

Oh, I'm disappointed..

not with you st

but, you see, I've always hoped that I'd get a chance to meet up with Job's four comforters in heaven and say:

"I really admire you guys, you sit in silent, loving grief with Job. You try and work out what's going on with him. You suggest a few difficult ideas and get a bit of theology wrong. Then you put up with a torrent of abuse from Job before, finally, being told by God to go back and get prayed for by Job (who'd just abused you). I think you're heroes (theologically wrong heroes but heroes none the less) and I just couldn't have been as gracious as you were at the end of the book. I'm sorry that you've had a bit of a bad press over the years."

Now, you say I won't be able to meet them :-( sigh

I was kinda hoping that I'd get to meet Habakkuk as well and tell him I'd read his book, but he probably wouldn't have been impressed.

ah well time to get back to writing that article I'm avoiding at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Could it be that parts of Jonah are true, i.e. he had to go tell them nasty Ninevites to change their ways, but didn't actually get swallowed by a Whale / Big Fish? It would seem quite plausable to me that he boarded a ship, was presumed dead once thrown overboard, because the guys on the boat saw some big fish in the area, but then he was found / next seen washed up on on a beach later on.

Someone heard the story, put two and two together and wrote about it / passed it on to someone else.

I guess this is not the point. We can learn stuff from the story whether it is history, legend or myth (i.e. partial fiction or total fiction)...

Anonymous said...

I personally agree wholeheartedly with ST that we should start thinking for ourselves instead of blindly repeating what we get in sermons week by week. (I refer to HT church in Nailsea). I started doing this a couple of years ago because many so called 'facts' in the bible are just not believable to me. However, those of us who do this often feel 'out on a limb' and unable to discuss ideas with other folk because we are branded as 'not having sufficient faith' etc. by the 'main stream' evangelists.
I do hope that ST can provoke thought by some other congregation members and we may finish up not having to listen to the type of sermon delivered this evening.

St said...

Hi anonymous,

Would love to talk about this. Do give me a call so we can see how I can help.

Please consider making your hesitations about last night's sermon open. Letter to the office? Letter to me as the service leader?

Then I can deal with them with evidence in my hand rather than anonymity.

Matthew P said...

We had a family service yesterday where we looked at Noah and the flood. During the service I sat thinking what if I take this as a story and don't become dragged down by too much detail, then all of a sudden it made sense and I took a whole new meaning from it.

So thanks for prompting me to do some fresh thinking, it made a real difference.

Andy said...

I got told yesterday (by one of the people of our church's leadership team) that Adam was created outside of the Garden of Eden (not in itself out of the question, reading Genesis 2) and spent his time "in the wild with, y'know, the dinosaurs".

I mean how do you deal with that? I think I've lost the fight, as I just smiled politely and said, "oh, maybe" - when actually what I wanted to say was "that's ridiculous - seriously ridiculous".

I have also heard a sermon preached recently which said that the fish in Jonah was a real fish and that if anyone didn't think so then they are doubting God's power.


It really makes me feel so powerless - because it seems that these voices are the only voices my non-Christian friends are hearing - which means they just think I'm a bit of a breakaway loon for not following 'type.

So they don't want anything to do with Jesus, just because they believe (with good cause) that the world is older than 6,000 years.


Mike Peatman said...

Just tried to leave a comment and it disappeared into cyberspace. If it reappears, sorry for the repeat!

Thanks for this Steve - good to see some Biblical scholarship translated into English. It's quite alarming what some people think the Bible says, means and is.

I totally agree with your position on this stuff. The real shame is that literalists get so hung up on the fact vs parable debate that they miss the theology of the passages. I think Jonah is a radical parable which upholds the value of the foreigner and outsider to God in a context when the Jewish community was separating itself off in an attempt to re-establish its identity(as seen in Ezra and Nehemiah) You don't see that taught again until Jesus.

If all you're concerned about is the viability of human life in fish bellies, then this may get lost!

Jesus' parables were made-up stories to teach theological truth, so why can't other texts be also? I guess for people like you and me, Steve, the crucial question is where we draw the line between factual historicity and parable and does it matter.

Anonymous said...

For an interesting Roman Catholic slant (although the points made are applicable to us all) try

Martin said...

Not sure if the band "Why?" will ring any bells, but they have a song that springs to mind.