Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Bible as Metaphor: Taking it Seriously, Not Literally

[H]uman beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value. – Karen Armstrong
In the mid-1970s, during my junior year in high school, a friend from concert band invited me to attend a small bible study he had recently joined with some other band members. As the son of a Lutheran minister, I was not anxious to add to my religious obligations, having reached my fill of regular church attendance, youth group outings, and confirmation classes. Sensing my hesitation, my friend noted that Julie, a sophomore flute player with wavy blond hair to which I had formed a recent attraction, would also be there. Hey, no one ever said religious people don’t play dirty. Always one to consider my options, I weighed the prospect of two hours of potential annoyance and piety against the chance to become better acquainted with Julie.  Hmm. What would Jesus do? “Julie was going to be there, you say?” I decided to attend.

It did not turn out very well. As it happens, this particular group, I soon discovered, did not share my mainline Protestant perspective of the Bible as historical-metaphor, but instead took the Bible literally. It was one of my early experiences with fundamentalism, or biblical literalism, which I later learned was far more prevalent than I had realized. The leader of this particular bible study was a man – Julie’s uncle I seem to recall – with no particular theological training; not an ordained minister or priest, but a self-proclaimed student of the Bible. He was determined to establish that the Bible was the authoritative word of God, factually and historically accurate, and not to be questioned. Thus, he contended, the creation story in Genesis is literally true – the world really was created in six days; Adam and Eve really were the first humans; Noah really did build an ark and gathered the animals two-by-two before it rained for 40 days and 40 nights.

I tried my best that evening to correct these mis-impressions, to explain that most of the stories in the Bible were never intended to be understood literally, but were instead to be read in their proper historical context. “The stories have meanings,” I said, “but they should be read symbolically, not literally.” Tension suddenly filled the room as the adult leader became visibly annoyed with me. As for Julie? Well, let’s just say we never dated. Although I held my ground, I was completely outnumbered, and the evening ended with no praises of kumbaya or songs of peace around the camp fire.

Somewhat discouraged, I went home and explained the evening’s events to my father, who listened carefully and, somewhat to my surprise, laughed out loud. He then explained that this was unfortunately a common misunderstanding with which he had contended his entire career. I should understand, he said, that there are a lot of simplistic, erroneous notions of biblical scholarship out there, for which reason, science, and history have little appeal. But damn if that girl wasn’t cute. Oh, well.

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Over the years, I have had other experiences and run-ins with Christian literalists, born-again proselytizers, and fundamentalist science deniers. Typically friendly, polite and non-threatening, they have approached me in grocery store parking lots, on street corners, and even near a Florida beach during college spring break. It usually goes something like this:

“Are you saved?” asks a friendly young man with short hair and a wide smile. Standing beside him is a pleasant looking young woman with a wholesome glow and an equally friendly air. The first few times this happens to me, I am caught a little off guard.

“Excuse me?” 

“Are you saved?”

“Uh, I’m good, thanks.” I lower my head to avert their intense stares and casually wave them off.

“Do you accept Christ as your savior?”

“Really, I’m good.” I attempt to side-step them.

“Have you been born again?”

Geez, these guys don’t let up! A touch exasperated, I proclaim finally my credentials. “Look, I am the son of a Lutheran minister! I have attended church all my life.”

But such a response simply provides fuel for the fire. These guys are zealous, after all, and prepared, with answers and bible verses for everything you throw at them. For the born again evangelical and proselytizing fundamentalist, “I grew up as a Lutheran” only confirms that I am a misguided soul, lost in the wilderness. I have not really seen the light. They continue to press for more specificity.

“If you died today, would you be prepared to face the Day of Judgment?”

“Listen....but...uh, really....” I give up and walk away, suddenly sensing that I am headed straight for eternal damnation.  

For some evangelical Christians, that I never had a “born again” experience rendered me insufficiently Christian and, thus, “unsaved.” That I had been raised from infancy in the Lutheran tradition was considered irrelevant and, for some, heretical. This is also true for most people raised in mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. If one has not had a conversion experience, a grand vision from God in which you fall on your knees and accept Christ into your life, you are neither “saved” nor, in their eyes, a true Christian. It is but another form of biblical literalism, based on a passage in John 3:3, in which Jesus says to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 

A major problem with biblical literalism is that it gets the Bible wrong, distorts what the bible, religion, and faith are all about, and emphasizes only “what the bible says” divorced from history and the nuanced meanings of its original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words. Literalism obscures and distorts the Bible’s meaning and renders faith impossible for millions of thoughtful people otherwise open to religious and philosophical reflection.

*     *     *     *

According to a 2011 poll reported in The Huffington Post, one in three Americans believe that the Bible is literally true. Although many are likely quite selective with their literalism, it is an astonishing figure nonetheless. No wonder so many thoughtful people are turned off by religion and consider American Christianity in particular to be dominated by anti-intellectualism and unthinking dogma.

As Marcus Borg, formerly Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, explains in Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (Harper One, 2014), much of the Bible consists of metaphorical narratives and parables through which a variety of authors, writing two to three thousand years ago, attempted to set forth their understanding of God, the universe, and humankind. "Our biblical ancestors told the stories they told, not for the sake of providing a reliable factual account of what happened, as if their concern were like that of modern newspaper reporters or historians. Rather, they told the stories they told because of the meanings they saw in them.” 

Although biblical literalism and Christian fundamentalism have been dominant forces in American society throughout my lifetime, both concepts are relatively new in origin. Neither movement developed any traction until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and both run counter to what the early Christians believed and what nearly all mainline Protestant and Catholic theologians have recognized from the very beginnings of their respective traditions. As Borg explains, the Bible "was not written for us. Rather, it was written in the historical contexts of our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel and early Christianity.” The ancient Israelites and early Christians were confessing faith, not recording history. They simply did not believe that for something to be true it had to be factually and literally true. They were a generation of story tellers. 

I have found that, for many fundamentalist Christians, biblical literalists, and evangelicals, to suggest there is a non-literal way to read the Bible is to threaten long-held belief systems and cherished “truths.” But this is stubborn, simplistic thinking, and it is wrong. People of faith are not required to throw away common sense and disregard all knowledge of archeology, geology, astronomy, biology, and history to claim a belief in God. The appropriate question is not “Is the bible true?” Instead, a better framework is: “What truths does the Bible reveal?” and “What meanings can be ascribed to the wide variety of narratives and passages contained in the Bible?”

Consider the creation story found at the beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening and there was morning – the first day.”

The story continues in symmetrical fashion. On the second day, God separates the sky from the oceans; on the third day, God creates land and vegetation; the sun, moon, and stars appear on the fourth day, birds and sea creatures on the fifth day. Then God created human beings in his own image. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning – the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.” On the seventh day, satisfied with his creation, God rested.

Did the authors of Genesis really intend for us to believe that God created the world in six days? That God created land and vegetation before there existed the sun, moon, and stars? That the universe is only six thousand years old? Read as historical fact, the Genesis creation story is simply bad science. Read as metaphor, it takes on a beautiful, more profound and enriching meaning – that all of creation comes from God and that the created world is good. It presents in poetic language one writer’s attempt to understand the most fundamental questions of creation and humankind. Why do we exist? For what purpose are we blessed with the gift of creation? What is our essential purpose and meaning in life? Read and understood in this manner, the creation story enriches the Bible’s significance and allows us to take it seriously.

Consider as well the second chapter of Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve. As Borg notes, the word adam is the Hebrew noun for humankind. From the rib of adam the first woman is created. She is called Eve, which means “mother of all living.” Together they live in the Garden of Eden, or “Garden of Delights,” which includes “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and “the tree of life” – metaphors all. It was not intended to be a factual account of the world’s first human beings, but a metaphorical story of all humankind. This story in Genesis, full of symbolism, writes Borg, is “about what went wrong in paradise. In a world created by God and declared by God to be good and very good, why is there so much pain, suffering, and misery?” Reading Genesis parabolically eliminates the conflicts created by the book’s literal reading and greatly enhances its meaning. It allows us to affirm the spiritual themes of our biblical ancestors without rejecting the theory of evolution or believing in the impossible.

Similarly, when Jesus spoke of “the kingdom of God,” he was, according to Borg, talking about God’s vision of a just world, not of the afterlife. Early Christianity was an anti-imperialist movement with strong political and social undercurrents. It is why Jesus was publicly crucified, a form of execution reserved for enemies of the state. When he spoke of being “born again,” he was speaking not of eternal salvation, but of a personal transformation that comes from casting aside convention and becoming transformed into a new way of life grounded in this world. “Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the trinity or original sin or the incarnation, which have preoccupied later Christians,” writes the noted historian Karen Armstrong. “He went around doing good and being compassionate.” 

Faith and belief in God is a difficult struggle for some people, a journey of constant doubt and skepticism. I understand why people lose faith and question God’s existence. But those are internal struggles that should not be influenced by misguided and incorrect biblical scholarship. Whether or not one believes in God or assents to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or some other faith tradition, or merely seeks answers to life’s deepest questions, the journey should not be distorted or rendered impossible by a fundamentally flawed view of religion and the Bible. Faith, religion, philosophy, and biblical scholarship are hard work, but to confuse the Bible with literal-factual truth is to create an impossible, unnecessary and incorrect dilemma.

The Bible is a fascinating book, written by ordinary, fallible human beings in ancient Israel and the early Christian era. It spans nearly a thousand years and contains differing visions and perspectives of God and humankind. It presents a multiplicity of human voices, from storytellers and prophets to evangelists, apostles and teachers. It includes voices of vision and wisdom; voices of convention and prejudice; voices of clarity and ambiguity. To be a person of faith does not require that one “believe in the Bible” or the literal-factual truth of the narratives and parables told throughout. It does not require setting aside all knowledge and thought and believing in impossible things. As Borg contends, faith does not require acceptance and belief in things we know not to be true. Faith is instead “about something far more important. It is about our relationship with God – about centering in God, being . . . faithful to God, and about trusting in God.”  It is a journey of the self and the soul for which the Bible is but a resource from which to draw in the constant search for meaning, purpose, and understanding.

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