OK, Thursdays is for provoking thought! In other words, I might say some things that you find controversial or at least a make you think! Hopefully, today’s title is a good start!
First of all, let me be really clear. I am a follower of Jesus Christ because that is how I encountered God. The bible has been truly inspirational in my quest for knowledge and as a guide to living a better life and creating a more meaningful story. My question is; just how do we view this famous piece of literature and why are their so many different interpretations as to what it purports to say? Was the universe created in a literal six days simply by God speaking it into being? Is the writer of Ecclesiastes’ invitation to ‘Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’ an exhortation to guide us in our daily living? Why do we not insist on women being silent in church, or demand they wear head covering in all public gatherings? And why do some believe that the locusts of Revelation 9 are really Apache attack helicopters described the best way John knew how? Why does it matter?
First of all, a slice of history. In the 16th century, a rather seismic event took place in christendom known as ‘The Reformation’. You may recall Martin Luther and the advent of Protestantism emerging as a reaction to the state of disarray that existed in the Catholic Church at the time with warring popes, indulgences and theological schisms. One of the key outcomes of this movement was a transference from papal based to bible based authority. This is also what led to the bible being made available to the masses and a whole new church movement. The protestant movement also gave rise to denominational splits as never seen before as the ‘authority’ of the bible was interpreted in hundreds if not thousands of different ways. And herein lies the problem.
The bible is, in fact, not so much a book as a library of books. These books cover many genres of literature, styles of writing, languages and purposes. There is the poetry of the creation account, the visions of Revelation often referencing the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. There are the songs of Psalms and the wisdom of Proverbs, the stories of Jesus and the doctrinal teachings of Paul. Diverse cultures, races and very different ages influence the way in which these writings are presented and all of them need re-evaluating against what we now know in this scientific age.
Let us take the creation account. At the time of writing, there was no knowledge of evolutionary theory, relativity, quantum theory and hey, as far as they knew, the earth was flat and the sun popped up in the East and went to sleep in the west. I have no problem personally with the idea that science is merely man’s quest to uncover the mysteries behind the creation of the universe, nor do I struggle with the contemporary writer’s poetic depiction, but I believe it is beyond me to give you any idea of what actually happened back then when none of us were around. I’m also OK if God made a big bang when he did it, but frankly it doesn’t matter to me. One thing is for certain, the world as we know it today is very real and very wonderful to behold.
In many of the books of law in the Old testament there are injunctions to put to death those who sow different crops in the same field or create garments from different materials. Surely we are not meant to continue these practices in civilized 21st century society. When we move on to accounts of the life of Jesus himself we find that much of what Jesus says is fiction. What you say, heresy! But step back a minute. Jesus told stories, parables…fiction to illustrate truth. And this is where I think we have strayed from the intention of this marvelous collection of writings.
In many ways, we have treated as fact what is meant to lead us to truth. Because this library is full of metaphor, parable, allegory, poetry, prophecy, vision, law and history, this is not a book of facts but an inspired guide to uncovering truth. This truth, in some ways, will never be completely found, as God cannot be confined to the pages of a library of books. This truth can be seen from multiple different perspectives and often in conflicting expressions. My mistake so often has been to imagine that my interpretation of selective portions proves that my way is ‘the right way’. One of the most powerful causes of my own disillusionment with church has been our tendency to become more and more splintered around issues that are not central to the overall message of the Bible. Perhaps we can all agree that the inspired message of this library of scripture is that God loves us and wants to have a relationship with us. Every one of us is entitled to a unique experience just as in any relationship. We would do well not to dictate to others what that relationship should look like but allow the inspired words we read to change our own story for the good of the world around us.
In conclusion, and answer to my own question, the Bible is neither fact nor fiction, but an inspired reference library for the pursuit of the God of love.