Reading the Bible – “Are we supposed to believe all this really happened?”

Lent 3         March 19, 2017

At the book study on Friday afternoon we got discussing the Bible, and how literally we are supposed to take it. The discussion brought to mind an experience I had several years ago when I was teaching at the seminary in Montreal. We had Bishop Spong, the well known author and liberal theologian, to give a lecture to lay people from across the diocese. He was speaking about how to understand the Bible, and most of what he was saying was stuff that is taught in every mainline seminary, and has been standard knowledge in Biblical scholarship for one or even two hundred years: that Moses did not write the first five books, that Jonah was never really swallowed by a whale, that not every word printed in red was really spoken by Jesus, that many of the events reported in the Bible probably never happened that way — and that that’s not even the point, whether they happened like that or not. What astounded me was the reaction of the listeners around the coffee urn: “Nobody has ever told us this before.” And I’m looking around the room and thinking: “I know your pastors. I know they think the same way, and what Bishop Spong is saying is the basis of all their sermons. How can you say you’ve never heard this before?”

What I learned that day, and was reminded of on Friday, is that we preachers take way too much for granted when we assume everyone understands the attitude towards the Bible that lies behind our sermons. And what with the voices of fundamentalists insisting we have to take everything as literal truth, and atheists making fun of us because they think we do, it’s easy to be left a bit uncertain. Since I wasn’t making any progress with the woman at the well anyway, I figured I’d step back a bit this week from my usual practice of preaching, and talk about how we understand the Bible. And the question I will try to answer is “Are we supposed to believe all this stuff really happened?”

First of all, the Bible was written by human beings, using their intellect, their imagination, their understanding. It was not dictated directly from God, as is claimed for the Koran or the Book of Mormon. Every word is a human word, reflecting the human mind with its hopes and fears, and also with its cultural prejudices and limitations – and we have to read with an awareness of these limitations.

So was the Bible not inspired by God? Yes, I believe it was. But not equally in all its parts. And not in some kind of direct supernatural dictation. When the prophets denounce injustice, that passion is from God; when the psalmist praises God’s faithfulness and mercy, that piety is from God; when the laws outline a just and humane society, that vision is from God. And when the evangelists and St. Paul are so touched by what they encountered in Jesus, and in the stories told about Jesus, that they proclaim him as a unique revelation of God’s love – that’s another kind of divine inspiration.

But when Joshua commands that the Canaanites be slaughtered, man, woman, and child, when Ezra demands that the men dismiss their foreign wives, when the apostle tells women to be silent in church – these passages, and many others like them, are inspired from another, more human source, from ignorance and prejudice and hatred and cultural blindness. So it is very important that we never assume any single Bible verse is God’s word, but rather that we discern the spirit that inspired it. I trust you are all still with me.

So it’s always possible that the writer got a story wrong, or didn’t really know what happened, or that it got garbled in transmission. No two witness statements of an accident are likely to be identical in every detail; we are nowhere near as good at perceiving the world around us as we think we are.

Far more important than the margin of error, however, is the question of what the writer intended. The Bible is a huge collection of all kinds of different texts: prayers and praise and lament and myths and legends and parables; love poems and riddles and laws and wisdom; theological arguments and moral exhortation and so on and so on, dozens upon dozens of different kinds of writing, as different as a grocery list is from a job application. In most cases, it was never intended to be understood as history, as an account of things that happened just so. Of course Jonah wasn’t swallowed by a whale – because when you read the book of Jonah as a whole, you realize that it is a satire, written to make fun of a certain kind of prophet. Of course the world wasn’t really created in six days: the first chapter of Genesis was written by the exiles in Babylon, where they encountered the most sophisticated science of the day. They were writing a creation account in terms of that new science, showing that God was in charge; just as today we might write one telling how God called forth the Big Bang, forged atoms in the heart of stars, and developed different forms of life through evolution.

And yes, there is history in the Bible as well, as we would understand it: accounts of past events and leaders, as in the books of Kings and Chronicles. But even this history – like history written in every age – can be quite tendentious: a lot of it has a strong political and theological agenda. And what is more, the history is often not the most interesting part of the Bible. One of my revered teachers, the great Canadian literary scholar Northrop Frye, points out that in 1 Chronicles 25 we find a long list of temple singers from the reign of king David. This may well be completely historical – after all, who would make up a list like that? But who cares? You would have to look very hard to find any inspiration or relevance in this whole chapter of the Bible, and many others like it: you will never hear a sermon on it.

But compare that, Frye says, to the story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, which we will read in a couple of weeks, his tormented prayer of loneliness and fear. That story is clearly not historical by any means: the only possible witnesses to Jesus’s prayer were asleep! And yet that story is so full of meaning, it can move us so deeply, because we understand that it speaks truth about who Jesus is and what happened on the cross.

And this brings us to the key: as Christians we do not read the Bible as history, at least in the modern sense: we read it as story. The difference being how it conveys truth. History is true when it describes the way things happened, what a reporter would have seen had a reporter been there. A story is true when it gives us insight into the way humans are, the way life is, the way God is. When we read a good novel, we don’t ask if it really happened: that’s the wrong question. We enter into it with our imagination, we live in it, we see whether it rings true to our experience, and at the same time we let it expand our experience and understanding, we learn to see the world through another’s eyes. And that is basically the way we read the Bible.

This is not, by the way, a modern theory. It is basically the way the church has always read the Bible. What is modern is the question: “Did this really happen?” It springs from a modern mindset, that thinks that truth is the same as facts: to find out the truth, we just need to discover the facts. That’s why fundamentalist literalism is a modern phenomenon: the fundamentalist movement has only been around a little over 100 years. It asks a very modern question of the Bible: did things happen exactly this way. It is the same question that skeptical atheism asks, even if it gives the opposite answer.

Whereas premodern people, when they wanted to express the truths that really matter, told stories: myths, legends, folk tales, parables. That is how people of Biblical times expressed themselves, and that is what the church has implicitly understood throughout the ages. Nowadays that understanding of truth still exists, in novels and movies and other literature; but it stands off a bit to one side, as science and its literal, materialistic understanding of truth has taken centre stage. And we are a bit caught in the middle, caught between the different understandings of truth in our world and in the past, and so it’s no wonder we get a bit confused by it sometimes.

We read the Bible as story – and so it may be that a good novel is the closest thing to the way we read the Bible. But there is one difference: the Bible does have a kind of historical claim. Its story does not unfold once upon a time, or in some parallel imaginary universe. It is set in a real time and place in our world: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee”. The truths the Bible claims to tell us are truths about this world, our reality, our own lives: it makes the claim that God has truly entered into human history to change and save us.

It does matter that Jesus really lived, that he is not just a character in a novel; that he taught and healed and reached out to the poor and marginalized, that he really was crucified, and that his disciples experienced him as risen from the dead, whatever that may mean. But as for the details: whether you believe that he really walked on water or turned water to wine, or whether you think those are legends that arose to express who he was, that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that we are willing to enter into the story, to look for the truth it has to tell us, whether it happened or not.

Just because we read the Bible as story, doesn’t mean that none of it happened. Some of it certainly happened, we just don’t know exactly what. Probably there was a group of slaves who escaped from Egypt; perhaps they had a leader called Moses. Biblical scholars can try to sort it out, but they are only making educated guesses. You can believe that a particular story happened, really happened, or not, it doesn’t really matter that much. Because whatever your answer, it is the wrong question: you are trying to read it as history, not story. And history, mere facts, cannot save us; only the story can transform our lives and give us hope and courage.

“Are we supposed to believe all this stuff really happened?” No, we are not supposed to believe it. Because that reflects a very modern and very twisted idea of belief: as though God demands of us to sacrifice our critical minds, to accept supernatural and incredible events as fact, in order to earn his favour. Well that is not what Paul meant by being justified by faith, because that is not what faith or belief is. Faith is about a relationship of love and trust with God. And we find that relationship when we enter into the story, when we let it dwell in our imagination and find echos with our life; when we stop asking “did this really happen?” and start asking “is this true?” Whether you simply and implicitly accept all the miracles of the Bible, or whether you doubt everything with a critical mind, doesn’t really matter that much. What does matter is whether you can enter into the story, and allow yourself to fall in love with the God you meet there, and with God’s image in Jesus. In that imaginative venture, in that falling in love, this story becomes true, becomes real, as it begins to shape our lives and our hopes.

That is why you generally don’t hear me — or most Anglican preachers — saying that a Bible story really happened, or that it probably didn’t happen; that you have to think it did, or you don’t have to. Because it is the wrong question: we are interested in what the story means, what truth it has to tell us, not whether it happened. But perhaps not talking about it causes confusion, and we need someone like Bishop Spong to come along every now and then and address the issue.

So this, in a nutshell, is what we are trying to do with the Bible here, together, every Sunday. That is why we read these ancient texts, that is why we break them down and seek their meaning in our Bible study and in the sermon, that is why we repeat the core story every time we celebrate the Eucharist, and act it out when we receive the bread and wine: to let God, let Jesus, dwell in us — dwell in us as story.