Most people could care less whether it is or it isn’t. If you’re reading this, however, you probably care at least enough to read this.
To me, the Bible is important. It is for me the sacred story of the origins of my faith. In light of this, I could no more feel as if it were unimportant than a follower of Hinduism would feel the Bhagavad Gita is unimportant.
I do not believe, however, that the Bible is a Divinely-dictated book or a sacred text without error.
If you are a Biblical literalist, as some of you may be, what I’ve just said most likely bothers you greatly. You believe, not only that the Bible is Divinely-dictated and error-free, but you also believe that whatever it says must be taken as literally and factually true.
Furthermore, you feel, if the Bible is allowed to be a very human book, instead of a Divinely-dictated one…you would have to “throw the baby out with the bath water,” so to speak. That, if you questioned any of it, you’d undermine all of it and the end result would not be good either for you or the future of your faith. This probably also explains why you and other literalists are among those most concerned about the recent release of the Hollywood film Noah, starring Russell Crowe. Since the movie’s creators have taken liberty to create a movie not tied to a literal reading of the story of Noah, you regard that as objectionable, even a blatant disregard, and perhaps even disrespectful, of a literalist reading of the story.
As far as I’m concerned, however, I am bothered neither by Hollywood’s version of the story of Noah nor whether it conforms to a literalist reading of Genesis. If you’ve ever actually read the Genesis text for yourself, you will know there are actually two flood stories in Genesis, the one most familiar to people where God instructs Noah to preserve two of each species of animals (Gen. 7:15) and the other where God instructs Noah to preserve seven of each species of animals (Gen. 7:2). I am more bothered instead by such sacred stories being made into movies at all.
Why? Because these Bible stories were interpreted history, preserved for future generations, not for their factual accuracy, but their faith-generating component. When these movies are made, however, they are almost always recreated in a way resembling a literalist reading of the story. Which makes them about as believable as the movies Superman or Planet of the Apes. I can remember, for example, the first time I saw Cecil B. DeMille’s classic story of Moses. As dramatic as cinematography would permit at that time, DeMille captured a compelling but literalist depiction of the Moses epic. Even as a child, however, I found it completely unbelievable.
The real Moses never wielded a staff with supernatural powers, the tip of which, when dipped into the Nile, turned the river into a cesspool of blood. Or, when dipped into the Red Sea, caused it to part so Israelites could pass to the other side on dry, not muddy, ground.
None of these Biblical stories, including the ones where Jesus is depicted as defying the laws of nature and performing miracles…as in, walking on water or giving sight to the blind or, most amazingly, raising dead people back to life were recorded as factual, or literal, eyewitness accounts. And, even if they were, they cannot be depicted as such today, if you want any of it to be believed…to be respected…or, to be read with any seriousness.
For much too long, the Bible has been regarded as an encyclopedic collection of factual history complete with divine magic and mystery all bound together and defying every law of nature we know. This view of the Bible may have worked in a pre-scientific world. It will not, however, work in ours. In other words, it is past time to let go of a literalist reading of scripture. Instead, the Bible should be regarded for what it is: a sacred text of the faith stories as recorded through the Judaeo-Christian traditions. Inside those stories are timeless life lessons just waiting to be discovered by those who seek a more human and divine way of living and loving.
In Living the Questions, the author’s, Felten and Procter-Murphy, quote Marcus Borg who beautifully frames what I’m trying to say:
“There are many Christians in North America who are bothered by any suggestion that the Bible might be anything less than a divine product. There are also millions of people in North America and in Europe who simply cannot be biblical literalists. And my passion, my vocation, my mission even, if you will, is talking to the people who can’t be literalists. And what I want to say to conservative Christians who are upset by this other approach to the Bible is, “What do we say to the people who can’t be literalists? Do we say, ‘Sorry. Only literalists can be Christians.’? Or, do we say, ‘Sorry. God accepts only literalists.’?”
“Now, if you are a literalist and your literalism isn’t getting in your way or you’re not using it to beat up on other people, I have no problem with it whatsoever. God can work through literalism or non-literalism. But again, what do we say to the people who can’t be literalists? And here, my argument is that a more historic, and metaphorical approach to the Gospels, to the story of Jesus, and to the Bible as a whole provides a way for non-literalists to be Christian” (taken from Living the Questions, by David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, Harper-Collins, 2012, pp. 13-14).
The Bible’s real authority…power…is found in its stories and the imaginative way those stories have shaped the life of those who seriously listen for its divine message. It has never been what people say about the Bible that really matters.
So you say, “The Bible is literally true!”
Who really cares? No one, except you, the person who makes the claim. There is no power, however, in claiming something that increasingly looks no more believable than Hollywood’s version of Noah.
It has always been, and always will be, what the Bible says to you, in you, and through you that matters most.
When literalists finally get this, if they ever do, then the Bible will live again. There is no future for the Bible, however, where a literalist reading of the text is the only option.
(If you would like to read more of what I write, follow me on Twitter #DrSteveMcSwain).