My brother David emailed me a link to an article, “Adam and Eve and the Bible” by David Lose, from the Huffington Post religion section. He and I have had an ongoing discussion on whether Genesis should be taken literally and how this relates to one’s scientific view of origins. The modern tension is whether to take the Bible as a literal account of creation and discount evolutionary theory or whether to say that Genesis 1 and 2 is mythology and as such is non-literal. In the U.S., this has been no end of controversy. It has divided us into liberal and conservative camps that exist to this day. Interpretation of the Bible continues to influence public policy in the United States in significant ways on everything from abortion debates to gay marriage to global warming. If you listen closely to politicians in the Republican presidential race, you will probably find them making implicit and even explicit statements about their belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
I’d recommend reading the article by David Lose in the Huffington Post….or you can just read my analysis! Lose definitely seems to fall into the classic liberal school of thought, which is a position I can agree with, to a large degree. But I do find some things that Lose says to be a bit problematic.
Early on in the article, Lose says, “…the Bible never presents itself as a scientific or historical textbook.” True enough, but the Bible never presents itself as non-scientific either. The Bible never purports to merely be mythology or poetry, as Lose suggests.
Lose continues…..”Poetry, metaphor, simile, myth, parable, story, advice, analogy — all these and more are employed by biblical authors who were more poets than historians, more muses than scientists, and more interested in faithful persuasion than rational explanation.”
Says who? The biblical writers never qualify their accounts by saying, “Don’t worry guys, you don’t have to take this stuff literally. It’s only mythology.” Interpreting the Bible (taken as a whole) as poetic, mythological, etc. is an interpretive decision we must make. It does not emerge from the text. Or, if it does emerge from the text, it only emerges as one of many possible options.
Lose also brings the Apostle Paul into the discussion. “Paul stretches language and metaphor to render God’s accomplishment as vivid and accessible as possible rather than reduce it to historical or even theological formulas. Jesus is neither a data point in Paul’s larger rational argument nor a cog in some machinery of salvation; rather, he is the narrative linchpin and interpretive key that holds together and makes sense of all of Israel’s stories and, indeed, all the stories of the world.”
I find this to be even more problematic, because from my study of Paul, I would say he certainly evoked and developed theological formulas. From my reading, I would also say that Paul clearly believed in the importance of Christ as a historical person. While it is true that Christ was “the narrative linchpin,” as Lose puts it, Paul also is concerned about Christ coming “in the flesh.” It is not merely the Christ as a metaphor; rather, Christ was a historical reality that had theological ramifications.
The biblical writers are writing pre-Modernity, which means that they do not seem interested in making the Modern distinction between “history” and “poetry” or between “science” and “musing.” It’s all just the truth to them. Certainly there were some writers who would classify themselves as “poets” or “muses” if they came into our modern world. But likewise, there were certainly biblical writers who would describe themselves as “historians” and “scientists,” by our modern definitions. Look at the book of Luke. He says he went about investigating the life and times of Jesus and then sat down to write an orderly account of it all in his Gospel.
My point is this: the biblical writers were not writing in Modernity or to Modernity, so any attempt to make the Bible a book that fits Modern language is doomed to failure. So, although I definitely prefer to approach the Bible in a similar way to the author, to appreciate its myths and poetry rather than dwelling on the historical details, I find him to be guilty of the same crime as fundamentalists, because he forces the Bible as a whole into one category or the other. That’s not going to go very far with fundamentalists is it? It also sounds like he lacks respect for the position of fundamentalists. If a fundamentalist wants to take the Bible as primarily a historical and scientific document that gives them the key to life, that’s their prerogative. While I do not agree with fundamentalists, I have to extend them basic respect in their ability to choose to interpret the Bible in what I consider to be a strange and odd manner.
Last quote from the article: “Yet read these stories literally and all the artistic nuance and poetic beauty of these distinct confessions is immediately flattened by the need to have them conform to post-Enlightenment ideas of rational verifiability imported in the mid-19th century to repel attempts to read the Bible as a historical document. If, however, we look to Genesis not for historical datum from which to construct a pseudo-scientific cosmology we find a different story all together. It’s a story about the insecurity that is endemic to humanity and the ever-present temptation to refuse the identity that comes from the vulnerability of authentic relationship in favor of defining ourselves over and against each other.”
Keep in mind, though, my dear reader, that it is also a “post-Enlightenment ideal” to be a reverse-fundamentalist and to strip the Bible of its literal meaning and only look for the “artistic nuance and poetic beauty” therein. The author seems to me to fall into the trap of classical liberalism when he reacts against conservatives who “flatten” the text and make it into a primarily historical document. The trap is that he reads the text as a nonhistorical document. If fundamentalists are guilty of flattening the text, perhaps Lose is guilty of warping it in the opposite direction.
The Bible is not a homogenous document. It was not written by one author but by a multitude of writers. In my opinion, a good reader is sensitive to this, noting where the author is more a poet than a historian and when a writer is trying to relate historical details that might be of significance.
Along with this, my general approach is to say that it is most honest, as readers, for us to simply begin reading by acknowledging that the Bible does not belong to our time or to us. It is ancient. Let’s respect it and take each passage for what it says and doesn’t say. Then let’s be honest about whether we agree with it or not. It’s okay to disagree with the Bible. God probably doesn’t agree with everything that was written in the Bible.
How might we interpret Genesis 1 and 2, then? It isn’t clear to me exactly what the author/s of Genesis 1 and 2 had in mind. Was he just an imaginative poet? Or did he really want to convince us that the creation took place in 7 literal days? I’d say let the ambiguity stand. My Modern scientific belief of origins need not be dictated one way or the other by an ancient text. If the Bible did teach a literal seven days with emphatic resolve, then I would be inclined to disagree with the text. There are portions of the Bible that suggest that God sanctioned genocide. I’m inclined to think that God did not sanction genocide. The Bible is important to me, and it continues to be my teacher, but as a Christian I rely on the Holy Spirit as my teacher and guide, always remaining humble and willing to learn, looking for truth wherever I find it. To put this whole point another way, I want to say that I do not feel that my theological beliefs and positions need to be verified by reference to a book of answers.