Friday, August 15, 2014

So It Didn't Really Happen. So What's The Point?

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Let's say you go to church and hear a sermon about God bringing the people out of Egypt and parting the Red Sea. What kind of application to your life would the pastor pull out of that? Probably something about God being all-powerful, and how we can trust God, and God saves his people.

Like for example, maybe you go to the ocean and one of your kids is swimming and they swam out too far and they need help- well God might just come in and part the ocean, ya know? God saves his people, yeah?

No. Nobody thinks that's how the passage applies to our lives now. It's too literal. Too physical. Too big and miraculous. Instead, we see the biblical story as having a meaning which affects us in a spiritual or psychological way- but definitely a real way, if you ask any "good Christian."

So, let's recap: According to good evangelical Christians, the stories in the bible are real. They are true. They happened. (I don't like using the word "literal" because in my mind, it means the same thing as "true." Maybe because I'm a math person or I see things in black-and-white or something.) But the lessons we learn from them and the practical application to our lives in the present are not like the stories. Instead, we pull out some spiritual truths and they affect us on a psychological level, or we imagine we see God working "behind the scenes" to cause things in a much more indirect way than what happened in the bible.

Why the discrepancy?

Well in the past I always would have answered the question by saying large-scale miracles are super-rare. Like, that's why the biblical authors wrote them down. And look, the bible was written over thousands of years, right? And it only has, what, a couple hundred miracles, maybe? Even in the bible, some periods of time had many miracles and some had nothin'. So we probably have the same thing going on today.

But we can still learn about God's character from the biblical miracles, and those truths would always be applicable.

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Let's move in a slightly different direction now. Lately I've read some blog posts about history and the bible and how actually that stuff didn't happen.

Like this one, about Matthew's genealogy. It says Matthew put Rehab in there because, well, he wanted to put Rehab in there. Because WOULDN'T THAT BE COOL? or something. And that Matthew just made stuff up for the last bunch of 14 or so names. He chose names of well-known priests to symbolize Jesus being a priest. What the heck?

If this is true, then it sounds to me like it's not really a genealogy at all. Instead, it's the sort of family line that Matthew thinks Jesus would fit with, based on Matthew's view of who Jesus is.

So it's only useful to us if we have any faith in Matthew's ideas about who Jesus is. Uh, okay.

And this one, about David and Goliath. The writer points out some inconsistencies in the story from 1 Samuel 16-18, and explains it as two stories being combined together by the author of 1 Samuel. And I think that's ridiculously interesting and really makes a lot of sense, based on what I've heard about stories being passed along orally in ancient times or whatever, but like... I've never thought about the bible that way.

No, the bible was always a logic problem. We know everything in the bible is true. So let's say we find statement A in the bible, but also statements B and C, which seem incompatible with A. This is where we gotta get creative! Come up with some kind of scenario where all 3 are true.

For example, Matthew 27:5 says Judas hanged himself. Acts 1:18 says he fell and his intestines burst out. (Oh that's nice.) Well, clearly, he hanged himself and then after being dead for a while he fell down and his body burst open. See, I've solved the puzzle! And that's what apologetics is.

I never even considered the idea that perhaps some things the bible says are wrong. They just did not happen (and that's the source of the discrepancy). And, ya know, the explanation about Judas, I think that's pretty believable. But some bible "contradictions" require really convoluted explanations.

And back to that blog post about David and Goliath (and also Elhanan, who also killed Goliath, but in apologetics land it's clearly a different guy who just happens to be named Goliath or perhaps it's the brother of Goliath if you want to believe an English translation instead of the Hebrew). It's pointed out that David was apparently already playing music for Saul, and then he kills Goliath and Saul has to ask someone who David even is- what's with that? I always thought, well Saul forgot, or maybe it had been a while and David looked different. No contradiction there. MOVE ALONG PEOPLE.

Kind of interesting how I just completely ignored it- contradictions aren't allowed to exist- and the author of that other blog post found it very meaningful and used details like that to piece together 2 original stories. It's almost as if accepting the bible for what it actually is and appreciating the history and culture that it came from is way better than just treating it as a series of true statements that fell from heaven.

(See also this "aha moments" blog series- how studying the bible led pastors/scholars to reject the idea that all that stuff actually literally happened.)

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So, some stuff didn't really happen. Well, that's terrifying.

No no, hold up. It didn't actually happen, but the stories are still meaningful. We just have to understand why the authors wrote them and what they meant to the original audience.

And maybe the stories do communicate truths about God. Not big literal miraculous ones, but spiritual ones. Just like the sermons you hear at church, when we take outrageous stories we claim to believe literally happened and draw conclusions no stronger than "you can trust God."

Are the spiritual truths still true if God didn't part the Red Sea? Man, how can they be true? If God didn't part the Red Sea, then any ideas we got from that story are baseless.

If it's not based on something that actually happened, if someone just made it up and wrote it down and everyone thought it was a great meaningful story, well SO WHAT?

(Again, I need to learn more about the original writers' intentions.)

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And then there are some parts of the bible that I just don't buy at all. Like when God said to kill everyone in those cities.

In cases like that, it definitely makes more sense to say the bible isn't absolute truth about God- instead, it's how the Israelites related to God throughout history. And they got some stuff wrong. They, at one point, believed in the kind of God who would tell you to go kill all your enemies/people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Okay, so, they were wrong. We're all wrong about some things.

But wait. If the bible is a record of what some people believed about God and how they interacted with God throughout history, well, isn't that true of all religious books? What makes the bible any more special or "right" or "true" than a holy book from another religion?

What's the point?

Ai ya. Image source.

You know, I really miss believing the bible. I miss just relaxing and opening it up in anticipation of learning some interesting truth. I miss relying on it as the source of all the answers.

This week I went to church feeling lost, and I thought, maybe the sermon can help me. But then I remembered that I no longer believe things just because a pastor says them or just because they come from the bible. I could listen to the sermon and maybe it would be good, but I'd have to do the work of deciding what I agreed with and what I didn't.

And how am I supposed to know? It's too tiring not being able to trust anyone else's opinion.

(And as a side note, I think it's really really good for me that I'm going to church in Chinese because you know how an idea can seem new when you hear it in a way that's phrased differently than you're used to? Yep.)

And when I read the bible, now it just feels like something a bunch of ancient people wrote. Like, who cares? It used to feel so special and close to me.

So what is the bible, and what's the point?


This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 106- which recalls a bunch of biblical events which may or may not have happened. To read other people's posts, click here: Understanding The Story.


  1. To me, the literal truth of certain passages doesn't trouble me so much--perhaps because I write fiction myself, and I think fiction conveys the deeper truths about humanity, spirituality, our world, through a story. And if some details (like the contradictions or the odd parts about David and Goliath) aren't exactly as they happened, well, as someone who also sometimes writes nonfiction, the boundaries of nonfiction are actually verrrrry blurry. Oftentimes details are added in that *could* have been but the writer can't quite recall, etc.--but the story is still generally literally true.
    What makes the Bible more special and right? I don't know. Living in india, other religions are pretty prominent, and I think there's beauty in their stories too, frankly. But for me, the Bible does talk about Jesus, whom I do hope in. I can't actually believe in other holy texts, even though I respect them--I just... don't believe it. I also kind of miss the trusting-in-the-pastor because he's speaking from the Bible, so it's automatically true, phase, but now I kind of prefer a smaller Bible study, actually, instead of church, precisely because I'm able to discuss and engage with whatever part of the Bible we're reading, listen to others' interpretations, and take what I think is the good and let go of the bad.
    So yeah. Nothing coherent here, just some ramblings of thoughts your post provoked!

  2. "It says Matthew put Rehab in there because, well, he wanted to put Rehab in there. Because WOULDN'T THAT BE COOL? or something."

    Brilliantly put. :) I think you captured the gist in two sentences better than I did in a thousand words.

    Thanks for the link and thoughtful discussion of these passages!

  3. Thanks for commenting- it's good to hear other people's perspectives on this, because I don't know what to think of the bible.

    Your point about nonfiction having details that aren't true is really interesting- it's necessary, because if the author doesn't quite remember how something happened, they still have to write something down or the story won't make sense, and they'll probably write it in a way that's generally probable, even if it's not EXACTLY what happened. But it still drives me crazy because my brain takes everything literally and fixates on little details. Really useful for solving logic puzzles where every statement is equally important and absolutely true, not so good for real life.

  4. I just finished reading Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks, and found it helpful. He talks about how the Bible contains both divine and human intent, and they aren't always the same thing. He agrees with Kate Dahany below that the main significance of the Bible is that it points us to Jesus. But he also thinks that God let humans write the Bible according to their own mindsets, but then appropriated the text for God's own purposes, and that's how its still God's word. The key is trying to figure out the divine intent. I wish the author had given more examples of how he does this (like for the genocide texts), but he doesn't. It's still a good book though.