To this point I’ve argued that we come to understand the Bible through the twin notions of truth claims and truth values.
But something is not right.
I am not denying that we have no direct access to the Bible’s t/Truth: we can only access it through interpretation, which means determining its truth claims (so that we can understand what the Bible is about) and weighing their truth value (so we can decided how we respond to that content).
Nor am I denying that we understand the Bible’s truth claims through good exegesis: understanding what the text meant at time of writing by paying special attention to its setting, its literary nature, and the cultural understandings of the period.
But this is not enough.
For the Bible is neither a series of factual propositions (i.e., God is eternal, God is holy, God is love, etc.) nor a string of haphazard, historical events (Jesus was born, he preached, he was crucified, etc.), but is mainly a collection of narratives. Narratives are stories, both historical and / or fictional. And engaging with stories does not amount to reducing them either to mere propositions or sequences of events.
No. Understanding the Bible in terms of truth claims and truth value is only part of the picture. Or better, we must broaden our understanding of truth if we are to do justice fully to the Bible’s narratives—if we are to maintain a stance of “listening” to the text as an act of love, as I proposed last post. Here’s how I see it:
The point of the Bible is twofold. On the one hand to answer the question, “Who is God?” On the other hand, to foster belief so as to cultivate relationship between this God and humanity.
These two goals are accomplished in several ways.
First, the Bible conveys basic, factual information about God: that God is divine, is the creator of all things, is the only true God, etc. However, much of this is conveyed through stories. Second—and points 2 and 3 are what we’ve been missing until now—stories function by drawing readers into their particular world, a world where the reader is invited to be and see ‘otherly’. Third, the Bible seeks to interweave its story and history with that of the reader.
Let’s concentrate on how the first point relates to the second.
If we define interpretation as what we “make” of something and exegesis as the activity of understanding a writing by way of its textual and cultural context, with narratives we must distinguish between what I understand the story to be about and how I understand myself, the real world, and others in light of the particular world that the narrative proposes.
So in the first instance, fictional stories do not primarily entertain, but actually open a world to the reader. And this world is no less “real” for not being factual. Rather, where we encounter the struggles and weigh up the ethical choices of its characters, in fiction we participate—by means of our imagination—in the reality of questioning, struggle, and sometimes triumph.
And in the second instance, historical writings—historiographies, we call them—not only convey information but clearly bear the marks of fiction. They are never haphazard lists of events but are accounts made meaningful by artistic composition and careful explanation: good historiography, like a good story, has a compelling (and convincing) plot.
Through good stories we enter the realm of the possible: they invite us to see ourselves—through the events and situations of the text’s world—as being able to realize our potential and challenge us to face our flaws and limitations. In so doing, non-factual tales can open us to what is most essential about existence. And most true.
I am not suggesting that biblical narratives are essentially fiction. But I am suggesting that we need to consider both stories and truth more closely, because both are broader than we typically think.