How to “waste your time” with the Bible


“If it’s not real, I don’t waste my time reading it.”

On occasion I have heard this from a senior citizen.  But from an 8 year old?  My first response was sadness at the wonderful worlds that this child will never visit, and the fantastic places that will remain unknown as so many stories—”timewasters”—don’t make the cut.

Previously, I debunked the idea that stories threaten certainty by showing how such certainty (and the security that accompanies it) are pathological desires for an absolute or ultimate perspective that only God can have.

But what about the related idea that reality is more important than what is imaginary, particularly for Christians?

Interestingly, this view comes from the 8 year old’s church-going parents.  And for Christians—people whose beliefs are deeply informed by a book replete with stories—such a view amounts to believing that biblical narratives are truly (and only) historical.  Historical writing, or historiography, is good; fictional writing is not.

But does this view mesh with the Bible itself?

In a word, No.  The form and content of the Gospels resists such a view.  For when read in this light, they are eminently contradictory.  Matthew portrays that this happened before that; Mark portrays the opposite.  Luke indicates that Jesus was X days between his arrest and resurrection; John indicates Y days.  The list goes on.

On the “historical reality” view one of the Gospels may be true, but not the others.  Or maybe we need to weave them all together somehow.  Or . . .  On such a view the gospel writers are at very least confused (and not worth our attention), if not liars.

No, weighing the gospel (or biblical) narratives according to such a view is misrepresentative because this view itself is false.  Two points demonstrate this.

First, the gospels are ancient documents written according to first century conventions and standards of historiography, not according to our own.  For example, the gospels are clearly not concerned to present historical reality as “what really happened,” because the same events in Jesus’ life could not possibly have happened in two different ways.

Instead, the Gospels are fictionalized history: texts based on actual, historical events yet artistically composed with a goal of cultivating belief in Jesus as the son of God.  Expressed differently, it does not so much matter that Jesus healed this person in this way after having healed that person in that way (and before healing this third person).  What matters is that Jesus truly healed.  And most significantly, I will later argue that (in ways yet to be specified) Jesus heals now, and can heal even us.

Second, the “reality trumps all” view undermines the most crucial of biblical claims: that God loves you and deeply desires relationship with you.  On the historical reality view these are simply facts to be accepted: take it or leave it.  And facts are assessed using reason (to determine whether these claims make sense to us) and responded to with the will (to make ourselves act upon them).

But Christian faith is not foremost an act of the will, but a disposition of the heart.  Nor does belief primarily originate with reason.  This is reflected in the very nature of the Bible’s key claims: they are not  dead facts but living dispositions of an entity who is love.

And just as love invites, woos, and inspires so if God’s love is real it cannot be expressed by (or constrained within) historical reality alone.  It far bigger (and more real!) than that.  As historiography, the Bible has the power artfully to express what happened in the past, while as fiction it has the power to transport the events of the past into our own lives by drawing us into its unique world.  Thus the Bible not only recounts what is real but champions what is possible: these claims become living possibilities waiting to be actualized.

And how are they actualized?  It begins with human imagination.

Deception in certainty / deliverance in stories


Have you ever read a novel or biography and found in it something that you had never been able to articulate, or were even unaware of, but which deeply expresses who you are?

Good stories—fictional and historical—capture the most essential aspects of human existence.  They not only convey our most intimate hopes and fears, but they help form who we are and want to become.  Key to making stories “work” is the imagination.

Yet many people see imagination as the enemy of truth.  Truth is real, imagination is not.  Truth is concrete and certain (and so valuable); the imaginary is fanciful and potentially misleading (and so not valuable, or perhaps even dangerous).

Thus the view that “facts are good but stories are bad.”  Or at best, facts and stories are very different creatures.  And particularly when it comes to beliefs, facts give you what you need to know.  Stories are something extra for those who like or want them—like bonus material on a rental movie.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  (Pardon the pun).  Let’s take a closer look.

Interestingly, stories have led us back to knowledge.  And in an earlier post I noted how people believe that they can “access” the Bible’s truth (or Truth) absolutely so as to arrive at certain knowledge: to be without doubt.

Yet as it is impossible simply to “read what is in the Bible” instead of needing to interpret it (whether we are conscious of doing so or not), the upshot is that human beings cannot have certainty.  About anything.  Through any means.  Only God has certainty; humans have varying degrees of probability.

But let’s look deeper.

People believe in “absolute access” in order to arrive at certain knowledge.  This, then, is a belief.  Why do we hold it?  The answer is there: in order to arrive at certain knowledge.  So why is certainty important?  Two reasons present themselves.

First, certainty brings security.  We can live with other viewpoints without feeling threatened by them.  Second, certainty brings rest.  We can be at ease from nagging questions and can instead devote our energies to the truth, where they are best spent.

Interestingly, the enemy is again relativism.  Relativism implies that other views are just as valid as our own, so we must constantly be maintaining their validity.  To circumvent this, some Christians attempt to fortify their knowledge claims: by asserting that what they know is certain—even unassailable—they can feel secure and at ease.

When acquired in the right way and held for the right reasons, security and rest are good things.

As we’ve discussed, though, they cannot be acquired through certainty: certainty is a commodity that humans simply cannot trade in.  But neither can they be held out of pathology.  Because desiring such absolute security is indeed pathological: we are here again faced with a desire to exceed the bounds of what it is to be human and become like God.

It is pathological, too, in that this desire stems from fear and unmet needs.  The fear of wrong beliefs is really the fear of losing our worldview and our very self-understanding (and thus identity).  Further, if a loving God is not real this threatens one’s need to be loved and valued.

So what about stories?

I believe that stories—fictional and historical—deliver us from these excessive (and destructive) perspectives.  Where a desire for absolute security demands certainty, stories invite dialogue with numerous perspectives through our imagination.  And while diversity implies relativism (and doubt), relativism also includes the possibility that matters may be “more” than we had first presumed.

Ironically, it is through opening us to the possible and the essential that stories keep us from falling under the tyranny of the factual and the real.

Stories & the Bible: can stories be true?


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.