Facts, Stories, Faith
By Walter Hesford
I have a friend who is having a crisis of faith.
He was brought up to see the Bible as a coherent series of non-contradictory facts from Genesis to Revelation. To dispute a fact is to dispute the truth of the whole Bible.
Now he has met an evolutionary scientist who is a sincere Christian. And he met me for whom the power of the Bible lies in its stimulating and encouraging stories.
My friend is adamant that the Bible must be factually true to provide a solid basis for faith, and he seeks to prove it. If his quest fails, he is ready to abandon the Bible and his faith.
I fear for him. I suspect that a fair number of young biblical fundamentalists have become atheistic fundamentalists, locked into a fact-driven worldview.
Atheists and believers, researchers and scientists, all need stories to make sense of their work and their world.
The Bible offers a wide variety of stories with sometimes conflicting perspectives, as one would expect from a collection of stories gathered over centuries in different communities. Any Scripture that does not show inconsistencies is probably the work of a cult.
But my friend wants consistency. He challenges me to show him a contradictory perspective in the Bible. I’m sure some FāVS readers could find plenty. I gave a small but interesting one to my friend.
In II Samuel 24.1 we learn that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he stirred up David against them, saying, ‘Go and count the people of Israel and Judah.'” When this episode is rephrased a few centuries later in I Chronicles 21.1 we hear that “Satan rose up against Israel, and incited David to number the people of Israel.”
Biblical scholars suggest that the later account reveals the dualism that had seeped into Israel’s monotheism during the Babylonian captivity. Harmful acts were attributed to Satan, not God. (Scholars believe that a census was considered harmful because it led to taxes and military conscription, dangers associated with monarchies, as the prophets had warned.)
I have offered this shift in perspective because it reveals the ever-changing theology of the Bible, itself a dynamic history of the living word.
I don’t want my friend to lose his faith in the Bible, but to understand its history, its myth.
“When the story gets serious, it gets mythical,” said Northrop Frye, a great Canadian literary critic who considered the Bible to be the central myth of Western literary tradition: a quest romance that ends in the hero (Jesus) saving his bride (the Church) from the clutches of the wicked (Satan).
Frye uses the original meaning of myth – a plot that reveals and furthers the beliefs of a people. But because “myth” has come to mean something wrong, I might be better off avoiding it in conversations with my friend.
We could speak of a unifying theme, like deliverance. Christians traditionally offer a typological interpretation of what they call the Old Testament that designates Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah.
Naturally, Jewish interpreters of the Hebrew Scriptures object to this appropriation of their stories. Feminist scholars, among others, also oppose the practice of reducing the Bible to a mega-plot, arguing that it obscures the multiple voices and multiple perspectives of Scripture.
In my opinion, the best witness to how Bible stories can open up multiple perspectives was “Genesis: A Living Conversation” hosted by Bill Moyers. It ran on PBS stations in 1996; a companion book was published the same year. Moyers’ conversations (modeled on those led by Rabbi Burton Visotzky at the Jewish Theological Seminary) brought together people from diverse faith and non-denominational traditions; what they had in common was a belief in the power of the Genesis stories.
These televised conversations gave rise to other stimulating conversations, private and public. I remember how surprised I was when my 90-year-old mother, a fairly staunch Lutheran, told me as we watched the show together that she agreed with a scholar’s interpretation Islamic story of the sacrifice of Isaac/Ishmael by Abraham.
And I fondly remember when people from conservative and liberal traditions gathered at the Moscow Community Center to discuss the Genesis stories. Maybe Spokane had similar gatherings. I don’t know if minds have changed, but people have listened to each other, which doesn’t happen a lot these days.
Except, of course, right here in the FāVS community! We should all thank Tracy Simmons and her board for being so open to different religious perspectives, for keeping the conversation going.
I introduced my friend to FāVS and gave him a copy of “Genesis: A Living Conversation”. I hope he will hear how his faith can grow.
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- Gospel Roots and Branches – January 30, 2022
- Buddha nature and original sins – January 21, 2022
- Facts, Stories, Faith – January 10, 2022
- Isn’t freedom free? – December 18, 2021
- Religious Liberty and the Ship of State – December 12, 2021
- A business call to believe? – December 3, 2021
- Pilgrims and Thanksgiving – November 24, 2021
- Grids, circles and our places of worship – November 20, 2021
- The value of limits in nature, cultures and beliefs – November 7, 2021
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