Greek Mythology and the Old Testament

January 27th, 2010

I have lately been reading Homer’s epic poems: first The Iliad, and now I am nearly done with The Odyssey.

I figure there isn’t anyone alive today that believes that Zeus literally caused thunder in answer to a prayer, or that Athene really transformed Ulysses between having a youthful and an aged physical appearance at a whim.

Despite our understanding that these poems don’t reflect a literal truth, we still find meaning and truth in them. It is for this reason that they are read by high school and college students all over the world. This same reason drives our reading of more modern plays and novels — everything from King Lear to Catcher in the Rye. We learn something of the author’s world, something about our world, and if we are truly lucky, a deeper understanding of the universal truths of human life.

And it is with that preface that I suggest that the Old Testament — or parts of it, at least — ought to be read in the same manner.

Modern Christianity speaks of a loving, caring God, one who is deeply concerned for the wellbeing of all. Under this understanding, forgiveness is more desired than retribution, and helping the week is better than enslaving them. How then can one square that with a literal reading of the Old Testament?

This was a key question I asked over a span of perhaps 15 years. I was perplexed that the God of Love ought to turn someone into a pillar of salt for turning her head the right way, that almost all life on earth might be extinguished by a flood, that slavery is condoned and regulated, and all sorts of people being stoned to death, animals killed for no reason. In short, the God of the Torah, at least, didn’t seem to me to be even the same person as the God the Church talks about.

I raised this question with many people, and there was even a seminar on it at a convention I went to in 2001. The answers I got usually were of one of two types: 1) God is beyond our comprehension, and this is one of the mysteries we will never understand because that’s just the way it is; or 2) the arrival of Jesus changed things, and it’s impossible for a modern person to fully appreciate the laws as they existed prior to that. These are really two sides of the same stick: they’re both saying, “Yep, that’s odd. But we have to believe that the Bible is inerrant and literally true, so we just have to accept the mystery and move on.”

Except I’m not so good at accepting mysteries and moving on.

It strikes me as odd that nobody even mentioned the third option: that some of the stuff in the Old Testament is, to be blunt, made up. This even though I have come to learn later that some of those people probably believed this to be the most correct explanation.

Now, that doesn’t mean it has no value or that is doesn’t show us truth. Romeo & Juliet was made up, but we learn from it.

A typical example of this is the creation myth. There are some that are very defensive about it, perhaps thinking that it weakens their religion to admit it might not be literally true. To me, I find that insisting upon its literal truth weakens the religion; can we not see how a piece of literature speaks to us today and leave it at that? Need we say that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an inferior play because it is a work of historical fiction?

The position I suggest here is not some crazy nutjob position. Wikipedia has a concise overview of some of the scholarship surrounding these ideas.

I now count myself as somewhat inspired by Homer to read the Old Testament in the same way that I read Homer: as a story that can speak to us today, one that inspired a nation in captivity and after, and launched perhaps the most amazing religious movement in history.

I only wish that more people would admit the possibility of a non-literal reading of the Bible. This return to an earlier era of Christianity is, in my mind, the only way that Christianity can maintain its relevance in this age.

Update: A note I received suggests I ought to make a bit of a clarification. I am not bothered by the fact that people have differing opinions about the historicity of Genesis. I’m all for putting all the opinions out there for sure. I think that really the concern over whether Genesis is literally true or not is mostly irrelevant. I have no problem with Christians that find Genesis to be literally true. What I’m lamenting is the attitude that “you’re not Christian if you’re not sure that Genesis is literally true” or “saying anything else about Genesis undermines Christianity.” I believe neither of those statements, and would really rather that we collectively got past the creationism vs. evolution debate already.

Update 2: It appears that my use of a bit of technical language has caused some confusion. A creation myth can be defined as “a supernatural story or explanation that describes the beginnings of humanity, earth, life, and the universe (cosmogony), often as a deliberate act by one or more deities.” It is a category of explanations. Simply calling the Genesis story a “creation myth” is an act of categorization only, and doesn’t imply anything about its accuracy or value.

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  1. Matt Campbell

    As a Christian, I think part of the problem is that today’s church needs to be careful to present a balanced view of God. Jesus himself referred to what happened to Lot’s wife. Also, for evidence that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament, read Revelation. So the problem, if there is one, isn’t limited to the Old Testament.

    Reply

  2. Darrin Thompson

    I was ecstatic when the new pastor of the church I attend used the term “literary device” in a sermon. He comes from a _very_ conservative position, but sees no problem with treating it as ancient literature and as an authoritative religious book at once.

    For a long time I read it with western eyes. But, reading it as an eastern book takes nothing away, and it makes a lot of tough to understand sections of it easier to comprehend. That’s been my view anyway.

    I disagree with your conclusion, really with your premise. Your question about how the loving God can turn the nice lady into salt and still be true I think is already in the weeds. He’s a Holy God who is suffering even the existence of sinful men with great mercy, and is saving many from it. Jesus came first of all to call sinners to repentance and become a permanent high priest… etc. I find that view less palatable to my western sensibilities but more consistent and it is the faith I practice.

    However, to reiterate, treating the text as ancient literature takes nothing away even from my really conservative view. I’ll be curious about what you write as you go. Where do you intend to start? The creation and Genesis? David? I find the death of Johnathan to be really tragic. Do you have a commentary in mind?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Can you elaborate a bit on your third paragraph? I didn’t quite follow it, and I’d like to. I’m not sure what you meant by “in the weeds”. The pillar of salt example wasn’t just God choosing not to save someone; it’s taking an affirmative action to harm someone, and as a result of a very human impulse at that. When you say “that view”, I’m not quite following there either.

    I think I’ll start with Genesis and Exodus. Should be fun.

    Thanks for the conversation.

    Reply

    Darrin Thompson Reply:

    I have zero interest in arguing about theology. I’m not at all good at it.

    Where I’m excited to agree with you is that the Old Testament can be interpreted as literature. I’m of the belief that the Bible is true and written by ancient eastern minds. It is true as written.

    The western view of God tends to be as a great a triune force for love, niceness, puppies and happiness. To believe that view of God rejects a lot of the Bible and especially the Old Testament.

    To call the final sin of Lot’s wife the “result of a very human impulse” is another way of saying, “I don’t see what was so bad about it.” That’s why the story is there. If it was obvious, we wouldn’t need the story.

    Like I said, I’m terrible at arguing stuff like this and so I normally go far out of my way to avoid it. I was, though, really excited to put down my old more or less true and literal view and adopt a true and literary view. So I’m looking forward to comparing notes with you.

    Reply

  3. Basilevs

    All the mysteries are explained on http://tvtropes.org.
    It is a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction.

    Reply

  4. kinch

    Look forward to your critical analysis of the Koran :D

    Selfishly I’d prefer that you saved that effort until after publication of further excellent works on Haskell as it might be a case of sacrificing yourself nobly in the cause of enlightenment.

    I mention this because I think that the fact that some Christians take a literal approach to the Bible is pretty much irrelevant in the scheme of things. Clearly such beliefs make them happy, and I see no evidence that they are about to conduct an Auto da Fe starring you. The rest of us might find them quaint or even slightly sinister throwbacks, but in the grand scheme of things they’re the least of anyone’s worries and it boils down to “I wish your taste and erudition was as good as mine”. I’m guilty of that particular ‘sin’ every day, but ultimately it achieves little.

    As far as Christianity as a viable belief system goes, it has been game over for a long time now. And let me state clearly for the record that this is *the* tragedy of our age. God is dead. We thought our way out of him and into an arid wasteland. Those Dawkins admirers who dance on his grave are fools.

    Have you read Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full”?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    The literal approach to the Bible is relevant in two ways: to me personally, and to the future of Christianity.

    To me personally, it is what I grew up with — or at least the only approach people seemed to advocate in my presence. (I’m not faulting them; just stating a fact.) Had I known at an earlier age there were other solid perspectives, it would have been a great service to me.

    As to the future of Christianity in general, insisting that the literal approach is the only valid one is doing a lot to diminish the stature of Christianity in the world. They are essentially saying “the Christian tent isn’t wide enough to accommodate those that believe in evolution or in gay marriage.” And that shouldn’t be so. It is missing the point.

    Having said all that, I know people that are literalists themselves but also have no problem with the fact that I’m not, and I likewise have no problem with them. I have nothing against differing opinions presented as one option of many.

    I see several possible interpretations to your “belief system” paragraph, and am not quite sure what you are saying there. Can you explain?

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  5. vvill

    I was a bit curious at the comparison in the title and continued reading. Than, this paragraph struck me.
    [quote]I now count myself as somewhat inspired by Homer to read the Old Testament in the same way that I read Homer: as a story that can speak to us today, one that inspired a nation in captivity and after, and launched perhaps the most amazing religious movement in history. [/quote]
    I personally take the reading of these texts one step beyond and when trying to bring the text to life I must approach it as if my favorite poet wrote it.
    Reason: How long ago are we talking about? How many times has the story been retold and translated?
    Example: Just read a bit of the original (middle english texts) from the 1500′s. Only 500 years ago. And an earlier version of our native language. I’ve never even seen any original (old english text), but I can imagine well enough….
    Stories, we all have them and some of us even like to tell them too….

    Reply

  6. Frederick Ross

    Being inspired by Homer to read the Old Testament is kind of like being inspired by Shakespeare to read Dr. Seuss. On one side we have two of the greatest literary achievements of mankind, on the other we have a continuously reedited and retranslated oral history of a small, barbarian tribe.

    The Bible has been a central historical theme in the west for a few thousand years, carried along on cultural tides. But every other little group of people wandering around the middle east and northern Africa had their own set of stories. We don’t know them because they didn’t happen to get picked up by a religion that dominated a fair swathe of the world for many centuries. The Illiad and the Odyssey, on the other hand, were archaic even by the time of classical Greece (think middle English versus modern English). They had no religious significance at any of these points. And yet they have been consciously carried along for the past twenty hundred years or so.

    Not to discourage you from reading the Old Testament, but let’s keep the relative statures of these books straight.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I have no disagreement with this, and even tried to state it myself above.

    Reply

    Frederick Ross Reply:

    Then I apologize for not reading your piece carefully enough.

    Reply

  7. Screwtape

    The problem I have with arguing that the Old Testament supposed to be taken as analogy, is that the New Testament kind of relies on it. As I understand it, the central message of Christianity is that Christ died on the cross so that God could forgive our sins. God couldn’t forgive us if we hadn’t rebelled against Him, we couldn’t rebel against Him if He didn’t have authority over us, He wouldn’t have authority over us if He hadn’t created us.

    Without biblical creation, the story of Christianity becomes “an omnipotent deity discovered Earth two thousand years ago, took a liking to the inhabitants, and decided to stick around and help out.”

    To answer your original question, imagine trying to look after a child too young to talk. Sometimes they’ll be doing safe things, sometimes they’ll be doing things dangerous to themselves or others – but you can’t sit them down and explain things in detail, coach them or answer their questions – you just have to put up walls to keep them wandering off, and put on your angry voice when they’re approaching something dangerous. Later, as they get older and more mature, you can talk with them in more sophisticated ways, talk about “why” and “what” instead of “do this” and “don’t do that.”

    Unlike children, it wasn’t a simple lack of understanding that had separated us from God, it was our sin. When Jesus died on the cross, he enabled God to reconnect with us, to talk with us personally and relate to us as individuals. Before, all God could do to communicate with the Israelites was to speak through a prophet, when one could be found, or to send natural disasters and invading armies to get their attention. Now, he can speak to us directly. It wasn’t the *arrival* of Jesus that magically changed things, it was the *departure*.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    If we have evidence to suggest that the Old Testament shouldn’t be taken literally, then that evidence ought to be considered carefully. Assumptions that rest upon the literal accuracy of the OT should be revisited if the OT isn’t literally accurate, rather than the other way around.

    That said, I see no contradiction. My core statement here isn’t that the OT isn’t literally accurate; it’s that its literal accuracy doesn’t matter. In other words, the OT can be true even if not literally accurate. Truth is more expansive than literalism, and part of my point is that we can get truth from fiction.

    Without commenting on whether or not I agree with the theology you have advance above, I see no contradiction between it and the truth of a non-literally-accurate OT.

    Reply

  8. Kokus

    Poor Catholic (or post catholic) world… Have you ever heared about Orthodox church? about it’s philosophy? If you looking for an answer, try there.
    world is so dificult to understand :)

    Reply

  9. Andrea Vezzosi

    I’m curious, does this apply only to the old testament or also to the new one, for you?

    Reply

  10. Zeno

    Hi John,

    I am not a Christian, but as far as I understood it,
    both the Catholic church world-wide, and most parts of the mainline protestant church in Germany, do not interpret the Bible as literal truth.

    This may be also be the case for the silent majority of Christians in North America.

    Reply

  11. Elkin

    I must agree with Andrea and Frederick.
    It seems that on one hand you are perfectly happy to attribute all of Homer to the realm of fiction, but only a certain part of the Old Testament to it. I do think that both are works of fiction. You may argue that both books are based on a true story, but only as much as most Hollywood movies are based on a true story. But if you, as a believer, start to pick and choose which parts are really true and which are just stories, are you not just a step away to acknowledging that they are all just stories from a more primitive time? On what basis are you choosing which are true and which not? Why is Homer full fiction and the Old/New Testament is not? Just place yourself into the minds of those who did believe the religious component of Homer. Did they not argue exactly as you now do? As with all religions, you only believe in those stories that you where brought up with, and dismiss those you did not.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I do not think myself qualified to decide what bits of the Bible are literally true, but I do not think it really matters most of the time. My thesis is that all this worrying about literal truth is obscuring the message of the texts. I am not an expert in the historicity of the Bible, but I need not be.

    I will say that I have a general opinion that the historicity of the NT is greater than that of the OT, especially the oldest parts of the OT. However, I am not expert enough to be able to discuss the historicity of specific passages.

    In a sense, I am saying, yes, they are all stories from a more primitive time. But it is incorrect to say that they are all “JUST” stories.

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    Ben Finney Reply:

    > I do not think myself qualified to decide what bits of the Bible are literally true, but I do not think it really matters most of the time.

    That implies that you don’t think it really matters whether:

    * the universe was created by an all-powerful intelligent being
    * this all-powerful creator has a direct interest in how humans live their lives
    * humans survive the death of our bodies and go on in another life
    * our fate in another life is crucially determined by what sexual acts we perform or food we eat

    You really think it doesn’t matter whether those are literally true?

    Reply

    Pseudonym Reply:

    Correction: John didn’t call Homer “fiction”, he called it “mythology”. There’s a big difference.

    Reply

  12. Kokus

    Sorry? my english is to bad? but I just can’t hold my self :)
    Yes I am christian
    No? I’m not na american agent:) (They came from catholic world to.)
    Do you know what was before Catholic church? what about byzantine world?
    Greeks orthodox church? Russian orthodox church (wich came from Byzantine)? and many more…
    Read more to know.

    I’m not

    Reply

  13. evtujo

    I may have missed if someone made the same observation above, but why not take the same “maybe it’s not literally true, just a story with a message” hypothesis and apply it to the NT as well. Would you really feel differently about being a good person and doing unto others if the Gospels were “just” stories? You point to the scholarship on Exodus being fiction. You find similar evidence on all the books of the Bible.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Marcus Borg takes it all the way there, and makes a good argument for a Christianity that doesn’t require the literal truth of even the central tenets of the NT. So it is possible.

    I am not prepared to follow him that far, at least not yet. Though as I indicated in a reply above, I follow him most of the way there. I do think the historicity of the gospels is, in general, better than that of the Torah.

    But in the end, I do admit that I lack the expertise to identify what parts of the Bible may be literally accurate and what might not. Therefore, my personal Christianity cannot rest upon those distinctions. I am with Borg in saying that I can admit uncertainty about the literal accuracy of any given passage in the Bible, and yet still find myself a Christian.

    As I did above, I dispute the use of the word “just”. We can derive great truth from fiction, and this can be the case with the OT and the NT.

    Reply

    Jonathan Hall Reply:

    Marcus Borg is hardly a Christian by most definitions. I’ve read one or two of his books, many years ago. As I recall, he is a self-proclaimed “panentheist”… Distinct from a panthiest (who believes ‘everything is god, and god is everything’–very new-age/Jedi sounding), in that he believes that (‘everything is god, and god is everything, and more’).

    This is far from Christian doctrine. Core to Christian belief is that God exists, and is forever distinct and independant from His creation.

    Of course Borg still uses Christian literature to back up his claims, but so do the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many other non-Christian groups.

    I’m not saying this to discredit Borg’s reasoning (I think that’s easily enough done elsewise :)…. I guess my point is just that because one calls himself a “Christian” does not make him one. Borg is a panenthiest, Mormons are polytheists… all Christians are monotheists. If you think you’re a non-monotheist Christian, then you aren’t truely a Christian at all.

    Reply

    Dave Reply:

    Christians aren’t monotheists, depending on who you ask.

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I have no problem calling Marcus Borg a Christian. That label is incredibly broad; 500 years ago, it perhaps would have excluded much of the Christianity practiced in the United States from 1700-today. Wikipedia points out here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism#Panentheism_in_Christianity that the Eastern Orthodox Church holds panentheistic beliefs, and I would have trouble calling them non-Christian.

    I’ve read one of Borg’s books, and have two more on my to-read list. What I’ve read (The Heart of Christianity) is making some of the points I’ve made here: that the question of literal truth is not terribly relevant, and metaphor can be very meaningful and instructive. His writing is clear and well-argued. I have been impressed, incidentally, how Borg and N. T. Wright often approach questions from totally differently perspectives and yet reach remarkably similar conclusions in the end.

    I guess I have a larger problem with trying to label people that think of themselves as Christian as non-Christian. I certainly disagree with a lot of what the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Catholics preach. Even a lot of what I hear from some Mennonite churches. I am hesitant to draw a line excluding any of them.

    Borg is perhaps a minority position, but it’s not a lonely one.

    A paragraph about him on Wikipedia explains another of my points: “Borg describes the historical-metaphorical approach to reading the Bible as a post-modern response to biblical scholarship, cultural diversity, and religious diversity.[7] Specifically, Borg asserts that the Bible is a library of books (the Greek ta biblia means “the books,” plural) that, while of human origin, were written in response to real experiences of the divine.[8] The Bible is sacred because of its centrality to a particular community, rather than any divine origin.[9] As such, the Bible has authority because it is a text that records our ancestors’ dialogue about God, and is the foundation for our ongoing dialogue today. This stands in contrast to the traditional view of the Bible as a monarchial decree.[10] Additionally, the Bible is sacred because it is a “means of grace,” a “vehicle by which God becomes present.”[11]“

    Jonathan Hall Reply:

    Well, if we’re going to let “anyone” call themselves a Christian, then I suppose we need a new word to describe someone who believes in God the Father, creater of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary… etc, etc, etc.

    If I recall, Borg does not believe in the virgin birth, nor the literal resurrection of Christ. Mormons certainly don’t–they believe Christ is one of many “sons of god”, and that you and I have the power to become elevated to the same status.

    So if we let anyone call themselves a “Christian”, and we let anyone decide what it means for themselves, then the term “Christian” has lost all meaning.

    C.S. Lewis argues this point much better than I do in the first part of his book “Mere Christianity.” There he uses the analogy of the term “gentleman,” which used to have a precise meaning which has fallen into obscurity, now that we call any man a “gentleman,” so long as he’s being polite or chivalrous at the moment.

    Jonathan Hall Reply:

    Oh, and just for the fun of it… because I like to create a stir… let me step out on a limb and say that I don’t think being “a Christian” is a prerequisite for “eternal life” or “getting into Heaven” or however one might choose to phrase that…

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I have no disagreement with your last post above.

    I agree that there is a slippery slope towards robbing a term of all meaning, but I am not sure I agree with the soundness of your criteria. I think, for instance, that there are plenty of people that might have different shades of understanding about God’s level of involvement with the creation of the earth, ranging from complete to none.

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I would also add that I don’t think the core of Christianity lies with intellectual assent to a particular creed. It is more about inward transformation and right relationships with everything.

  14. Noah Ryan

    I suggest the works of Daniel Quinn to give some perspective on this topic. They certainly changed my understanding of how people think and why they believe what they do. The names of the books are Ishmael, My Ishmael, The Story of B, and Beyond Civilization.

    Reply

  15. gwern

    > I figure there isn’t anyone alive today that believes that Zeus literally caused thunder in answer to a prayer, or that Athene really transformed Ulysses between having a youthful and an aged physical appearance at a whim.

    If by ‘Zeus’ you mean ‘a devil leading the Greeks into sin named Zeus’, then I suspect you are quite wrong – there are many living people who believe that or considers them possible/plausible.

    Reply

  16. Dave

    “But in the end, I do admit that I lack the expertise to identify what parts of the Bible may be literally accurate and what might not. ”

    Then you are a wise man indeed.

    Screwtape said:
    “Without biblical creation…”

    Who is arguing against biblical creation (aside from the atheists responding in the thread)?

    The pickle for modern Christians is that some of the OT is incoherent w/ what we understand about a) the world around us, and b) God as we know Him through Christ/the NT.

    John is merely observing that by not insisting on a slavish devotion to literalism, he can make his faith less incoherent. E.g. evolution and Genesis both talk about a progression starting w/ nothingness, progressing to liquid matter, sea life, land animals, man, etc. So a non-literal reading lets me reconcile my faith in a Biblical, God-created world w/ my observations and education about e.g. geologic change and fossil evidence of earlier lifeforms. As soon as I insist that it must be literally true, I have a problem w/ my understanding of really basic things — a mostly orderly universe, plants requiring light to live, etc. I literally have to throw out most of what I “know” about the way the world functions on a basic level.

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    Dave Reply:

    Sorry, replace “evolution” in the comment above w/ “cosmology/evolution”.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Very well put. Thank you.

    Reply

  17. Luke Plant

    I agree that passages not meant to be taken literally should not be, and some parts (e.g. the parable of the prodigal son) do not lose anything from being fiction. However, most of Christianity falls to pieces if it is not based on literal, historical truth, as Paul writes:

    1 Cor 15:
    <>

    If Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead, then Christianity is a big hoax, a waste of time, and Christians are “more to be pitied than all men” (v19). To interpret the above any other way is just insulting to the Bible.

    But the NT gospel also defines itself in terms of historic claims (such as the fall of Adam). If these turn out to be fairy tales, then so is the gospel.

    I’m very sorry to hear about the hopelessly inadequate responses you had to genuine questions that deserved good answers. I have found christian-thinktank.com a great resource in this regard.

    I would also strongly recommend any of Francis Schaeffer’s writings, or the book “Total Truth” by Nancy Pearcy, who is a protoge of Schaeffer.

    In response to the OT/NT distinctions, I think you are really failing to read the NT. The theme of God’s anger comes out *much stronger* in the NT than in the OT. Ananias and Saphira are one example of a physical judgement in this life. But God’s anger towards sin is revealed especially on the lips of Jesus, who speaks more of hell than anyone else. OT judgements are a picnic in comparison. And even more fully, God’s anger against sin is revealed on the cross.

    Of course, the cross is where God’s love is also revealed. But without justice and anger, God’s love is mere sentimentality, and the cross loses all it’s value.

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  18. Luke Plant

    Hm, it snipped my 1 Cor 15 quotation:

    Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

    For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.

    And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

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  19. Dave

    “I agree that passages not meant to be taken literally should not be, and some parts (e.g. the parable of the prodigal son) do not lose anything from being fiction. However, most of Christianity falls to pieces if it is not based on literal, historical truth”

    Luke, we’re in trouble then, if we don’t have some really foolproof way of telling which passages were intended to read literally, right?

    Reply

    Luke Plant Reply:

    @Dave: for the most part, I think it is pretty obvious.

    That doesn’t mean that people don’t get it wrong. I contend that they usually get it wrong because they treat the Bible with far less respect than other communication. No-one would dream of saying to a police officer “I interpreted the 30 mph limit in a metaphorical way”, or, conversely, “The sign only has pictures warning me of little black children, but it was a little white child who ran out in front of me.” But you see people doing equivalent things with the Bible.

    In most cases the rest of the Bible makes it clear what are the major, non-negotiable doctrines and truths that we are meant to take away.

    In some cases it might really be ambiguous which way to take it, but then it obviously doesn’t matter too much, or God would have made it clear.

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    Dave Reply:

    Sorry, I respectfully disagree.

    If it were so obvious, we wouldn’t be arguing about it. And lack of respect for the authority of Scripture vs. other communication is probably not what caused so many schisms and wars throughout the history of our faith.

    I’m hopeful that you’re right that if the literal truth of a passage in Scripture isn’t clear, it’s not important (since I don’t know of a reliable way to tell other than trying to reconcile it w/ all of my other beliefs). I fear that that includes quite a bit of Scripture, and I also fear that overtly criticizing or sanctioning other people’s interpretation of scripture risks turning us into Pharisees or worse…

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    evtujo Reply:

    Fortunately in the case of a policeman we can have a conversation in real time in non metaphorical language and don’t have to wonder for thousands of years if we are interpreting the sign correctly. A sign is a pretty vague communication medium that only seems obvious after years of training and community agreement.

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  20. Jonathan Hall

    I originally posted this on FaceBook in reply to John’s piece, and he has invited me to post it here, as well:

    Well said, John. I have long held the position that a literal “7-day creation” was not fact, but used to illustrate the more important point that God created us, and therefore deserves our worship and allegiance, etc, etc.

    My sister recently asked me if I thought the story of Cain and Abel was literal. I’m usually very careful with how I answer questions like that, but my hunch is that Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel were none literal, but rather composite characters, and metaphorical characters, used to tell a meaningful story.

    I’m not sure if I’d go so far, though, as to say that the “God of war” portrayed in the OT is mythical. So here’s my (partial) counter-point to your note… some food for thought :)… See More

    I think the modern Evangelical church (at least in America–I can’t speak for other parts of the world or sects, where I have no experience) puts *too great a value* on human life. Did I just say that? But life is sacred! Yes, life is sacred… but we also don’t understand life very fully. God does.

    Our American ideals teach us that human life is of supreme value. Possibly personal freedom is the only thing that trumps the value of human life. I don’t believe this is a Biblical concept at all. In Biblical terms, honoring God is of supreme value.

    I believe we are to respect the lives of others, by not murdering them, for instance. But God is not held to the same set of rules. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” The Lord is the giver of life, and of things, so already the two commandments are irrelevant to him–not to murder, and not to steal.

    I think if we step back, and consider that God has every right to take human life if he wants to–and that he still loves humanity–even those he chooses to kill; and that he’s constantly seeking the greater good for the greatest number of humans, then I think death, particularly as a means to cause change, can be easily justifiable by a loving God.

    Consider any modern day Christian martyrs… How often do their stories inspire others to do good, or even to turn to Christ? How often does a martyr in the right time and place change the policy of an entire nation? Or what of the natural disaster in Haiti? What good is it now bringing to the country? Many people can’t even pronounce the name of the country (presumably because they’ve never heard of it); now much of the rest of the world is learning that Haiti is the 4th poorest nation in the world. I suspect the aide that pours into Haiti will long outlast the immediate impact of the natural disaster.

    And consider in the OT… When God commanded Israel to slaughter an entire city, even the women, children, and animals… What good came from that? I think it’s a bit harder to see, but at minimum God taught the Israelites a lesson: The spoils of war are for God; you should not go into war selfishly for your own gain.

    That’s a pretty hard lesson to learn, especially if you’re one of the 10 year old girls that the Israelites slaughtered during the course of the lesson. But God still loved that 10 year old girl, and for all we know, that 10 year old girl is now in Heaven. (Yeah, that may make me a heretic in some circles, too :)

    I suppose my answer to the dilemma might be categorized along with your two previous, unsatisfactory answers, as “It’s a mystery.” But to me, the key falls squarely on the question “What is the value of human life, from God’s perspective?”

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Lots of excellent food for thought there — thank you very much for posting that. That is probably the best defense I’ve seen of the “it’s a mystery” perspective I mentioned.

    If one acknowledges even the possibility of a supreme being(s), then one has to acknowledge that they may have a more fully-developed sense of ethics, and a long-term perspective, than we have. So your explanation seems plausible on that score. I will also grant that if you assume that 10-year-old girl went to heaven (whether or not it’s valid today is an interesting question, but I suspect the OT authors didn’t hold it), then you can make an argument that God’s killing of those people was even ethical.

    But there should be a “here be dragons” sign down that path, for it leads us to the conclusion that murder is more ethical than letting someone live, since we will end their earthly suffering.

    At some point, my feeble human mind has to attempt to make sense of ethics for itself, while of course retaining a sense of humility while doing so. Some complain that God let WWII happen. I am prepared to accept arguments on various scores there (it’s a mistake to think of God as interventionist, questions of free will, etc.) I am less prepared to accept arguments in favor of a good God intentionally inflicting suffering. If God is omnipotent (another disputed point, of course), then one would think God could have found a less harmful method of accomplishing the desired end. In short, God here is failing the Kantian test of always treating humans as ends in themselves, never means to an end. The message in the NT at least suggests to me that God agrees with Kant on this.

    Anyhow, you’ve given me lots to think about, and thanks.

    Reply

    Dwight Yoder Reply:

    I have read all down through these strings and wondered how soon Kant would get into the picture. I believe that every Christian tenet regarding what constitutes a “right action” can be reasoned out as a Kantian “Categorical Imperative” without resorting to the trump card of religion. The OT is utterly undecipherable by any modern rational standard, especially those that have any dependence on human beings having rights. Viewing these stories as mythology (i.e. deep truth) without regarding them as literal historical truth seems to be the only approach able to reconcile with Christianity (or modern philosophy).
    I am ill at ease hearing utilitarian arguments (God doing the most good for the most humans) put forth as justification for OT accounts of God’s actions. God as beneficent despot. Hmmm.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I am also ill at ease with the utilitarian OT justifications. I usually find utilitarian arguments easier to formulate and defend than non-consequentialist ones, but in this case I think they fall down. Perhaps because they fall into one of the classic utilitarian controversies (that utilitarianism could be used to condone murder). Perhaps also because they have to admit on the surface that, say, murdering all the people in some towns doesn’t seem justifiable on utilitarian grounds, but then turn around and insist that, despite all appearances, it IS justifiable on utilitarian grounds, and we would all agree that was the case if we had a God-sized intellect.

    Linking Christian and Kantian ethics is an interesting approach which I hadn’t heard of before, but I must say I like it. I think you are probably right overall.

    If I’m remembering this stuff right — it’s been a little while — there are some situations that I think Kant doesn’t deal with particularly well, but they may also be situations that the NT also doesn’t particularly address. One such hypothetical runs like this: you are a switchman on a railroad line. Heading towards you is a passenger train with broken brakes, speeding along the tracks. Just past the railroad switch is a pedestrian, fallen down on the tracks, and unable to get up in time to avoid getting hit by a train. Your only options are to set the switch such that the train kills the pedestrian but will eventually glide the train to a stop, or to put it on a different track that will send it hurtling down the side of the mountain resulting in the deaths of 100 people 2 minutes later. Do you treat the lone pedestrian as a means towards the end of saving 100 other lives, or save that life at the cost of 100 others?

    Utilitarianism and Kantian analysis seem to produce different results here, though which one is “clearly right” appears to be in the eye of the beholder.

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Incidentally, “My God is a beneficent despot” would make an excellent bumper sticker.

    Dwight Yoder Reply:

    The use of stock situations to define moral dilemmas and evaluate outcomes is interesting, but the various scenarios all require that we know outcomes before they happen. I use a variety of these ‘pediastrian falling on train track,’ ‘pushing pedestrian onto train track,’ ‘pushing trap door switch so pediastrian falls onto train track’ scenarios when talking with my son. He actually enjoys that stuff. The utilitarian version of the Good Shepherd might go something like, ‘…if you cripple one sheep and toss it to the wolves while fleeing with the rest of the flock…’
    Excepting most of what Paul wrote, the NT is pretty much anti-utilitarian and utterly counterintuitive from a utilitarian point of view. Taking back the prodigal son or paying the workers the same whether they worked one hour or ten probably did not produce a “greater good’ benefit.
    Here is the test for these scenarios. Let each begin with “The kindgom of heaven is like … scenario x….”

    John Goerzen Reply:

    The sort of armchair philosopher opinion I’ve developed is that I can’t take either utilitarianism or Kantian analysis to give the right answer 100% of the time. Having scenarios that illuminate (what may be) counterexamples to a theory is useful to me to illustrate what its limits are. The scenarios for utilitarianism (would it conclude it is right to kill a person for his organs to save 10 lives, for instance) also are useful in the same way.

    Excellent, and thought-provoking point, about the NT being anti-utilitarian. The paying of the workers especially is a clear violation of rule utilitarianism in particular in my mind. I think that dissonance has always been with us — the story is so counter-intuitive to our utilitarian analysis, even if we don’t recognize that we want to perform a utilitarian analysis of it — that it grabs our attention.

    Dwight Yoder Reply:

    Really like the statement that neither mode of evaluation “gives the ‘right’ answer 100% of the time.” There is a lot of good questioning going on, especially by you, and the point of it all really is not to change anyone’s mind (though that may happen). For me the object of considering an argument from different points of view is to figure out why I believe what I believe. Lacking a unifying “theory of everything” I fall back to my high school history teacher’s position that “we choose the inconsistencies we can live with.”
    And sometimes the inconsistencies I can live with change. As Groucho Marx said: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”

  21. Robert

    My interpretation of the Old Testament is that it is representative of what many people believed and felt of that day. Like many other societies, the Israelites believed they were special, chosen people, and one day their God would vindicate them and put them in charge. They wanted a messiah would save them by giving them political and social freedom from all others and place them firmly at the top of the pile, so to speak.
    Jesus did change things, by showing what God truly meant by a savior. His teachings and actions reveal that everyone is a part of God’s chosen people, and that there is no vindication, no sacrifice, no blood offerings, only love. My understanding is that the OT represent our desires for God and salvation, whereas the NT is the reality.

    Reply

  22. Kephas

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and questions. Here are some thoughts/responses to your post and other comments:

    1) The meaning of the word “literal” as applied to biblical studies has changed over the past several hundred years, but American Christianity didn’t update its doctrinal language. Clearly no one reads Scripture literally. We don’t think we’re “literally” salt (Mt. 5:13) or that God is a “literal” shepherd (Ps. 23). From the early days of the church until after the Reformation, a literal interpretation simply indicated the meaning the author intended. Literal interpretation was a critique of the abuse of allegorical interpretation. One can see how historical, cultural, and literary study might inform this older idea of a “literal” interpretation.

    2) Diversity in the Bible. There is diversity of perspective, theology, ideology, and perception in the Bible. The doctrine of the incarnation views this as a strength: God entering our situations and lives, our limitations of understanding and experience and inviting our free response. God is encountered inside of history. Biblical revelation is shaped by particular contexts, much like a missionary making the Gospel present to people of another culture. Imagine the confusion if the church at Philippi had received Paul’s invective to the Galatians! God works through our limitations and calls us to something greater.

    3) Trajectory of Revelation. Critique and transformation are also part of the Bible. Indeed, part of the Bible’s authority includes its critique of itself! But just as God enters human culture in history, so also does the Gospel critique and transform it. We detect in the Bible, therefore, a trajectory of revelation that reaches a culmination in Jesus. Jesus comes in line with the trajectory already established in the Old Testament. Already in Exodus 14-15 (probably the oldest written strand of the OT) we find God entering human history and culture, yet also beginning to transform it. Victory comes not through weaponry (the Israelites were most likely unarmed), nor through superior technology (Egypt had the horses and chariots), but through God’s presence, purpose, and covenant faithfulness. This ancient trajectory reaches its fullest expression in the OT in the peaceable kingdom visions (Micah 4, Isa. 2) and the Servant Songs and new creation themes of Isa. 40-66. The full flourish of NT theology and ethics follows these lines. This doesn’t undermine the authority of what came before, but leads us to ask what the God-in-history recorded in the Bible reveals to us.

    4) The Lordship of Christ. Jesus is Lord, even of the Bible. We worship the Savior, not the Scriptures that reveal him. Therefore every strand of the Bible is open to critique and affirmation by the Lord of the Church. This often leads us to give interpretive priority to the Gospels, then the rest of the NT, then the rest of the Bible.

    5) Imperialism of Western/Enlightenment thought patterns and literary categories. The Bible doesn’t conform to the thought patterns of Western thought. Fiction/Non-fiction divisions make little sense. Truth has more to do with covenant faithfulness than with preoccupation with objectivity and postulation. Whether something faithfully bears witness to God’s purposes in history is more important than its historicity. Stories are more important than encyclopedias. Believing/faith has more to do with covenant faithfulness than with intellectual assent.

    6) Myth has more to do with literary genre than historicity and is not a judgment on truth. Myth is a narrative or meta-narrative that embodies core beliefs or practices of a culture. Such truth defies historical verification.

    7) The “you just have to have faith” response silences honest and open questions that call forth strength of conviction and character. However, a mature faith sees beyond immediate understandings to latch hold of something of eternal value. The story of the binding of Isaac, for example. It’s a very disturbing story. It looks like Abraham had the sort of simplistic faith you find so troubling. Yet clearly Abraham wasn’t afraid to ask the tough questions (Gen. 18:22-33). The faith that carried him up the mountain wasn’t the doormat faith of easy Sunday School answers, but it was forged in covenanted relationship, and steeled in the search and struggle for conviction. Abraham could take his boy up the mountain because he knew he walked with a free, sovereign, and just God, who would provide.

    8) Panentheism means “everything is in God.” It grows in part out of Acts 17:28: “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” and Paul’s frequent references to being “in Christ.” While panentheism alone fails to capture the full arsenal for biblical understanding of God, it does have some solid biblical rooting. Belief that God is distinct and independent of creation is more troubling (Deism?) than panentheism.

    9) We have to be careful when comparing Revelation to the OT. Revelation is an apocalypse, a genre which did not even exist until the very last books of the OT were composed. Apocalyptic literature, like OT prophecy and poetry, is evocative, inviting readers to live against the cosmic backdrop of God’s activity and ultimate victory. It criticizes (lit. “unveils”) the status quo and energizes readers to live in counter-cultural community. Readers enter the highly *symbolic* world where the paradoxically crucified (!) king conquers by the sword of his mouth (i.e. the creative, redeeming, merciful Word — not an actual blade). The violence and oppression of the Empire is critiqued. The abounding OT references draw Revelation in line with existing biblical revelation. We also live in an apocalyptic age with fallen powers vying for control: nuclear arms, terrorism, the myth of redemptive violence, cultural imperialism, rampant consumption (money, power, resources, bodies), myopic and greedy economic systems that seem to halt any effort at reform, creation care, or justice for the poor. The apocalyptic imagination confesses all these yet bravely claims that Jesus is Lord and begins to live now the way the world is destined to live ultimately. Jesus’ citation of Lot’s wife ought to be seen similarly. Also note the context: Jesus mentions her as an example of someone whose quest for her own security became her own undoing. In Jesus’ kingdom of great reverse, you only find security by giving it up.

    Reply

    Jonathan Hall Reply:

    When Paul talks about being “in Christ,” he’s not assuming that everyone/everything else is also “in Christ.” If panenthiesm makes sense, then evil must also be part of ‘god’, no? The Bible teaches that God cannot hold company with evil.

    Reply

    Kephas Reply:

    True; Paul’s rhetoric simply contributes to the understanding (although, 2 Cor. 5:17-19, rightly translated, makes an interesting connection). I’m not quite convinced that the Bible teaches that God cannot hold company with evil. In fact, God’s forbearance with evil created a pastoral problem for Paul, annoyed Habakkuk, and caused Job grief (though it should be acknowledged that the notion of Satan, along with evil, is an evolving concept in the Bible).

    The Bible creates space for the tension between God’s sovereignty and the reality of evil in the world. Panentheism may talk about evil being “swallowed up” in God. Panentheism is by no means without eschatalogical hope. What does it mean for evil to be “in God”? Does it mean the evil is a part of God (the early Hebrews struggled with this)? Does it mean the evil is also subject to God’s reign, judgment, and victory? Does it mean that God actively works for transformation and reconciliation with whatever/whoever has become estranged? Does it mean that God holds (or perhaps works) all things together?

    Regardless, like I said, “everything is in God” is only one face of the giant prism the Bible offers us to aide our finite minds in grasping an infinite God. It is by no means an exhaustion of how we might understand and be in relationship with God.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Kephas, your point #1 above is a fascinating one. I wonder what you think the literal (in the earlier sense) interpreter of the creation story or the Exodus would have thought the author’s intent was? Would it have been that the author intended us to believe events happened in the 24-hour days, or that each event described happened precisely that way? If not, where did that whole idea come from? I seem to recall that Borg suggests it was a response to, ironically enough, marginalization of religion by science during the enlightenment. What would be the correct modern term to use to describe the position that the events in a given passage are described with historical, literal precision?

    #2: I love that comment that “God ie encountered inside of history.”

    #3: I am curious what examples you’re thinking of regarding the Bible’s critique of itself. Your trajectory from Exodus onwards is a powerful and interesting one too. It seems to me also that it is compatible with the general kind of reading of the OT that is being contemplated here.

    #4: “We worship the Savior, not the Scriptures that reveal him.” An excellent point, I think.

    #5: That is another powerful point, and one which I have only recently started to comprehend.

    #7: That story has given me pause time and again. I have never really known what to make of it, and suspect I may never have the level of certainty about God that Abraham did. The “steeled in the search and struggle for conviction,” though, gives me some hope, despite that sometimes it seems that the more I take small steps in that direction, the more I realize the vastness of the expanse between me and such a goal.

    Reply

    Kephas Reply:

    It’s likely that Genesis creation accounts took their final form somewhere around the period of the exile to Babylon (500s BC), though the second account (Gen. 2) is likely older than the first (Gen. 1). The Babylonian creation story is strikingly different from Genesis 1-2. Each day in Gen. 1 dismisses another god (sun, moon, sea, etc.). The goodness, rhythm, and order of creation contrast with the violence of the Babylonian story. God’s desire to be in relationship with humans contrasts with the gods’ desire to dominate humans. The Exodus story establishes beyond a doubt God’s grace, deliverance, sovereignty, and covenant faithfulness. Notice in the Torah how often the covenant is grounded in the Exodus. Israel’s faithfulness grows out of God’s grace and deliverance. I struggle to find a way to describe the contemporary understanding of “literal.” Sometimes I use “mechanical.”

    Intra-canonical critique examples: Ruth critiques Ezra-Nehemiah’s “xenophobia” by including a foreigner in David’s ancestry (the two books were probably composed around the same time). Jonah satirizes Israel’s graphic hatred of Assyria (see Nahum). Books like Job and Ecclesiastes question the “prosperity gospel” of Deuteronomy (e.g. 30:15-20). Jesus directly critiqued some bits of the Law.

    I also find the “binding of Isaac” story to be most troubling theologically, and I usually get very uncomfortable whenever anyone refers to it — especially when it’s referred to uncritically.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I seem to recall, finally, that Borg uses “literal-factual” to describe what I think you’re referring to as “mechanical”.

  23. Mike

    And there is always the additional issue of punctuation, which was developed for use in theatre, and only started gaining use in the written word with the bible… then became standardised when printing was invented.

    If for no other reason than a the risk that a misplaced comma can dramatically change the meaning of a word, trying to believe in a literal, english bible is almost nonsensical. The truly devout pretty much need to go back to the source language.

    Also it seems that “mature faith”, and “we are like children” are the very arguments noted by the original post – we see but through a glass darkly. This is a very unsatisfactory and unconvincing argument.

    Reply

  24. Tobias Wich

    In my opinion the stories in the bible are/were there to be moral guidelines for the people. This can be seen on tales like the one with Moses. It points out, that it is better not to address aggression with aggression. The reward for this is a better life and justice. It’s hard to tell how effective those moral stories are, but most propably things would be/have been much worse in our world if they never existed. I’m not that much into religion, but I’m pretty sure the same things exist in other religions as well.
    Then there is a different kind of story, at least a part of it. In Genesis the first part is about the creation of the world which is clearly not there to communicate any moral. This story was designed (how adequate when talking of design theory as it is sometimes called ^^) to give people an explanation where everything we see comes from. This stands in contrary to most other things in the bible where you are told just to believe without knowing why, but that just as a sidenote.
    Now, a few thousand years later, science discovered lots of things about our world, the universe and the structure of materia. With this knowledge theories how the universe was formed were created and thousands of proofs were brought to harden these theories or at least large parts of it.
    To me that all raises the question why I should accept the oppinion of a group of people that has proofen to be wrong? I mean theoretical science lives from the falsification and I can’t proof that the current theories are true. They are propably not in every detail, but they are nearer there than the creation “theory”.
    To sum things up I don’t think that a conscious person can accept a theory, that is prooven false, to be propaganded. And back to the Genesis story as an instrument of explanation. I think those parts are just not relevant anymore. The moral of the stories are, if you ask me, needed more than ever in this cruel world. So the bible and other religious documents are not obsolete, they just come from a different time where those answers were helpful to people. Why is it so hard for fundamentalists to understand that the Christian creation story is not more of a truth as the Greek creation story or anything else?

    Reply

  25. Kirklin

    That we humans have managed to construct a myriad of denominations and divisions based upon the “Biblical truth” surely instructs us and defines the text. The older I get (and I do think more mature-though that is certainly open for great debate) the more sure I am that the Bible is a “figure it out” work. I find my Mennonite foundation to be admirably quaint and more honest than most but I am ready to join the Mennonite Universalist Church whenever somebody gets the gumption to officially organize it.

    A couple “shots across the bow”:
    1) Nowhere is the old saying “Perfection is the enemy of good” more applicable than to religion.
    2) When it comes to religion, those who claim to be the closest to the truth are most likely the farthest from it.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    #1 is an excellent point. How many times have churches split over what they think of as imperfections in each others’ doctrine? Or people felt estranged from churches because of not being good enough or having the “right” beliefs.

    #2 is an interesting point. It reminds me of the Socratic Paradox that I read in Plato’s Apology a few months ago. Socrates rigidly insists that he knows nothing, as part of his method of keeping an open mind and questioning things. He is told that he is the wisest man in Athens, and thinks that is odd because he knows nothing. I think that humility along those lines could serve the church well.

    Reply

  26. Clif Hostetler

    I found the following two books (by Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein) of interest because they examine whether the Old Testament stories can be supported by recent findings in archaeology. I have long been comfortable with the concept of Genesis not being historical. But I was somewhat surprised to learn that lack of historicity extends beyond the Pentateuch all the way to the book of Kings.
    _”The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts”_
    _”David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition “_

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Thanks for the recommendations — they look interesting.

    Reply

  27. Ben Finney

    John, you wrote (in a comment with no “Reply” option):

    > I don’t think the core of Christianity lies with intellectual assent to a particular creed. It is more about inward transformation and right relationships with everything.

    So, does the core of Christianity include the claim that Jesus was the son of God? Does it include the claim that he dies on the cross in order that God could forgive the sins of humanity? Does it include the claim that Jesus returned to life several days subsequent to him dying on the cross?

    It’s rather difficult to discuss things unless we agree at least on what is actually being said.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    No, it doesn’t. The core of Christianity isn’t about claims, it’s about changing yourself and our world. Claims (creeds, beliefs, whatever you want to call them) were tacked on later and aren’t really all that important, in my opinion.

    Reply

    Ben Finney Reply:

    So as far as I can tell, you’re saying that the core of Christianity involves *no* claims about anything in the world.

    How, then, does it have anything to do with the Old Testament, or even the New Testament, which *does* make a great many claims about events and facts in the world?

    It seems that you’re identifying something that is totally divorced from any basis that could give it the name Christianity.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I disagree, vehemently, with your last point. I am suggesting something that was once the norm of Christianity, prior to the Romanization of it, and which also is likely to be the future (Harvey Cox is particularly informative about it). Christianity can be a faith, without a set of intellectual beliefs. The Bible informs our actions and speaks to us, but the Bible is not God.

    Saying that the “core” of a religion is about something doesn’t, by the way, exclude everything else; it is merely a statement of relative importance.

  28. Ben Finney

    > I am suggesting something that was once the norm of Christianity, prior to the Romanization of it

    How do you know this? You speak much about Christianity and the Bible, but how do you know that what you call Christianity has any basis in history?

    More importantly, how can you know whether what you call Christianity is the same as, or different from, what someone else calls Christianity?

    Reply

    Ben Finney Reply:

    Forgive me, that seems very hostile. I mean only to ask how, since you claim the Bible is *not* to be taken as expressing claims of fact, you make the factual claim that your description of Christianity “was once the norm of Christianity, prior to the Romanization of it”. How do you know this?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    There are many sources of information about this; the scholarship is wide. I am currently reading The Future of Faith by Harvard Cox, a Harvard theologian, and it is perhaps the best I have seen. He devotes the first few chapters to analyzing the two different models of faith seen over the history of Christianity: what he calls the Age of Faith, which lasted for the first 200-300 years of Christianity, and the Age of Belief, which extended from that point until roughly now.

    He notes that modern scholarship has upturned the notions of early Christianity that he learned in seminary a few decades ago.

    I have no problem with what I call Christianity being different with what others call Christianity. After all, that will inevitably occur with anything mysterious and important — and has. Pentecostals, Mennonites, Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox have some pretty different ideas about Christianity. I don’t see that as bad; merely inevitable.

    Here are a few quotes from Harvey Cox:

    “It is true that for many people “faith” and “belief” are just two words for the same thing. But they are not the same, and in order to grasp the magnitude of the religious upheaval now under way, it is important to clarify the difference. Faith is about deep-seated confidence. In everyday speech we usually apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure. It is what theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965) called “ultimate concern,” a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the “heart.” Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion.”

    “The French writer Simone Weil (1909–43) also knew. In her Notebooks, she once scribbled a gnomic sentence: “If we love God, even though we think he doesn’t exist, he will make his existence manifest.””

    “Creeds are clusters of beliefs. But the history of Christianity is not a history of creeds. It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs. It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds.”

    “But both the doctrinal canons and the architectural constructions are means to an end. Making either the defining element warps the underlying reality of faith.”

    “During this first period of both explosive growth and brutal persecution, their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and “faith” meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated.”

    “To focus the Christian life on belief rather than on faith is simply a mistake. We have been misled for many centuries by the theologians who taught that “faith” consisted in dutifully believing the articles listed in one of the countless creeds they have spun out. But it does not.”

    “Jews always say their religion is best understood not as a creed, but as a way of life. Slowly it dawned on me that the same is true of my religion. The earliest term used to describe it in the New Testament is “The Way.”8 Once I realized that Christianity is not a creed and that faith is more a matter of embodiment than of axioms, things changed. I began to look at people I met in a new way. Some of the ones I admired most were “believers” in the conventional sense, but others were not.”

    I’d highly recommend this book for more insight on the perspective I’m advancing, even if you turn out to disagree with it.

    Reply

    Ben Finney Reply:

    > [Harvard Cox] devotes the first few chapters [of "The Future of Faith"] to analyzing the two different models of faith seen over the history of Christianity: what he calls the Age of Faith, which lasted for the first 200-300 years of Christianity, and the Age of Belief, which extended from that point until roughly now.

    I’m unable to find excerpts of this book that deal with the questions I’m asking: how is this known to be so? That is, what evidence do you have (from Cox, or elsewhere) that the many factual claims made in the Bible were not taken as fact by early Christians?

    Reply

  29. Kirklin

    Well Ben, IMO you have blown the lid off the proverbial can of worms. I sent this to John privately:

    “IMO, empirical evidence, logic and reason calls the usefulness of current
    organized religions into great doubt. Not that our Christian congregations
    cannot or do not serve a good and appropriate role in society but the irony
    of them claiming to guide our spiritual lives but actually thwarting us
    instead is most sad. Fortunately church often provides a (unintended good
    consequence) critical social support system for us-often while
    poopooing/downplaying the importance of that (very) aspect. I believe there is a
    creator/God/Higher Power that we have no specific knowledge of…who must be
    sorely disappointed in our spirituality. And while I believe it would be
    really neat to know how we arrived on this little planet I am mostly okay
    with my ignorance in this regard. But that we have strapped ourselves with
    these God-awful (pun intended) organized religions with all these half-baked
    concoctions of explanations for our existence does not reflect kindly on us.
    It is mind-numbing that (“Christian”) folks should have such a problem with
    being honest and stating clearly “WE DO NOT KNOW!!!!” And I believe GOD is
    okay with us discussing this in this manner…certainly has to be preferable
    to the “organized religion” dogmatic garbage. I believe in an intelligent
    design of some sort but I make no claims as to who/what this entity is.

    I am ready for a post-religion world where we nurture the goodness that our
    creator built into us and simply and humbly acknowledge our fallibilities and
    limitations…and ignorance.

    Faith, hope and charity…but the greatest of these is charity. Well, at
    least, they got something right :) It is most curious that we humans
    require love and hope to live physically. But maybe y’all can help me with the value of “faith”. We have
    this intuitive sense of right and wrong…but what (the hell) does faith
    have to do with anything here??????????????????? This question, as much as
    anything, calls the validity of our religions into question for me. I tell
    people that all they need to know is “Love the Lord your God with all you
    heart, soul and might and your neighbor as yourself”…the end…the rest of
    “it” is a useless, harmful, destructive distraction.”

    So: I was raised in the “spiritual” tradition of Anabaptist Christianity and claim to meet the definition of being a Christian. The fact remains that my claim is arguable because many would disagree. Many would claim that I am a “Humanist”. I would not disagree…don’t see the conflict here. I will argue that acknowledging our humanness and our lack of knowledge of God actually brings one closer to God than the religions humans have otherwise constructed. I believe a sense of integrity and truth have been innately built into us by our creator and the most authentic Christian imperative is to strive to live out those principles…and I think this is what John’s point is as well-correct me if I am wrong. What Jesus actually meant in his teachings is surely debatable…and we can chase each other around this table ad nausea. Let me get out of this thing by simply returning to what I stated in my earlier post, “the Bible is a ‘figure it out’ work”…written by men who were created by God….but they are no different than you and I…

    Reply

  30. roy_hu

    How about a fourth option, both the Old Testament and the New Testament are made up?

    There’s a danger in choosing a non-literal reading of the Bible: how do you know you interpretation is the One True Way?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    How do you know there is a One True Way?

    Humanity seems not to agree on one.

    Reply

    Ben Finney Reply:

    The scriptures make a great deal of factual claims. Do you think it matters whether your interpretation of those claims match reality?

    If you do not think it matters, how is that different from delusion?

    If you do think it matters, on what basis do you determine whether your interpretation of scripture matches reality?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    My point was that I have no basis to claim that the Christian scriptures have a monopoly on truth. Likewise, I have no basis to claim that science or Buddhism has a monopoly on truth.

    Having said that, is there truth in the Christian Way? Sure. There is also truth in science and, I’m sure, in Buddhism, Beethoven, and Shakespeare.

    I am somewhat conflicted about your first question. On the one hand, we are asking questions about things that are definitionally beyond our ability to understand. So I would maintain that on a certain level, it is impossible for us to achieve an understanding that matches reality. The best we can do is approximate reality. Towards that end, we can rely on the text itself, as well as corroborating evidence about the times and place — historians have a lot to tell us, as Harvey Cox points out.

    The conflict comes about when I think of people that have done things based upon an interpretation that I think modern scholarship cannot support. I think, for instance, of the execution of “heretics”, the fact that Christians have started numerous unnecessary wars, and some modern Christians supporting discrimination against homosexuals. These, to me, are at least partly product of excessive reliance upon doctrine, perhaps partly a product of human greed and hunger for power, and partly due to insufficient reliance upon inward transformation (“The Way”).

    As to the factual claims in the Bible, I think first of all we need to get beyond the point of whether the claims were meant to be factual, and move to the point of how the Bible informs our lives today. So, in a sense, all of the above is irrelevant.

    roy_hu Reply:

    Let me ask another question: what beliefs distinguish you, a Christian, from a non-Christian?

    You said that “the core of Christianity isn’t about claims, it’s about changing yourself and our world”. I don’t think I’ve ever met a single Christian who shares this view (I came to the US 5 years ago and lived in Virginia ever since, and before then I never met a Christian).

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I would first restate: Despite what may look like 1700 years of evidence to the contrary, the core of Christianity is not about beliefs. It’s about The Way, the inner transformation, and about bringing God’s Kingdom of peace on earth.

    Creeds and beliefs mattered little during the early history of Christianity. Harvey Cox is particularly informative on this point, pointing out that there was no such thing as heresy before about 350, and also pointing out that Christianity lived in a multi-religious part of the world. I see no problem with Christianity having fuzzy lines of demarcation from other religions, and in fact, if you look closely at it, it always has. Where does Judaism end and Christianity begin, for instance?

    There are a great many Christians that share the view that “the core of Christianity isn’t about claims, it’s about changing yourself and our world.” To name a few prominent thinkers, I’d name Marcus Borg, Huston Smith, and Harvey Cox. I think that you could even find broad agreement from the likes of N. T. Wright and C. S. Lewis with the broad strokes of that sentiment at least.

    The confusion of faith with belief, and the elevation of belief as somehow important along with the creeds, has done a tremendous disservice to Christianity.

    Why should I be concerned about distinguishing Christians from non-Christians? I’m out there to change the world. If I call it “Jesus work” and a Buddhist and a Muslim do it alongside me, maybe they have a different name for it, but why should that concern me?

    In The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox describes a meeting of Christians in Hong Kong:

    “It was also clear to me that they thought arguing over doctrines and beliefs was too “Western” and a little boring. Their idea of interfaith dialogue was to work with their fellow Asians of whatever religion to advance the Kingdom that JEsus had inspired them, as Christians, to strive for, regardless of what the others called it… They seemed more attuned to the element of mystery at the core of Christianity and to its vision of justice. They were also clearly impatient with many of the disputes that preoccupy the different wings of the American churches.”

    roy_hu Reply:

    That’s a very honest answer, and I appreciate your frankness. No offense here, but it’s just too hard for me to accept your definition as Christianity, based on my conversations with Christians here. Probably they’re just less open-minded and more conservative. I don’t know about you, but here in Virginia, being a non-Christian is kinda a shameful thing to the Christians. As a foreinger, I often compromise and pretend to enjoy their nonsensical words.

    So, do you just think of Jesus as a very good teacher? Do you believe that God is omnipotent, that he created us, that our ancestors sinned against him, and that Jesus died so that we can reunite with God? If you believe these things, why do you then reject some other factual claims? If you don’t, then why read the Bible? You could probably look into other religions, or even make up your own religion.

    Again, thanks for your openness and the thought-provoking discussion. You’ve changed my impression of Christians.

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hi Roy,

    No offense taken. I completely understand why you have the impression you do. I live in Kansas, where I think there is much the same culture in a way.

    “Christian” is a very broad label. The church as a whole is incredibly diverse, and sadly also incredibly fractured. I’m not sure, but I think you’re describing a set of Christians known as fundamentalists. I disagree with a lot of what they say, though I must say that I know some of them personally and have known them to be good, well-meaning people. Some are open-minded, though I grant that the position that there are certain non-negotiable aspects of religion makes it hard to see that (and it isn’t always there, in truth.)

    I would caution you, however, against drawing conclusions about Christianity as a whole, or even protestants as a whole, based on your experience in one area. Christianity in Virginia probably looks a lot different than it does in Portland, Rome, or Istanbul. Or even Kansas, in some ways.

    I proceed to your second paragraph with some hesitation. I will try to give you honest answers, but with the disclaimer that questions about “what do you believe” have often led to division and exclusion, and ultimately are, to me, of secondary importance.

    Yes, I think the Jesus of the Bible was indeed a very good and wise teacher. I think that his example — often called the Way — of inward transformation, right relationships with others, peace and justice work, etc. is a model that is vivid and moving to us today.

    As to the questions about omnipotence and the like — my most honest answer is that “I don’t know for sure, nobody can, and that we must find a way to live life given these facts.” If we accept the possibility of an existence of some sort more than the physical reality that meets our eyes — and I believe we must — then we have to accept the possibility of things that are real but which we cannot understand. The very concept of omnipotence seems to boggle the mind, and I don’t know that a human mind can really understand what it means.

    To get right down to it, I don’t think it matters what shade of omnipotence God is, what his exact involvement in our creation/evolution was (if any), or the precise nature of the relationship between Jesus and God. These are all things that the human race is ill-equipped to answer anyhow.

    The fortunate thing for us is that literal facts aren’t the only, or even best, ways of learning valuable truths. As I’ve pointed out before, we can learn from Shakespeare and Mozart. Here is where the Bible (and other sources) shine. If you read it with an eye not for a history lesson, but for what we can learn from a beautiful and moving story, what inspiration we can draw, then there is where it is at its most powerful and valuable. If we venerate Homer for the Iliad and the Odyssey and how they still speak to use today about the human condition, how much more moving must be the Bible, assembled over centuries, telling the stories of a people? It is far more an epic than Homer, and calls us to a higher purpose more effectively.

    I owe this thinking in large part to Marcus Borg’s eye-opening book The Heart of Christianity. He strongly suggests that we not worry ourselves so much about the factual debate, because it really isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. If we have made the right changes in ourselves and in our world, what does it matter if we are slightly mistaken about some obscure theology?

    Harvey Cox added insight to that, pointing out that until the Romanification of Christianity, the earliest Christians didn’t agree about probably any of the questions you posed (even about what should go in the Bible), and it wasn’t a big problem for them until church leaders started getting real power. In short, this concern over belief seems to me to be a human invention rather than a divine one.

    Thank you very much for your kind words and interesting comments.

    roy_hu Reply:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in a greater detail. I wonder, have you ever looked at other religions (maybe better described as philosophical systems)? Confucianism avoids talking about Gods and focuses on the “changing oneself and the world” part. Taoism has many Gods. Buddhism doesn’t really worship any God; everyone can be his own God. I would label myself between an atheist and a pantheist.

    PS: I would love to see more technical posts, especially on Haskell!

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I haven’t looked at other religions in any great detail. Huston Smith in Why Religion Matters recounted a story of a Methodist theologian meeting the Dalai Lama. The Methodist asked, “What must I do to achieve enlightenment?” The Dalai Lama replied, “Continue seeking along your own path.” In other words, Smith thinks that the world’s major enduring religions are different paths up a single mountain, and once you’ve chosen a path, it’s best to stick with it rather than go all the way back down and start with another one. I think this explanation makes a lot of sense. I’ve started (though perhaps barely) with my path, and it makes the most sense for me to stick with it. This does not imply, however, that my path is somehow universally superior to the others; just that it’s superior *for me* since I’ve already made some progress along it.

  31. Ben Finney

    I’m deliberately avoiding “truth”, since you have what I consider to be an unworkably vague definition of it. That’s why I’m speaking specifically here about our interpretations and their conformance to reality.

    > On the one hand, we are asking questions about things that are definitionally beyond our ability to understand.

    I’m talking about the factual claims made in the testaments. There are many, and there are a great many of them that are about things well *within* our understanding: the structure of the cosmos, the movement and position of astronomical bodies, the shape of our planet, the nature of species on this planet, the distribution of people and languages, the events of history.

    Those are the things that I’m asking about at the moment. Do you think it matters whether the factual claims made in the testaments, on matters that clearly are within our understanding today, conform to reality?

    Reading your opinions here, I honestly do not know whether you think it matters whether these claims conform to reality or not. I’d love to get a straight answer.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    To be blunt, it’s hard to give a straight answer to what I believe is a misleading and irrelevant question.

    Let’s pick a specific example — since you speak of the cosmos, let’s look at the creation story in Genesis. You might ask whether it matters if the “factual claims made” are within our understanding today, conforming to reality.

    To that, I would make two points:

    1) That those were not intended to be factual claims in the first place;

    2) Moreover, the question of whether they were intended to be factual claims, or whether they are indeed factual claims, is irrelevant.

    In other words, the question we ought to be asking is not “what happened?” but “how should we live?” How does that story speak to and inform our lives today? That is the question that matters, not the question of whether the universe was created in 144 hours. In short, this whole debate of factual claims misses the point.

    So, to summarize my answer to your question:

    1) I think that you are mistaking ancient literature. Homer’s Iliad reads like it is making factual claims, but nobody thinks that the entire story is. It’s describing humanity and its relationship to a mystery, its struggle and its hubris. So I invite you to revisit whether factual claims were intended when you think they were.

    2) There are many ways to learn truths. Archeology, science, and history are some. So are poetry, theater, and music. Can we learn as much from Shakespeare as from Newton? If so, then how ought you to read religious texts? Can you get meaning from them if you read them as poetry?

    3) The importance of the Bible is how it illustrates we ought to live our lives, and how it illustrates what God is all about. Historicity is secondary.

    Reply

  32. Ben Finney

    > Homer’s Iliad reads like it is making factual claims, but nobody thinks that the entire story is.

    I’m trying very hard to distinguish “what we think” from “what the text itself says”. Homer’s Iliad *does* make factual claims, and so does the Old Testament. I would say, whether those factual claims correspond to reality *does* matter. Would you?

    I really want that question addressed before any consideration of how people in any particular age treat the text. *Does it matter* whether the claims in these texts conform to reality?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Ben, I feel like you are trying to ask me a question I’ve said repeatedly I can’t answer because it is ill-framed and doesn’t matter anyhow. Now that’s fine, I’m perfectly prepared to agree to disagree on this issue, and that’s not a problem. But I want to say that continuing to ask that question in the same manner isn’t going to further the discussion.

    I mostly disagree with you that the Iliad makes factual claims. You are reading it as if it does, but that doesn’t mean that it was intended to do so.

    If you go to the library and pick out a copy of Jurassic Park, and read it, it might look to you like it was making factual claims. It might look like it described some incredible disaster. A historian 2000 years from now looking back might wonder if we really did bring dinosaurs back to life in the 1990s, or debate whether that part of the story was invented but the other people were real, etc. Yet today we are happy to say, “Jurassic Park is a work of fiction, and although it reads as if it is making factual claims of real events, we have a cultural understanding that it is not.”

    Now here’s the key part.

    If you ask me, “Does it matter whether the factual claims in Jurassic Park conform to reality?” I would have to say, “I do not believe Jurassic Park makes factual claims; therefore, there is no possible answer to your question.”

    More importantly, since we (I hope!) can agree that Jurassic Park makes no factual claims, we can also agree (I hope) that its value (such as it is) has its source in some other factor.

    Now, I will admit that the case of the Bible is not as simple as a book conveniently located for us in the Fiction section of a library, but hopefully this example illustrates what I’ve been trying to say.

    Reply

    Ben Finney Reply:

    > Ben, I feel like you are trying to ask me a question I’ve said repeatedly I can’t answer because it is ill-framed and doesn’t matter anyhow.

    I don’t see how the question is ill-framed: Does it matter whether the factual claims made in ancient works (like The Iliad or the Old Testament) conform to reality? In saying the above, you appear to be answering it with a direct “yes”. If so, I thank you.

    > I mostly disagree with you that the Iliad makes factual claims. You are reading it as if it does

    No, that’s exactly my point. The Iliad, like the Old Testament, *does* make factual claims: these events happened, these events were observed and testified. Completely independent of belief, the *text itself* makes those claims.

    It is our interpretation that determines whether we take those factual claims as conforming with reality. But the text, taken as it is, makes statements of fact.

    There is also a *completely separate* question of our interpretation of the original intent of the writers. You keep jumping to that question, but it’s not one I’m yet asking. More importantly, it is an utterly different question from: what does *the text itself* claim as fact?

    Here’s what I’m asking you, and attempting to tease loose from any muddying about intents of authors or interpretations. These claims of fact conform with reality to some degree, from “not at all” to “perfectly”. To what extent does it *matter*, to humanity now, whether those claims (recorded in the text itself and independent of the views of the writers in making these texts) conform with reality?

    I’ve tipped my hand and said that I think their conformance (or otherwise) with reality matters. But before getting into why that is, I’d like your opinion.

    Reply

  33. Braden Shepherdson

    Late to the party, but I think you might enjoy reading Karen Armstrong’s work. She’s a biblical scholar and theologian who argues for a return to a more sophisticated, less literal view of the Bible and other religious works.

    Reply

  34. Branden Robinson

    Ben,

    Let me just storm in here, two weeks (plus) after the thread shut down.

    You’re coming off as a bit of an evangelical skeptic. That is to say, argumentative with hints of proselytization.

    Whether or not John is an atheist is not the most important thing about his world-view. I say this as a militant atheist myself–”militant” in the sense of Dawkins and Hitchens, in these sense that religious belief as we’re experiencing it today is causing a significant number of large social and political problems around the globe.

    But those negative consequences don’t spring directly from a belief in God. A person can believe in God, or even in the divinity of Jesus. These positions do not ineluctably lead to any creed of political or moral consequence, or to any particular form of social or political conduct.

    That is precisely why fundamentalist evangelicals demand subscription to a much larger package.

    I do admit to a bit of Manicheanism; I do see the world as largely arranged into a two-sided struggle. The labels I attach to the good guys and the bad guys shift as I make inevitable concessions to a more complex reality, but one conflict I don’t see as essential is theism vs. atheism.

    I have a much bigger problem with someone who denies the capacity of science to illuminate meaningful facts–even truths–about the universe around us than I do with someone who embraces that power. A person who rejects the Abrahamic God in favor of magic crystals is, on an individual basis, just as opposed to human intellectual maturation as a Bible-thumping creationist.

    I have a much bigger problem with someone who feels LGBT people should disfranchised or disadvantaged than I do with someone who sees them as politically as social on par with boring straight people. Whether someone serves the agenda of oppressing gays due to a sincere belief in the moral assessment of some passage in Exodus, or due to a political calculation to win an election, that stance is reprehensible.

    None of this is to say that I don’t think religious belief isn’t correlated with reactionary politics and anti-intellectualism. I do think they are correlated–but much, much more so with some religious traditions than with others. Once you zoom out to encompass all forms of religious belief I think your coefficient of correlation is getting pretty small.

    All this is to say, accept your intellectual allies where you find them. If you want to make the world a better place, focus on the essential. If you could wave a magic wand–he said ironically–and delete the notion of God from everyone’s heads overnight, the world would not look all that different tomorrow. Most people’s intellectual processes are not terribly coherently constructed. Most people are not Wittgenstein. Most people have patterns of thought and feeling which they follow unconsciously. Cynically, I suspect the people who do the most damage to human culture and civilization in the name of God don’t actually spend very much time thinking about God, or what He wants. By contrast, they have very clear ideas about what *they* want and are focused and motivated on achieving it.

    A bit of that same focus would serve atheists and secularists well. Christians like John and my friend Stuart Parker are not the opposition. And, selfishly, I get a lot more value out of in-depth conversations exploring my differences with them than I would from being able to count them as teammates in the Infidels Football Club.

    Which isn’t to say there’d be NO satisfaction in the latter. ;-)

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’d have to second that sentiment in your last couple of paragraphs. Indeed, the reason I post these things in public isn’t that I love to be attacked in public by those that know more theology and philosophy than I; it’s because I enjoy and find valuable the entire discussion. And, in truth, there is value to people finding flaws in my thinking.

    Your statement “religious belief as we’re experiencing it today is causing a significant number of large social and political problems around the globe” is an interesting one, and deserves a bit of attention.

    I suspect that by “religious belief” you are thinking of “religious fundamentalism”, as manifest in certain quarters of at least three religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. And, if we are to take that more limited view of the problem, I agree 100%.

    It might be hard to see, but there is a global liberal religious left, and in many countries (especially in South America and certain parts of Europe) it is more powerful than the fundamentalist religious right. But even outside those narrow confines, there are plenty of people — even fundamentalists — that are inspired by religion to do good.

    The other interesting trend is that “religious belief as we experience it today” is certainly on the way out, and perhaps one could even say that religious belief itself is on the way out. However, religion is on the rise in the world, so the conclusion must be that the shape of religion is changing, and I think for the better. We are seeing the last bitter defensive crouch of a certain side of several religions that is fading. I hope that within my lifetime, creationism museums will be a thing of the past, but not because of the demise of religion.

    Reply

  35. Branden Robinson

    Hi John,

    Thanks for following up!

    I don’t blame you for not staying on my road 100%. I haven’t decided myself, yet, whether religious belief is particularly susceptible to dogmatization. Thanks to the books that were laying around the house when I was young, I am deeply familiar with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, and am all-too-aware of how it came to resemble a fundamentalist religious cult (complete with a sexual scandal at the top of the organization). It wasn’t Heaven’s Gate or FLDS nuts but it was about as close as you can get without breaking any actual laws.

    It should go without saying that ideologies which have no essential or specific religious component can be perverted to terrible ends. In fact this, with citations to Mao and Stalin, is one of the favorite arguments of fundies who take offense at the proposition that Christian churches have countenanced slaughter. I think it’s a bit grotesque to get into a pissing war over such things when both pans of the scale are piled with millions of corpses.

    I am conscious, too, of the fact that scientific teachings can be dogmatized. The saving grace appears to be that the better educated you are in science, the more you learn about the sorts of events that Thomas Kuhn writes about. You learn to be critical, even self-critical, and acquire some humility. (At the very worst, the field is self-correcting due to the Planck Effect: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” This has got to be more difficult to accomplish in belief systems in which eternal life, eternal truths, and even papal infallibility.)

    Then, too, I keep running into people who’ve been to seminary of whom I could say the same. Some of the best conversations I’ve had on religion in my life have been with people who have received advanced degrees in the subject from religiously-affiliated schools.

    Shorter version: my apprehension about religion in general is in significant measure a bellyfeel and I want to be frank about that.

    I guess what I’m after is an anti-ideology serum. Or, failing that, an ideological phenolphthalein which I can use to determine which thought systems are going to lead to human misery rather than the common weal.

    Reply

  36. D. Frank Robinson

    “…whether religious belief is particularly susceptible to dogmatization.” Without a dogma one has no identity or ‘brand’ to market to others. I remain convinced, as Rand said, religion is primitive philosophy. Both attempt to influence the behavior of others and economize the blowback from coercion. For example, “Thou shall not kill” (unless, and only, if you accept the exceptions our dogma provides). But if you kill outside of our exceptions, then we give ourselves a license to kill you…if it pleases us..or show ‘mercy’ if that pleases us. Carrot and stick is dogma itself.

    One sect will beat you with the carrot and another sect will beat you with the stick. Both are dogma.

    I enjoyed the discussion. It left no bruises.

    Reply

  37. CS

    I’m probably many days late on this thread but I find it to be some of the most useful discussion I’ve seen of late.

    The reason I think all of this discussion is relevant is because some of us who grew up as “Christians” are having a hard time accepting the Bible as inerrant truth and are searching for a place to fit in. We believe in the core tenants of Jesus’ teachings and we may even have faith that in fact he is the savior. But we internally understand (and sometime agonize) that our other beliefs (or perhaps questions on beliefs) don’t permit full entrance into the “Christians” club. I think we just want someone well schooled in theology to validate our way of thinking and say you have just as much of a chance at salvation as does any “Christian” (or ideally any religion).

    The more I read the OT and the more I research the historical accuracy of those events the more I’m left scratching my head. And I’m having a heck of a time finding a group that shares my faith and my beliefs.

    I was probably better off back when mindlessly I thought babies should be baptized, if you just go to religious class they’ll let you eat this little wafer and you’re good until next weekend, and that God actually cared if your football team won the big game and you scored 3 touchdowns.

    But somehow I have to think that God really does demand the we dig deeper, ask the hard questions, and be prepared that the answer may not be in agreement with how the western “religious mainstream” interpret the bible.

    Thanks for the thought provoking thread.

    Reply

  38. amber

    okay. let me explain something to you to answer your 6th paragraph statement. God gives all of us humans a free will. point blank. slavery was condoned and regulated for example because of humans wish to do so. God’s law was not intended for us to use slavery in such a manner but of course us being the great humans we are had to disobey his law. which is why you will find in most of the bible stories we were condemned in the first place, because of disobedience. Its like our parents. they set down rules for us to follow but if we dont obey them there will be consequences. but whatever God does he’s just in whatever he does because he is all knowing and bc we are HIS creation. however, of course none of what i said will be recieved by you if you dont believe in or have faith in God in the first place which it sounds to me like you dont.

    Reply

  39. amber

    oh yea. and another thing…john thinks he’s educated but he is totally ignorant. i can rebut ANY attack he tries to make against the bible. if you have a question john or some kind of misunderstanding of how these biblical things work, please feel free to contact me at any time at: music-peace-love@hotmail.com

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I am puzzled — though honestly not surprised — why you think I am attacking the Bible. Is it truly an attack to state that I think that some things are more instructive taken allegorically instead of literally, or that the question of literalness is really moot and standing in the way of progress? To state that there were many sources available, some of them incomplete, sometimes different?

    If you take everything in the OT as literal, how can you conclude anything but a vengeful God that would turn a person into a pillar of salt? I think it is only by letting go of the literal interpretation and digging into the story that it becomes truly meaningful and instructive.

    Reply

  40. Daniel Lyons

    John,

    Please forgive me for responding a year late, and also for not reading all of the earlier discussion. Your retrospective on 2010 posted late Jan. 2011 pointed to this, and this is an area in which I have an opinion and feel inclined to share.

    I hope and expect your mythological reading of the Bible bore fruit. You don’t really say one way or another in your retrospective. As a convert to Judaism, I think you’re right on the money. In fact, let me recommend the book “How to Read the Jewish Bible” by Marc Zvi Brettler for exactly this analysis. Brettler’s premise is that the Bible is a collection of many different kinds of literature. Some of it is historical, some poetic, some obviously fiction, allegory or fable. His method is to discuss different books or passages in the context of their genre, based mainly on historical or linguistic analysis of the text. I think this gets one a lot further than starting with the conclusion (“this is an inerrant text”) and trying to arrive at first principles (“G-d is infinitely good”).

    My own feelings are that there is less of a contradiction between Hebrew and Christian G-ds than you see (or saw?). The Jewish perspective on the Torah is that it is really the history of our relationship with G-d, and that G-d has personality traits and you clearly see evolution and growth on both sides of that relationship. I think many of the problems you are seeing arise from the dichotomy between Greek and Hebraic world views. Thinking of G-d in terms of philosophical absolutes like omniscience, omnibenevolence and omnipottence is certainly a foreign mind set to that of the authors of the Hebrew Bible. However, these ideas arrive with Christianity and neoplatonism. Growing up in the West, we all absorb this world view to a lesser or greater extent.

    I think it would be fruitful for Christians to be mindful of the Greek framing of their revelation when doing a close analysis on the Hebrew revelation, and cut the Hebrew a little slack for having different priorities. Working out the contradictions wasn’t as high a priority for my ancestors as narrating the history of the relationship and its growing pains. There are also a greater diversity of authors, genres, styles and preoccupations in the Hebrew Bible, simply because it was cobbled together from a wider number of sources over a wide area and a longer period of time. We are more distantly removed from them in time and mindset, and have more trouble discovering their intentions.

    Anyway, I hope you don’t mind one more comment on this most interesting of topics, and I appreciate your leaving this post open for comments for so long. All the best!

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hi Daniel,

    I much appreciate the detailed comment and perspective. I particularly find the perspective of finding “evolution and growth on both sides of the relationship” to be particularly thought-provoking.

    Due to various events, and in particular my interest in amateur radio and reading of War and Peace, I haven’t yet delved into this project as I had intended. Hopefully this year.

    Reply

  41. Tb

    Hello John,

    The Bible should be read carefully as it is pretty tough.
    We have the Holy Fathers that fought for a few hundred years to explain the Bible to the people who were not monks or preasts.
    Now a few more centuries later we have their writings along with the advice we can get from the people who choose to live their life fully dedicated to Hrist.

    The Exodus can have many meanings, the literal one – the historical story and a more profound one.

    About the profound, spiritual meanings, one of the saints in the 4th centry wrote a book.
    This book is called „The live of Moses”.
    It is written by the Saint Gregory of Nyssa.
    A little about him you can learn from here:
    http://en.orthodoxwiki.org/Gregory_of_Nyssa
    And the book, translated in english you can find it in here:
    http://www.orthodoxbookstore.org/gregoryofnyssa-thelifeofmoses.aspx

    Anyway, if you are trully curious about what Cristianity truly is, visit for at least a week the Holy Mountain Athos in Greece.

    May God be with the.

    Reply

  42. Andy Whiddon

    For years as an agnostic I did not have the diplomacy or politeness you expressed to even believe that Genesis 1 was a myth or mystical — I just saw it as a fairytale and lie. Recently, I wrote a paper entitled “Is Genesis 1 Believable?” I will be glad to send it to you for consideration (Word doc. File). Thank you for your open mindedness to consider a new viewpoint.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Sure, by all means send it along. I’d be happy to have a conversation.

    Reply

    Andy Whiddon Reply:

    Did you receive (sent yesterday) as copy-pasted from Word — text might have exceeded limits or maybe I got the two-word code wrong. If need be, I will resend. It would be best to send Word doc file via regular email, but do not believe possible with blog. Please stick with me — I sincerely believe my paper will be of interest and value and I look forward to a dialogue with you about a potential very important worldview.Thanks

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    No, didn’t see anything yet.

  43. Lauren

    Hi, I realize this article is quite old, but I am researching for a paper on Greece and the Old Testament and I came across your article.
    I cannot help but clarify a little of what I, as a Christian, believe.
    The entire Bible is true.
    Every word, from Genesis to Revelation is true. Yes, there are literary devices used just like any other work made at that time, but it is all true.
    I as a Christian believe in a holy God. You pointed out that you did not understand why a loving God would turn someone into a pillar of salt. It was because of her disobedience. He told her not to look back at the burning city, but she did. So many times, people take just bits and pieces of the Bible without taking it in the entire context. Yes, God is a majestic, wonderful, loving God, but He is also a perfectly holy God. He cannot tolerate sin because sin is not of Him.
    No, we cannot expect to understand every bit of Who God is because He created us; He is perfect and we live in a fallen, sinful world.
    If we understood and could comprehend every bit of who God is, than we would share equivalence with God (which we do not).
    Everything good comes from God; every single good and perfect and pleasurable thing comes from Him. (That is not to say that everything that makes you feel good is morally acceptable. What I mean is that the origin of everything good and pleasurable comes from something that God made for our enjoyment. Man, who is sinful, has taken many of the things that God created for His glory and our pleasure and turned it into something perverted and wrong.)
    Every single thing that I believe is based upon the Bible.
    “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” 2 Timothy 3:16
    Whenever anyone starts discounting even a single word in scripture, or claims it as a fable, the whole foundation will crumble.
    If you discount the book of Genesis, or take out any portion of the Bible and claim it as a myth, than there is no reason for not taking out more and more of it.
    The Bible cannot be pieced together to make a religion that is comfortable for us.
    Think of the laws of gravity, if we decide that we think that we should be able to fly so we jump out a tree, the laws of gravity are not going to change just because we believe they should.
    It is the same way with God. God is the objective standard by which we measure morality and truth. If we look to anything other than that (i.e. human standards), morality and truth is no longer objective. It is now susceptible to change; and whenever morality is susceptible to change, there is nothing stopping anyone from making their own laws.
    Think of slavery: it was once highly accepted by the worlds majority, but it is now viewed as wrong (and it is wrong).
    My point it, man cannot piece together or decide for himself what he deems true, because man has the possibility of error, whereas a holy God does not.

    Please do not think I am being rude; I wanted to tell you because I care.
    I just have a passion for people to know the truth.
    There is so much peace and true joy found in Jesus. It is not a religion; it is a relationship.
    I hope this made a little sense, and I was not just rambling on. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to talk some more.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    It makes one wonder a bit when you say nobody can discount even a “single word” in scripture. We don’t have the original words for some of it. And most of us work with translations.

    I do not think that I discount something by claiming it is a myth. I elevate it. In what sense are things true? Do we understand the parables to be literally true, or a metaphorical device? If the latter, why is it positive to ascribe such a belief to that portion of the New Testament but not to portions of the Old?

    Morality has been subject to change even in the Bible. Did not the Ten Commandments mean change? How about the early Christians accepting gentiles into their churches, even if they didn’t follow Jewish cleanliness rules?

    I do not think my God is a murderer. I know my God to be a loving God, and turning someone into a pillar of salt cannot be justified as a loving or merciful act. Therefore, there must be something in how we read or understand those words that needs to adjust.

    Frankly it seems to me that clinging to a literal interpretation of Genesis robs it of its truth.

    Reply

    Lauren Reply:

    Claiming something as a myth does discount it. You say that you elevate the Bible as a myth, but would not it be worthy of even more awe-inspiring and worthy of praise if those amazing accounts recorded in the Bible were true?
    The Old Testament laws and regulations have because they were not meant to be permanent, they were the placeholder for Jesus. If you remember, when Jesus died on the cross, the Curtain in the temple separating the people from the Holy of Holies was torn in two. He was the fulfillment of over 300 prophecies that Jesus fulfilled in His coming. He expanded the family of God to more than just the Jews. The Jews accepting Gentiles into the Church is not an issue of morality. It was an issue of custom and culture.
    And that was prophesied about as well. “I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” Hosea 2:23

    The parables in the New Testament are exactly that: earthly stories that Jesus used to communicate a heavenly meaning. He did it so that we could understand what He was talking about.
    God is a loving God and He is not a murderer
    If accusing the God of the Bible as murder, first you must define murder: the unlawful premeditated killing of a human being.
    There are consequences of our actions. Do you discipline your children when they do wrong? Do you expect people to go to jail when they break the law?
    Lot’s wife violated God’s law that He had set. Do you think that God took pleasure in punishing her? Do you enjoy punishing your children; do you still love them? Punishing you does NOT make you a bad father. It trains your children in the way they should go, which is exactly what God does to us. Like I mentioned earlier; God is a holy God; He is completely pure and perfect.
    The Ten Commandments have not changed; which ones are you referring to?

    Reply

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