Last month, we started thinking about the different types of literature we find in the Bible. You can catch up on what we learned in a series of blog posts starting here. Last Sunday, we spent some time thinking about a couple of alternative approaches. Read on if you want to find out more.
And for those of you who were there on Sunday evening, the quotes I gave you came from this article. Even if you weren’t there, I think it’s worth a read.
When we first talked about genre, we acknowledged that there are some issues with the historicity of the Bible. It’s difficult to get away from the fact the Bible contains inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and while attempts have been made to reconcile them all, these involve some really contorted readings. It can be troubling to realise that Biblical literalism cannot be maintained without an exhausting degree of mental gymnastics, but I believe there are ways of understanding the Bible that don’t require us to turn a blind eye to its fallibility or reject it out of hand.
First up, I want to propose that the Bible might be better understood as myth. Before you spit your tea out or throw something at the screen, that doesn’t mean that I think it is pure fantasy. It means I believe that the Bible reveals deep and universal truths and finds its meaning in something more significant than simple historical accuracy. Neither does it mean that we must put the Bible on the same pegging as other mythologies. CS Lewis believed that Christianity was unique in being the true myth, and while I would follow Tolkien in suggesting that there is some truth in all myth, I would certainly declare that the Christian myth is uniquely truthful because it contains a unique truth in the person and life of Jesus.
If the biblical stories are intended to tell great truths, then maybe we can begin to understand the inconsistencies and the inaccuracies we find in them. The Israelites at the very least elaborated on their activities in Jericho because they believed God was building them into a great nation and that was the story they needed to tell, and the gospel writers place Jesus’ death on different days because they understood its relationship to the Passover to be a significant part of the story but understood that relationship differently.
Reading the Bible as myth helps us to understand these apparent errors as narrative techniques, and points us past them to the reason behind them. You may remember that I have used those examples before, as a way of talking about the way we approach history, but for me using the category of myth is more helpful and more positive, as it means recognising the Bible for what it is not apologising for what it is not.
It may also offer a sort of answer to a question that was raised in our first session on genre, about how we transition from a seemingly poetic account of creation to an apparently historical account of Israel, both of which we find in Genesis. Where does the poetry end and the history begin? It seems impossible to know, as the text itself doesn’t tell us, but if we see the entire narrative of Genesis as being aimed at establishing the nature of the relationship between God and the world, then perhaps it’s okay for us to answer the question by suggesting that those distinctions don’t really matter.
The idea that the Bible is not a straightforward textbook is not a new one. In fact, biblical inerrancy is a relatively late concept which came about as a kind of hardening of the religious position in response to the Enlightenment. But it can still be a difficult concept for us to get our heads around. The broadly evangelical church I grew up in had got as far as seeing the six days of creation as six ages, but I think there was a reluctance to extend that approach beyond the first few chapters of the Bible, because it felt like a slippery slope towards dividing the Bible into true and false.
However, the point of this approach isn’t to say this bit is fact and this bit is metaphor and this bit is just made up, and then to make a judgement value on that basis, although sometimes that will be important. The point is to suggest that the Bible is the story of the relationship between God and God’s people, as told by those people in the way that best captured the beauty and the mystery of their experience, and that its real meaning lies in what it says about the nature of God and the world and what it means to live in it.
I understand that the word ‘myth’ comes with a whole load of baggage that means some people may find it unhelpful as a way of talking about the Bible, but I hope the ideas behind it may still prove interesting and valuable. I’m still not sure it’s precisely the right word for what I want to say about the Bible, but I’ve used it here because it comes close and it’s provocative enough to challenge us and get us thinking.
What I’m really trying to suggest is that if we can set all other questions aside for a moment and read the Bible as a story, and let it fascinate and engage us as all good stories should, we might find ourselves moved and transformed, and perhaps even invigorated to get back to the nitty gritty of biblical scholarship.
We also looked at another alternative approach, but I’ll save that for another blog. And in case you’re wondering, the picture is because when I typed ‘myth’ and ‘bible’ into Google images, a variant on this was the first thing that come up and it amused me. That’s a good enough reason, right?