Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Taking it Seriously...but Not Literally

There's a story my grandpa tells about his childhood. I've heard it all my life. Although I don't remember all the details of how he tells it, it is a story that has captured the attention of our family.

The story's climax comes as my grandpa (then just a boy) has fallen in a hole in a tree where he discovered some young bear cubs. Before he had a chance to get out, he looks up to discover the mama bear returning to her young. As she eased her way back into their habitat, grandpa knew he had only one chance to get out. Pulling his pocket knife out (every good country boy had a posket knife!), in one single moment he both grabbed hold of her tail with one hand while sticking her in the rear with the knife he held in the other hand. She yowled and leapt from the hole, bringing with her my grandpa who quickly ran home.

Ask anyone in my family, they know the story...it is part of our family fabric. And we all believe it. But trust me when I say this is a story that we take seriously, not literally. I'm in no way convinced that my grandpa had an actual encounter with an actual bear. But I do know that the story represents his childhood - a time of adventure, regular encounters with nature, discoveries about himself and the world around him.

It's funny to me how easily people can accept the Truth in stories, especially family stories or our own stories, even when we know they are not factually true, while often struggling to do this with scripture.

Somewhere in recent centuries a phenomenon has arisen in which people have begun to insist that the Bible be taken literally. What's interesting to me is that if you know much about early, storytelling cultures, you know that stories were often told for Truth (notice the capital "T") not for truth (when I use a small "t" that indicates provable, fact). It is doubtful that those who wrote down the stories and letters that have become our Bible thought they were writing history (and they certainly didn't think they were writing scripture). Instead, they likely thought they were recording stories of the community of faith, stories to guide future generations as they sought to live faithfully, stories to remind people of God's faithfulness and encourage their own faithfulness.

It's also interesting to me that the idea of truth (provable fact) is really a development of science, not religion. It's really something that in the big picture of humanity is a new idea - only around for the last several generations.

Obviously, I'm an advocate of taking the Bible seriously while not taking it literally (thanks to Marcus Borg for this phrase and a new friend for recently reminding me of it). I'm an advocate of seeking the Truth - the big picture message about God - rather than arguing over the truth - things like whether Noah actually built an ark to those measurements.

The Bible is an amazing book. Unfortunately it's also been used as a destructive weapon. All I know is that when I read it seeking truth I meet a loving God who cannot give up on humanity because we are part of God's own self. I meet a God who longs for us and remains faithful to us against some incredibly difficult odds (often of our own invention). I meet a God who chooses us time and time again and who hopes that we will choose in return.

While you're thinking about these things...take a look at Rachel Held Evans' rules of engagement for having conversation about the Bible. She makes some really good points!


Leah said...

"When I read it seeking truth I meet a loving God"

Love that!

I think what we get from any text depends more on what we bring to it than the text itself.

This Heavenly Life said...

I grew up not ever knowing there was a difference between what was told to make a point (with embellishments or drama added to catch our memory) and what was told as undeniable truth. It's led to me being very literal (trusting?), and I've had to re-learn that the Bible wasn't necessarily written down with the intentions I always thought it was.

I love knowing, now, that circumstances and cultural history and so many other things added to the meaning of the Bible when it was written. I love knowing that there's more to the story than what people say about God. I love knowing that what GOD says about God may be a different thing entirely than what's been presented and interpreted and fed to me through the years.

(And I love you!)

Hyacynth said...

I agree that when I read the Bible, I find a loving God.
Although, I do take the Bible literally. And I still find a loving God. A loving God that I don't always understand often because of the context in which the scene played out, but nonetheless a loving God.