The Bible Offers a Bigger Kind of Truth
Last week I offered four reasons not to read the Bible literally. But what’s the alternative? I mean, isn’t reading it literally taking the Bible at face value, taking it most seriously?
Actually, I’m not sure it is, and in this post I want to begin to offer an alternative. To do so, we need to begin with just a little bit of history.
Many of our categories for thinking about truth in relation to facts developed about three and a half centuries ago, but were relatively unknown to biblical authors. You see, disillusioned by the religious fervor that fed the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the early architects of what would later be called the Enlightenment demanded that all claims about the natural world be verified by the exercise of human reason rather than dogmatic pronouncement. In doing so, they distinguished between values – things one may believe but can’t prove – and facts – things one can and therefore should prove. For these early modernists, both values and facts represented truth claims, but each of a different order. Over time, however, rationally verified facts – and the scientific method to which they led – became so productive and influential that it wasn’t all that long until notions of truth became associated almost exclusively with facts.
This preference for facts over values created a crisis for many religious traditions during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as biblical scholars, embracing the rational-critical methods of scientific, historical, and archeological study, realized that many of the descriptions and claims of the Bible did not withstand critical scrutiny. The sun, as it turned out, did not revolve around the earth, and the world was not created in seven days. Moreover, it became apparent that not only did the Bible provide unreliable historical and scientific information but the biblical writers also often contradicted each other. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, for instance, Jesus drives the money changers from the Temple in Jerusalem shortly before his crucifixion and dies on Passover. In contrast, according to John, Jesus clears the Temple at the beginning of his ministry and is crucified on the day before Passover.
The dubious nature of biblical “history” and “science” and the multiple discrepancies among the four evangelists led to a great schism in Christianity, each side assuming that truth is equated unequivocally with facts. On the liberal side of the divide, scholars concluded that because the Bible was not factually accurate it was in a profound sense not true. Witness, for instance, Bart Ehrman’s recent post on who wrote the Bible (and, for that matter, his entire literary career). Conservatives, on the other hand, asserting that the Bible was obviously true, concluded that it therefore must be factually accurate. Hence, they have written tomes that rival the Bible itself in length that engage in intellectual gymnastics in order to iron out all the “so-called” discrepancies in Scripture.
Both sides, however, miss the literary nature and intent of the Bible as stated within its own pages. Take for example Luke, who in his introduction acknowledges that he is not an eye-witness to the events he recounts but depends on multiple other stories about Jesus. He writes what he calls “an orderly account” so that his audience may believe and trust the teaching they have received (Luke 1:1-4). Or consider John, who near the end of his gospel comes clean about carefully arranging stories of Jesus so as to persuade his readers that Jesus is the messiah (John 20:30-31). The gospels – and, indeed, all of Scripture – do not seek to prove but to persuade. And so John, convinced that Jesus is “the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (1:29), portrays Jesus as clear the Temple of money changers at the very outset of his ministry because he, himself, is God’s sacrifice; similarly, Jesus dies on the Day of Preparation at the exact moment the Passover lambs are slaughtered. John’s aim is thoroughly theological, not historical.
For this reason, the Bible is filled with testimony, witness, confession, and even propaganda. Does it contain some reliable historical information? Of that there is little doubt. Yet whenever we stumble upon “verifiable facts” – a notion largely foreign to ancient writers – we should keep in mind that the biblical authors deployed them not to make a logical argument but rather to persuade their audiences of a larger “truth” that cannot be proved in a laboratory but is finally accepted or not accepted based on its ability to offer a compelling story about the meaning and purpose of the world, God, humanity, and everything in between. To attempt to determine whether the Bible is “true” based only on its factual accuracy is therefore to make a profound category mistake, judging its contents by standards its authors were neither cognizant of nor interested in.
By way of illustration, recall for a moment the scene from Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Pulp Fiction when the two main characters, Jules and Vincent, argue over how to explain what happened when a drug dealer unloaded his handgun at them at close range but missed them entirely. Vincent – played by John Travolta – believes it’s a freak occurrence. Jules – played by Samuel L. Jackson – considers it a miracle. Jules’ defense of his judgment bears closely on our discussion. In response to Vincent’s assertion that what happened didn’t qualify as physically “impossible” and therefore could not be considered miraculous, Jules says, “You’re judging this the wrong way. It’s not about what. It could be God stopped the bullets, he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found my…car keys. You don’t judge shit like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt God’s touch. God got involved.”
Jules’ sense of the criteria necessary to assess truth is far closer to that of the biblical writers than that of not only Vincent but also both contemporary liberals and conservatives alike, as he asserts that the ultimate criteria of truth isn’t factual accuracy but a compelling, even transformative witness. Clearly there are many ways to answer the question of whether the Bible is true. If you are interested primarily in its factual accuracy, then your options are clear and you might as well pick a side. If, however, you’re interested in a way out of the stalemate and false dichotomy of the present conservative-liberal debate, then you might join Jules in putting the matter differently. When you read the Bible, that is, do you feel God’s touch? Does God get involved?
Some might initially be disappointed by talking about truth in terms of how a story or incident affects you, but I think that, in a significant way, that kind of truth is much bigger, even more important, than factual truth. Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for facts when it comes to doing my taxes, fixing my car, or boiling water, but when it comes to the things that mean the most to me, facts fall as little short. So when comes to little things like the meaning of life, the power of love, the importance of faith and family, and our ultimate destiny, I’d ask how, exactly, are we supposed to “prove” these things. Do you see what I mean? When it comes to the things that really matter to us – that things that we call True (capital T!), not just merely factual – it seems that facts aren’t enough. Because these bigger, more important matters are things we can only confess, not prove. And that’s the kind of truth the Bible deals with: statements of faith of the things that truly matter, like the confession that “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” Can you prove that kind of statement in a laboratory or do justice describing it as a fact? Probably not. But can you confess that kind of truth, or more importatly, can you allow your whole life to be shaped by that kind of truth? Definitely. And that’s just the kind of truth I’m looking for when I read the Bible.
Note: This post was adapted from an earlier essay entitled “Is the Bible True?” published in The Huffington Post, April 1, 2011.