The past two years have been quite a ride for my theology, and I don’t really know where to begin. My own life has changed significantly in that time, having been through two relationships, graduated college, and moved, but that almost feels separate from what’s occupied my mind for most of this time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with scripture recently, which has always been true for me, but it’s different now.
For such a long time, reading the Bible was always a work of the Spirit for me.
It was wieghtless.
These words convey a sense of vulnerability, which is beautiful, but they can also be associated with something else:
I would read the Bible, and say to myself that this is the Truth of God, unbridled, unabashed, raw, and plain, being proud of all His deeds and the violent, magical realism of scripture. I was assured that my value for the text stemmed from knowing that all of these events happened.
At this time, it felt really good to read the Bible.
Now, reading the Bible feels a lot more like going to war.
And this isn’t a morally clear war either. I never really know if I’m on the right side.
Ironically enough, this kind of war can feel a bit Middle Eastern, if you know what I mean.
My educational background is English literature, which isn’t as poetic as it sounds. The process of literary criticism is one of intense research, evaluation, citation, debate, scholarship, typing long paragraphs, deleting them, and finally re-presenting someone else’s opinion, because sometimes forming your own is impossible. At the end of the day, a well done analysis can almost feel like a realization of faith.
And this belief in the science of literary criticism has given me a little insight into knowing what makes a book tick.
The thing within the thing, as Rob Bell likes to say.
I’ve learned a lot about the Bible recently (which is not just one book but many!), and there are days I wake up and wish I could unlearn some of it. Sometimes, I regret knowing what I do. And it’s really not possible to go through deconstruction without experiencing this kind of loss on the journey.
That said, while taking a more literary approach to scripture has stripped away swaths of literalism and comfort, it’s been directing me to view the mystical and fantastical pieces from new angles. Today, I feel the text is even more valid, powerful, cultivated, and true for me than ever before.
And truth is what it’s all about, right? It’s why we study religion. It’s why we follow Christ. The man labeled himself this way.
But as Ponitus Pilate so eloquently asked: “What is truth?”
And what are we talking about when we discuss the truth of scripture?
There’s a few different types of truth out there, all of them belonging to God of course, and we’ll need to unpack them in order to understand which kind the Bible is telling.
For now, let’s focus on two types of truth: historical, and capital T.
Historical truth is pretty self explanatory. It’s the stuff that happened. It’s journalism. It’s documentation of events by people who were there, or spoke to someone who was there.
The Bible unveils a healthy amount of historical truth, or at least I think it does. And for many people, the historical truth of the Bible creates meaning and hope.
When studying any literature, historical truth can be a powerful device for framing a text. It can also be a massive deterent from actual storytelling.
Capital T truth is transcendent. It goes beyond. It is what we discover in order to leap off the pages of our Bibles into faith. It is the backbone of any literature, not just what we read on Sundays.
Ernest Hemingway was all about the capital T truth, yet most of his writings were loosely autobiographical. He wrote from experience, yet we could never call his novels memoirs. He did, in fact, fight in wars, visit Pamplona, fish off the coast of Cuba, and hunt wild game in Africa, all experiences we read about in one story or another. But none of his characters go by Ernest. And despite how easy it is to place Hemingway in his own work, this is not the point.
Hemingway didn’t use his experiences to promote the retelling of his own life story. Instead, the inspiration taken from what he saw and did gave him a framework from which to discuss love, death, war, nature, and anything else relating to the human condition.
Whether or not he really did go to Cuba or join the army is beside the point, and writing a thesis on this would be redundant.
In many cases, the value in what we read doesn’t come soley from whether or not the events described really occurred. Sometimes, the reality of these events can take away from the capital T truth of a story, creating false paradigms.
Imagine the implications of a God who allows Satan to come before Him in Heaven and gamble on human lives. Imagine what it says about our Creator if He truly hardens the hearts of men in order to display his glory in plagues. And yet, these takeaways are often all we glean from scripture.
We miss the the ocean of Truth for a drop of history.
Instead of a God who is liable to destroy large swaths of people, what if we witnessed a God who comes to liberate the captive in bold and justice-oriented ways, illustrated in glorious symbolism and powerful imagery? We could allow the heart of the narrative to step into light, shedding away our emphasis on plot points for the sake of drama.
Jesus loved to speak in metaphors. He understood the power of storytelling, especially when the narratives were radical.
He would say things like, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Or, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” He would tell parables about people that don’t exist in order to illustrate his points. His followers would look at him like a crazy person, and maybe he was. But there was always something magnificient going on behind his words.
Scholarship tells us that the Gospels were written decades after Christ’s death, recorded by people who weren’t there. In fact, many of the books of the Bible were put to paper at times removed from the events themselves. How much of our theology hinges on secondary sources?
This is not to say that scripture is unreliable. The tradition of God’s holy texts is a foundation of multiple religions and cultures. What God has inspired, let no man call uninspired. But how we digest the Bible dictates our use or abuse of what God is saying, both now and over the whole of time. Scripture, like the Constitution or any important document, demands to be interpreted, dissected, discussed, and even loved. And being honest with what kind of truth we really find in its pages is an important step toward learning to love our Bibles more.
What if some of the stories didn’t actually happen, or were otherwise doctored for certain narrative goals? Does God’s Spirit still live in the text for you? Does his inspiration still come through the words, both red and black?
The holy scripture has called out to those who read it for thousands of years, and it has never once asked anyone to stand by literalism over mysticism. Instead, we are beckoned to action and faith.
Know that if you have ever doubted the events of scripture while still loving the message at the center, you are not alone. The conversation is vast, and there is much to be said of the literary, capital T truth that we are struck by after overcoming cheap literalism.