Any preacher teaching spiritual truths can find within his own popular culture things that the people can relate to. Preachers do this every Sunday when they…use the mythology of [their] day… We never accuse our pastors of being liars for doing this yet I’ve heard bible teachers tell me Jesus and Paul would never use myths to teach truth because they’re too honest to use lies in their teaching.
What does it take to get feuding families to be reconciled? Does it take the loss of prestige and power on both sides? Does it take someone’s death, like the tragic death of two secret lovers from both families, like we see with Romeo and Juliet? Does it take joint subjugation by a third force, so the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Or can it be done with dignity and civility?
Do you see what I just did there?
I was beginning a teaching about peaceful conflict resolution and made reference to a fictional story as if it had actually happened. Or so it might seem to someone who wasn’t aware that Romeo and Juliet never existed. I didn’t have to point out that they never existed to you because I knew that you knew that Romeo and Juliet were fictional characters created by Shakespeare. Well OK so maybe you slept through English Lit. class and didn’t remember it was Shakespeare but you knew it was drama and not history, right?
People tend to get their bonnets in a bunch when anyone suggests that the creation narrative in Genesis is fiction, or to use a theological term, when anyone suggests that it is allegorical. The immediate reaction is, “How can this be? Are you saying the bible isn’t true? Don’t you believe in the bible? Oh, so you don’t like what you read so you just go and make it allegorical. How convenient.”
Comments like these are intended to show several things about those who suggest Genesis wasn’t meant to be taken literally:
- They are intellectually dishonest, ignorant, or brainwashed by modern thinking.
- They are not spiritual because spiritual people who love God just accept God’s Word as is without editing.
- They are humanists who don’t put God at the center of their lives but rely on their own thinking.
- They are Smorgasbord Christians, ones who pick and choose what they want to believe.
- They don’t have faith that God can do what the bible says he did.
- They are out to destroy the faith of every true bible-believing Christian.
The hardest part for some Christians is they don’t see any indication in Genesis that it’s supposed to be taken as allegory, even though a talking snake, trees of life and the knowledge of good and evil, and encouragement for a man to leave his parents, unite with a woman, and become one flesh because they started as one flesh, certainly make it all sound rather allegorical if you don’t come at it with preconceived biases. Furthermore, some conclude that when Jesus and the bible authors refer to events in the first few chapters in Genesis they accept it as historical fact, so we should too. Or so it seems.
Good Teachers Have Always Drawn from their Society for their Lessons
Have you ever heard a sermon where a pastor draws from what the people are familiar with to illustrate a point he is trying to make, such as from a popular TV series, football playoffs, or world events? If he’s developing a ministry team he might be talking about believing in your teammates who have failed you like Russell Wilson believed in Jermaine Kearse enough to throw a long pass to him in the end-zone in overtime to clinch the NFC title and a trip to the Super Bowl, even after Kearse muffed four catches that ended up getting intercepted and helped put the Seahawks in the hole by 16 points. Your pastor wouldn’t have to say all of that, all he has to say is, “Even if your fellow team-mate messes up, believe in him like Russell Wilson in overtime believed in Jermaine Kearse and see what God will do.” He doesn’t need to explain anything if his church is in the Pacific Northwest and he’s teaching a leadership class the Monday after that game. He knows his audience knows what he’s talking about. Everybody either watched the game or heard about the “miracle” comeback victory over the Packers that took only the last 3 minutes of game time.
In 1986 President Ronald Reagan quipped that “the Force is with us.” Did he have to explain what he was talking about? No, Star Wars was all the rage at the time, but if someone from a society in Africa 3000 years from now got ahold of the transcript of that speech he might not know Reagan was making a reference to a science fiction movie. He might conclude Reagan was into some kind of New Age religion instead of being a Christian. Or that he had some sort of secret weapon. If a presidential scholar were to tell that person that Reagan didn’t really believe this Force existed he might read the transcript again and reply confidently that Reagan certainly was talking about an actual Force as if it were a fact of life since Reagan didn’t say anything to indicate he was referring to a popular “fable” of his time or a new weapon of mass destruction. He wouldn’t get it because he wouldn’t know anything about 20th century American culture.
What if your pastor wanted to preach a sermon about how President Reagan was being more like the Sith than a Jedi, how the Force is the object of Jedi contemplation in such a way that the Jedi learn to focus on that which is other than themselves. What if he wanted to make a point that the Force provides rich potential for resisting the self-seeking competitiveness that becomes so destructive of others (‘the dark-side’, the way of the Sith), indicating instead the virtue of life-affirming agency in, with, and for the flourishing of the shared life of all things and that the Force-conscious Jedi play the role of galactic guardians and (in theory at least) live in relations of healthy and non-exploitative interdependency. It is they who represent peace and justice in the Republic. So when President Reagan claimed that “the Force is with us” he was actually perverting Star Wars’ self-dispossessing (or other-focused) ethos. The blessing “May the Force be with you” is the expression of a hope for others, not a possessive assertion for ourselves. Reagan’s rhetoric, not being the way of the Jedi but like the way of the Sith, is out of kilter with the moral demands of the Force. It is an expression of the “dark side of the Force” that is, as George Lucas explains, “like a huge cancer, alive, festering as a symptom and symbol of a very sick society.” And what if your pastor made all of these points without referring to the name of the movie so someone 3000 years later would know he’s drawing from a 20th century “fable”? How many pastors preaching a sermon like this are even thinking about what it’s going to sound like 3000 years later?
Do you see how much spiritual truth can be drawn from an epic fable? This one is packed full of spiritual truth, at least for us nerds willing to dig it out. John McDowell, Meldrum Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Edinburgh, has written a whole book on this one called Star Wars: Faith, Hope and the Force. Does a story have to be true for someone like Ronald Reagan or your pastor to use it to teach truth?
If not then why would Jesus and his apostles have to use true stories?
We All Already Believe Jesus Uses Fiction to Teach Truth
You already believe in spiritual teaching from fables. Have you ever read a parable in any of the four Gospels in the New Testament? A parable is a particular kind of “short fable” used for teaching purposes. Jesus used them a lot to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven, starting many of them with, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” In one of them, the Parable of the Ten Virgins, five foolish virgins missed a wedding because they ran out of oil in their lamps and had to go out and buy some more while the five wise virgins were prepared for the wait and were present when the groom called them in. Did any of us who have read that parable think that such a wedding ever actually happened or need to have happened for Jesus to be able to tell that story? What if Jesus had been to a wedding that sort of happened liked that but he embellished the story to make it more interesting or to include symbolic meaning in the numbers of five and ten when there were in reality there were four and eight? Should those details make any difference to us?
If we don’t believe that what happened in a parable has to be historically true for Jesus to teach us something using a parable why do we insist the creation narrative in Genesis has to be not only historically true but scientifically true?
Accepting Allegory will Help our Faith, Not Hinder It
If we don’t have to understand Genesis literally then we don’t have to make sure our kids understand and believe Creation Science, or find them a Christian school that teaches it, and we don’t have to fear them going off to college and learning about evolution or an old earth and having a faith crisis trying to figure out which to believe in, the bible or science. They can believe in both because their understanding of the bible allows for allegory even where the bible doesn’t specifically clue us in that it’s allegory like some bible teachers insist. Our kids can go to college and learn about science and be free to accept it or reject it on its own merits. It simply won’t make any difference to their faith whether they agree with science or not and we won’t be putting them into that thorny position of deciding between science and “faith.”
If our kids should go to college and learn that the ancient Babylonian creation narratives that pre-dated Genesis also include man being created from the dirt he won’t be tempted to think that our Christianity is just a copycat religion and is just as much mythology as any other ancient pagan religion. If he understands that Jesus and the Jews before him borrowed some themes from pagan fables, taking what spiritual truth there was to be taken from them, and expanded on them to show insight into how God was taking people (Jews included) beyond those pagan ideas into a better understanding of God. Seeing similarities between the lamb sacrifices of the Mosaic covenant and the pagan animal sacrifices before that and then seeing how many ways the sacrifice of Christ is qualitatively better will build faith whether he thinks God actually instituted lamb sacrifices in the first place or not. Seeing allegory in stead of actual history in Genesis is a faith building exercise and actually makes our faith less pagan because we understand and appreciate what those pagan practices were meant to point to without the need for them to have actually happened, just like we can learn from Star Wars because we get to the point of it, not dwell on the historicity of it.
Literalism Leads to Wierdness
One of the weirdest doctrines to ever be widely accepted in Christian churches is the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) for the unsaved. It’s a doctrine that has caused thinking Christians to wonder what kind of a God they are following and has given many who are antagonistic toward the Christian faith a good reason to be so.
When people try to defend this doctrine as being “biblical” they inevitably go to two places. One is the book of Revelation with its bewildering array of symbols about which no two Christians will ever agree what they all mean (assuming they even believe the book has anything to say about the afterlife – i.e., that the “smoke of their torment which rises forever” has anything to do with life after death). The other place is the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man where a beggar who just wanted the crumbs from a rich man’s table ends up in Abraham’s Bosom (whatever that is) and the rich man, after he is buried, ends up some place (it never really says where) and is tormented in flames of fire and begs Abraham to send Lazarus to give him some water (as if that’s even possible) and go to his brothers and warn them about this awful place, and how to avoid it. To this Abraham says they have Moses and the Prophets to warn him so if they won’t listen to them they won’t listen to Lazarus even if he rises from the dead.
With any parable we shouldn’t make too much out of the details of the story, that is, create doctrine from those details, since they are just “filler” to make it a story. Since that story doesn’t have the same structure as the other parables some preachers say it isn’t a parable at all which gives people all the more reason to key in on the details thinking that it’s just straight up teaching about the afterlife when in reality Jesus uses this story to reinforce what Moses and the Prophets had already taught them regarding wealth.
That story doesn’t sound like a parable because it isn’t. It’s a fable, according to some scholars, or at least draws from Jewish fables that had developed from an Egyptian folk tale about Si-Osiris that the Jews learned about during their exile in Egypt. The point of the story was to warn the godless wealthy about their need for repentance in this life and never was intended by Jesus to give a preview of life after death, as it’s commonly interpreted in the West (Eastern Orthodox look at it differently). It wasn’t given to us like it’s Fodor’s Guide to the Underworld so people would know what to expect after they die. Like some other teachings in the bible, it was given so worldly wealth is put into perspective and used for godly and not selfish purposes. If you try to get more out of this story than what Jesus intended you actually risk introducing ancient Egyptian paganism into your theology, something Jesus’ original audience would have (or at least should have) been keen to avoid.
What’s at the Bottom of this Slippery Slope is What We Want to See
Many people worry that if we go down this slippery slope of seeing things in the bible as allegory we might find something we don’t like and make it allegorical just because we “don’t like it,” and if we keep doing this long enough we will at best become dead, faithless liberals (as if all liberals are dead) or at worst start denying miracles, end up with our own version of the Jefferson Bible, not believe in the resurrection, and end up in hell forever.
I see at least six major problems with this fear:
- It’s fear, not faith.
- It’s self-deception.
- It basically says the Holy Spirit can’t guide us unless we become literalists.
- It assumes our salvation depends on believing certain doctrines that can only be believed if we are literalists.
- It assumes one position is the truth before we’ve taken any effort to understand the other position so we don’t make any effort to understand the other position (or we spend more effort in trying to refute it than we do in trying to understand it).
- It doesn’t allow us to read our bibles the way Jesus read his bible.
Just think, what if we saw Lazarus and the Rich Man as a fable, and the symbolic book of Revelation as symbolic of life on earth instead of literalistic teaching about life after death, and understood terms such as “eternal damnation” as a judgment of death that lasts forever rather than a process of eternal conscious torment? Our “slippery slope” might take us down to a pleasant, God-honoring valley where we don’t make God out to be an evil, sadistic monster who tortures people forever for the slightest sin. Fewer people rejecting our faith because it sounds like a medieval fairy tale will be a bonus feature in this valley.
In our efforts to reject the existence of epic myths in the bible we have actually made our whole faith a medieval fairy tale like Dante’s Inferno which is closer to what the majority of Evangelical churches teach about Hell than what the bible actually has to say about it. Once we start accepting that there are epic myths in our bibles our religion will look less like one to the casual observer and if we are honest it will look less like one to ourselves.
Understanding the Fables in the Bible Will Help Us to be More Like Jesus
Accepting the presence of myths in our bibles as teaching tools for Jesus and his apostles will enable us to make use of the moral compass he has given us as men, made all the more accurate by the work of the Holy Spirit to guide us into truth, rather than have to ignore God in order to justify the unjustifiable, such as thinking God orders people to slaughter whole villages by the edge of the sword, just like Boca Haram thinks God is telling them to do currently in Africa.
Another way to put all of this is any preacher teaching spiritual truths can find within his own popular culture things that the people can relate to. Preachers do this every Sunday when they give examples from their own lives of what it is they are trying to teach others to do. That’s a form of a parable, an illustration “thrown down alongside” (para – alongside + bolay – to cast), to help the audience understand. A preacher may use actual history such as what happened to him during the week or what happened in the playoffs, or he may use the mythology of his day, such as Romeo and Juliet or Star Wars. We never accuse our pastors of being liars for doing this yet I’ve heard bible teachers tell me Jesus and Paul would never use myths to teach truth because they’re too honest to use lies in their teaching.
I think they are kind of missing the point.