Stories depend for their effect on suspension of disbelief. A story is a conspiracy between storyteller and the audience. The best way of ruining a good story is to insist that it be read as history. You wouldn’t do that to the Wizard of Oz or the story of Cinderella, but if you are a biblical literalist, chances are you would do so to the stories of the Bible.
The problem that conservative Bible believers face is that they tend to believe that fiction, by definition, cannot be canonical unless it be prefaced by a “this is a story” disclaimer. You can, with great pleasure, read your way through the magic wardrobe and sit down to tea with a faun, but only in Narnia, not in Genesis. In the Garden of Eden, the fauns are real and God spends his evenings there on foot enjoying the breeze at the end of yet another blistering hot day in the Middle East.
By insisting that Genesis be read as literal history, its stories are ruined—just like the Chronicles of Narnia would be should Lewis enthusiasts begin building replicas of the famous wardrobe and post pictures of the “actual” children evacuated to the estate in question during the Blitz and insist that they really did pass through the winter coats into the land of Aslan and the White Witch. Not only would it ruin the story, it would marinate it in merriment and ridicule.
The same goes for the stories of the Bible. Skeptics like myself are not offended by those who believe that there is indeed a God and that God created the world. Nor are we offended by a talking serpent or Noah’s Ark or the story of warfare in Heaven. We get the fact that stories play—and have played an enormous role in human history. But we find it very difficult to be patient with those who insist that stories be parsed scientifically simply because they are found in religiously authoritative scriptures.
The logical problems of reading Noah’s Flood as an historical account from 2400 BCE of how a huge crate containing millions of species of living beings bobbed on the waves of a cataclysmic flood for 12 months are well known and need not be repeated here. But those who insist on its historical truth exact an intellectual tax on the audience that few people today are willing to pay. The same goes for the idea that the illustrious tower builders of Babel were so advanced that God worried that the structure might break through the firmament and invade Heaven itself. In Narnia the tower would have made sense, a symbol of human hubris, but to outsiders in the land of fundamentalism it comes across as an attempt at validating the worldview of Jack and the Beanstalk.
And I might add to the sins of these literary iconoclasts the shooting down of the Great Controversy story, so cherished by Jews and Christians in ages past. By turning this mythological story into history you end you up with a logical tangle—and a theological—monstrosity, a ludicrous account of angels so infernally dumb as to think that they could rid the universe of its creator and plot against the very being that sustained their every breath. In the SdA world, where the story, as embellished by Ellen G. White, is put forward as an explanation of theodicy, for why God does not interfere in the affairs of humans, you are supposed to believe that the angels and other inhabitants of the universe who chose not to take part in the putsch against the Almighty, still are so morally and intellectually obtuse that after thousands of years in the cosmic bleachers they are not convinced that God is good and that Satan is evil. As a result, God—out of concern for his moral credibility, has to leave humanity marinated in suffering for maybe another eternity in the hope that the culpably dumb come to realize what humans have no problem grasping. Suffering is of course an enormous problem to come to terms with for those who believe that God is both Almighty and good, but surely there are better ways of advocating for his inactivity than reading this story literally.
For that is the strange thing: literalists are selective about which stories are to be read as history and which ones are be left alone to serve as inspiration and metaphor. Behemoth and Leviathan are left to their mythological fortunes, as are the Nephilim of Genesis 6 and the angels in chains awaiting the day of judgment (2 Peter and Jude). And might I add, all the dead people who tumbled out of their graves at the resurrection of Jesus in Matthew 27 and who were never heard from again, in spite of their enormous potential as witness for the validity of the new faith.
There are real stumbling blocks to faith, as Paul explained in his first letter to the Corinthians. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to focus on them—if cognitive faith must be a priority--rather than insisting that every wardrobe in the Bible was made out of wood and lined with winter coats?
Set the stories free.
Aage Rendalen is a retired foreign language teacher who has served the Richmond Public School system in Virginia and is a frequent participant in conversations on SpectrumMagazine.org.
Image: The Downfall of Adam and Eve and their Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
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