Viewpoint: How to Ruin a Good Story

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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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7792
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For an intelligent counter-argument, especially when it comes to the “Great Controversy” theme, you should read Sigve Tonstad’s book, God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense. He traces the history of the story back to Origin (b. 180 CE), who described it as an accepted understanding of the origin of evil in the second century.

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Barth famously said the best theology proves itself.

I’ve always hoped that would be the direction Adventism would ultimately go.

Realistically, I suppose that would have to happen after Adventism burns itself out on its hyper-mentalism.

But, paradoxically, it seems like some of the elements are in place which could germinate a grounded social and spiritual outlook after Adventism is forced, kicking and screaming, back down on a burned-over terra firma.

I dream.

But I was encouraged to see David R. Larson’s November 25 Facebook post which starts out:

Thelogical wares are often the foaming bubbles atop deep and dangerous psychological currents.

I don’t think he exaggerates, and unless we take developmental issues seriously, the religious undertow can only become more lethal, it seems to me.

Happily, he was promoting a lecture by D. Graham Stacey on bringing a developmental perspective to inform our religious thinking.

The way we read our stories is just the foam atop the deep psychological currents, and the way we read faithfully maps our psychological terrain, it seems to me.

Can we bring in a developmental perspective and use it ethically, and not as a bludgeon?

If so, I think we’ll see our stories, and the way we read them, organically mature over time.

I’m encouraged.

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Why do most readers of stories, of which there are hundreds of very ancients, accept that they are based on human imagination: Jack and the Beanstalk; Aesop’s Fables: Cinderalla; and so many more that have been adopted by many different cultures? Is it not because they allow us to realize that morals are often conveyed much better through stories than those which are only based on actual events experienced by humans?

Even Jesus used stories as much more effective than literal. All readers of the Bible find many such illustrations that hits home in the most effective way.

But why do many Christians only accept that most of the hundreds of stories found in the Bible are only factual and actually occurred as described? All cultures have treasured their own stories that often explain their origins; yet for Christians insisting that all are based on facts demands they are no more different than to the three talking bears who replied to Goldilocks.

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faith and doubt resist challenge. Ones comfortable in their faith whil another is satisfied their doubt. So I stand with Paul. Jesus found us, thanks be to God.TZ

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The Bible’s “stories” contain the names of people and their genealogies, complete with ages/timelines, which can be followed right through to Jesus’ day. There is a watertight timeline there which indicates they are not mythology or fables but history.

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That’s mighty generous of you. That’s the insightful commentary I have come to expect to be published on Spectrum.

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Just a small hint: The genealogies themselves are part of the myth…

Indeed, and as Bishop Ussher determined (the maths is pretty elementary after all), this places the fall and the expulsion from Eden at 4004 BC, give or take a year. But not even the majority of Young Earth Creationists believe the world is a mere 6,020 years old - they prefer instead a figure of eight to ten thousand years because even they acknowledge there is irrefutable evidence of human life going back seven thousand years or more. (Of course I would submit there’s irrefutable evidence of human life going back much further than that, but I’m talking here of evidence that is so strong that not even the majority of YEC adherents dispute it.)

So when is the “literal” story no longer literal? When a “son” in the genealogies is really a grand-son or great grand-son (with corresponding additions to the mathematical timeline)? When a “flood that covered the whole world” was really a local event, but significant enough to devastate an entire region? When the “six days of creation” is a literary device to describe how God, in orderly fashion, created the heavens, the sky, the land and the sea, then created the heavenly bodies, the birds, the fish, the animals and man as the inhabitants thereof?

If you insist on “literal” you have no wiggle room. Once you acknowledge that some things are obviously not literal, then at no point can you arbitrarily insist that “x thing” must still be literal.

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None of us comes to be a cognizant human being with a developed, mature, and ultimately, enlightened concepts of anything, including the universe and God. All people, at all times, begin from the same place. What we end up thinking and believing depends on who educates us. Presumably, education itself is gradually developing and coming closer and closer to what we like to call REALITY; but the development of education also depends on who is developing it. By “education” I mean “knowledge” in various fields, including religious belief, placed into context.

“Churched” people end up carrying the beliefs of their faith along with them from generation to generation - unless new information changes belief. Generally, education welcomes new information that propels us forward in technology, medicine, agriculture etc.- all disciplines except religion. New information that leads to new religious knowledge is called apostasy. Somehow, the religious establishment can’t conceive of growth and development of information that might change religious concepts. Here, all faith is placed on the centuries before Christ’s birth, to inform us of all irrefutable truth, including truth about the Creator of the universe. They must have been exceptional geniuses - much more holy and dependable in their tents.

It’s true, I believe, that “there is nothing new, under the sun” - that all humans have common basic concerns and attitudes, modified by their culture over time, of course. When it comes to the Bible, each generation seems to think that previous generations had a more direct conduit to God and ultimate reality - that we can have complete assurance in the truth of every word and nuance uttered by past generations - the older the better. Why does “age” legitimize information? Why should we think that God doesn’t clarify and direct TODAY? If not today, then why then?

I guess this is a round-about way of saying that we all have the same access to God; and have to work out our relationship to God and to define God. The more religious our background, the more difficult that is. I know that is upsetting.

From a Christian viewpoint, the game-changer is the resurrection of Christ - which just might make his words carry more weight than anyone else’s. Therein lies the work - to keep that faith intact.

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I find this essay puzzling especially in a magazine that maintains that it at least has some association with believers. This piece aims to support skepticism. But actually, he is only attacking one small part of belief: the more literal interpreters. But of course that is the core of Adventism.

Why should a nonbeliever even care?

I have pondered the why of the alleged rebellion in heaven. Why as Aage mentions, would the angels, especially the highest angel, who would seem to understand it all the most deeply, do such a thing? And a third of them join the blighter! As he says, seems ludicrous.

But I think there is something to it, particularly when one considers our own hubris, pride and self love…

Einstein, a single mind, realized that the universe was a different one than Newton had visualized. He had an insight that everyone else had missed. I think Satan had such an insight.

He had been created perfectly and had never known any other experience but the happiness, joy and peace of heaven. But having the brilliant mind he did, he realized at some point, as no one else had, that God had withheld something from the angels. And as he thought about it, he realized it was a vast reality which God had kept secret: all that is evil. And he realized it could be his own.

Now God warned him of the danger of going where God himself would not go, but he saw it as a realm over which he could rule and that his rule would be absolute. A bracing and invigorating idea. And a third were willing to join him there.

One can see this in how Satan tempted Eve with an existential state of being higher than the one which God had given her: She could be God, part of a kingdom beyond and outside the Almighty. And she took the bait, for she wanted to be independent, and “free”, a god, one who could call the shots, just as so many of us do.

But if Satan knew that he was dependent on God, why do such a thing? Was he not biting the hand that was feeding him? (There is in this question the accusation of Satan in Job, and the temptation of Christ in the desert, some very deep thoughts);

Satan knew something else. The utter love that God had for his creatures and his creation. He banked on the nature of love that it would not force obedience, so that he could continue to enjoy existence without the fear of being destroyed. In fact it was a brilliant insight, and he thought he had God over a barrel.

The one thing, and I think the only that kept God from ceding a portion of the universe to Satan, was that God was willing to sacrifice his very self for his creation. He truly loved to the very soul of his being. As he Bible says, “God is love.”. Satan never thought that could happen, and it was only revealed at he cross, a mystery kept secret from the foundation of he world. That was when all his masks were torn from him. He was seen as the deceiver he was, and was cast out of heaven. Not until then was the real truth revealed, because Satan could always argue that God was just making him look bad, being God, with all that power and all, and none of the bad things happening were his fault. He was actually using God’s power against him, for how could Satan be proven wrong? It was only when God surrendered all his power that and Satan could act against a powerless one that he was exposed.

But of course these are just the musings of an old literalist fool.

Literalists offer a different view than the mythologists. It does not ruin the stories themselves, but gives other insights. Like the different views of conservatives and liberals. You need both to get the whole picture.

Why rob the world?

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I think that what humans have to be deeply grateful for , is that we ;posses a high enough potential for ratiocination to accept, or not, the sacred narratives handed down to us from antiquity. We are an inquisitive species, and this faculty is deemed praiseworthy when applied fulsomely in understanding the besetting ills/provocations of mankind, but it is widely expected that such research is taboo if applied to the works of pre-scientific writers who clearly would have regarded an airliner as an heavenly vehicle of wonder disembarking people from the great unknown heaven and so on. A similar thing happened during WW2 when south Pacific islanders worshiped Americans as Gods(Cargo Cult) when they built a landing strip on one of the islands. They did not hunt , yet they had food a -plenty; they did not die- even if gravely wounded a needle-like object was pushed into their skin which calmed the sufferer thereby enabling application of magical healing remedies. They could ascend to the highest skies at will; they could kill animals for the natives to eat by pointing a small weapon at them , and POW and animal a mile away would drop dead and so on. When the war was over the American GODS left but promised to come again to visit. The elders, in order to ensure this return kept lighting the oil lamps they had been trained by the gods to use on the landing strips, for many years hence.The elders passed on their stories to their young ones until civilisation caught up and technology busted the old beliefs. The author of this article has raised points which need to be considered for their possible validity , not lambasted as irreverent foolishness.

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For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?
God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.

Romans 3:3-4

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Thank you very much for a most measured and respectful essay on the problem faced not by people of faith, but by people who misread the biblical stories as if they were historical reports by most trustworthy reporters who depended on heavenly dictation for what they reported. Any one who reads the biblical stories in context cannot accept this naive misreading.
The tragedy is that those who misread this way think that it is the only way in which people of faith should read. It would appear that to them faith requires naivete. That, of course, is another one of their mistakes. Faith does not call for the sacrifice of reason. Faith is built on reason, even as it transcends it. Reason is what Aage is using in his analysis of the stories. The stories have been influential and treasured by multiple generations of believers not because of their historical accuracy but because of their illumination of the life that humans can and should or should not live before God. To make historicality a litmus test is to throw them out the window, and be the poorer for it. A biblically based faith is not one that requires that everything the Bible says actually happened the way it is reported. That is most obvious when reading the four gospels. Scholars have been trying for two centuries to reconstruct the Historical Jesus with no success precisely because the contradictions in the reports are not surmountable if each report is to be taken at face value. Does this mean that since we cannot give an account of the Historical Jesus we cannot believe in the Gospel? Of course, not.
Paul preached the Gospel and defended it against all kinds of attacks with almost no reference whatsoever to the Historical Jesus, except his cross. The only two things about his life which are historically verifyable are his baptism and his crucifixion, and the Gospel of John overlooks the first.
I congratulate Aage Rendalen for a great service to all people of faith. It is most important for believers in the XXI century to read their Bibles faithfully without making it into an idol. Idolatry is the most besetting sin, according to the Bible. To say that the Bible is “the written Word of God,” as Fundamental One says, is to make it an idol. It is to put the Bible ahead of God as the object of faith. That is precisely what believers do not do.

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Not only that, but how could a book which is human, rather than divine, in origin, have the impact that the Bible has had, more than any other book; translated into more languages than any other book.

Mythology does not have the power to change lives that the Bible does. That in itself is evidence of its divine origin. And then there are the precisely fulfilled prophecies of Daniel, which pinpoint the arrival of the Messiah down to the very year, prophecies that the devil has tried hard to muddle, with good success among some Christians, who don’t realize that by making those prophecies apply to some end time scenario, they’ve destroyed the evidence that comes the closest that any thing can come to proving the divine origin of Scripture.

But there will always be those who will darken counsel by big words without knowledge. Sad, when atheist scientists get more credibility than holy men of God who wrote truth under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Or is it that only those with letters after their names can receive divine inspiration?

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It is hermeneutical error to claim that the Bible sets forth objective, factual, and accurate history, because history is an ambiguous concept and there are different approaches to historiography. Most Seventh-day Adventists as the moderns that they are unwittingly embrace the historiography of Leopold von Ranke, the father of modern history, who said the following in a preface to one of his historical accounts: “You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was.” Seventh-day Adventists mistakenly tend to demand a factual accuracy, precision, and comprehensiveness from the biblical authors comparable to what an historian schooled in the historiography of von Ranke would offer.

The problem with this demand placed upon the biblical authors is that the Bible does not “merely tell how it really was.” Instead, according to Paul the historiography of the biblical authors more resembles that of Thucydides. See 1 Corinthians 10:11. The historiography of Thucydides is what von Ranke specifically rejects in his comment quoted above.

If the goal of the historian is not to “merely tell how it really was” but to offer moral lessons for his or her contemporaries, then the data from the past will be massaged, cherry-picked, and interpreted with a bias in favor of the utility of the moral lessons the historian is attempting to teach. The precision with respect to factual accuracy demanded by such historian will only be of a magnitude necessary to teach the moral lessons. The line that separates history from moral philosophy will be blurred. Granted, Paul’s theology relies upon the truthfulness of the biblical events recorded and Thucydides’ writings are considered to be very good history in the von Rankean sense. But an appreciation of differences in historiography can help us adjust the demands we place upon the biblical text.

We should also consider the observation about historiography offered by Hayden White, who notes that history is conceived and written according to the same structure as that of fiction. The line that separates history and fiction is much finer than what most people realize. The past and history are two different things. The past does not exist, even though we relate to it and are moved by it.

By noting that the meaning of the biblical text is not only what the biblical authors intend to say but what they endeavor to accomplish, we can be moved and affected in ways intended by the biblical authors and come to an understanding of the importance of history (together with historiography) as a subsidiary discipline to the study of hermeneutics.

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U[quote=“spectrumbot, post:1, topic:12543”]
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.
[/quote]

There is a developmental perspective theory behind compulsive repetitive behaviors in that psychological trauma that cannot be comprehended by the developing ego must be re-experienced over and over even if it were to be broken to piece by piece until fully comprehended. Then and only then can it be introjected or rejected by the individual. This is the reason behind the popularity of ever-lasting fairy tales, myths and legends among children, SdAs or not. It has nothing to do with the stories as much the extent of the trauma and the developmental stage of the individual’s ego. This compulsive behavior is also evident among PTSD where the trauma is so traumatic the ego has difficulty comprehending its magnitude. And in its most pathological state, no disorder will trump what is referred to as Obsessive Compulsive Ds.

The same can be said about being selective with stories in that the individual’s ego might be underdeveloped or atrophied to be able to comprehend the story in its fullness in order to reject or introject its content. The intervention of choice is to help the individual expand his psychological repertoire through individual psychotherapy with the likes of @GeorgeTichy. No sermons or swallowing the remnants of the golden calf will help these individuals other than developing new brain pathways and circuits that would tap certain brain regions to modulate a new understanding and experience.

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There is a logic gap (at least one) in this article: A story that is supposed to teach us something may or may not describe actual historical events and can still be effective, fine. But there is no reason to bet your life on the claims of such a story if they involve persecution and the promise of resurrection. "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."
Creation and Fall are as necessary to the gospel as is the resurrection of Christ. There may be questions about creation and the flood that are difficult to answer, but if one lets go of the creation, there are just so many questions about God and his character, about our place in God’s plan, and about the nature of humanity, that those seem rather insignificant to me.
The author of this piece can go that way of course, but his faith will not be stronger for it, and neither will his gospel become more convincing. The future of Adventism lies in believing God’s claims and promises, not in doubting his revelation.

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Yes, but in many cases the individual needs to see a psychiatrist in the likes of @elmer_cupino to get a few specific pills… It’s like building a foundation before erecting the walls and putting on the roof! Elmer builds the foundation and I can nail the roof to the top of their heads. Cure is guaranteed!!!

(Elmer, we should start that clinic at the GC building asap. Job security… lol)

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Dr Weiss lays out what I was trying to get across in this essay: the possibility of dialogue across the faith divide. My point is not to convince anybody that being a skeptic is superior to being a believer but simply to address some of the obstacles to a meaningful conversation.

Let me illustrate. In Virginia, where I live, the state board of education has for now banned the use of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird because they feature racial slurs. The parents who brought the case before the board took offense at the slurs while completely missing the scandal of racism that Mark Twain and Harper Lee addressed in their books. Similarly, you had people some years ago objecting to Schindler’s List because it featured nudity, which apparently was a greater offense than the holocaust.

This is how literalists tend to read the Bible. Instead of listening to what the stories say, they expend their energy on defending their historicity. But what is the value of a story that is not historically grounded, you might ask. I would point you to Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor from the Brothers Karamazov. Ever since the book was published, Christians have commented on this text as if it had been told by Jesus in the Gospels. They do so because it is true, as far as life is concerned and precisely because its historicity is not an issue, they have been able to listen to the story and be challenged by it.

Students of quality literature do this all the time; they analyze the role and character of fictional characters as if they were real people. They wonder what could have driven Jospeh Conrad’s Jim, who dreamed of nothing more than being a hero, to abandon 900 pilgrims to their own fate on a sinking ship in the Indian Ocean. They do so because Conrad, like God in Genesis 2, infused Jim with life.

There is an irreducible historical core to Christianity. You can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth lived, died and rose again in order to remove all obstacles blocking the access to God. That is a cognitive commitment I am not ready or inclined to make, but I would love to sit down with you and talk about it and maybe challenge you to explain to me why such a cognitive commitment is a question of life and death if salvation is a fait accompli and ethics (according to Jesus) is more important than belief. As I said, my aim is to open up a dialogue. There is much to talk about.

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You are right about this!

I take it you dont believe in prophecy? The great “neglected literature.”