The Bible Tells Me So

Date: August 2, 2009
Scriptures: Psalm 119:103-105; 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Sermon: The Bible Tells Me So
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

A girl came home from Church School and she reported to her parents about the story of how the children of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt. She told of how Moses erected a pontoon bridge across the Red Sea. Then he called in his airplane bombers and destroyed the bridge just as Pharaoh’s army was in the middle of it. The girl’s parent’s suggested that was impossible back in ancient times. When asked why she had embellished the story, the child replied, “Well, if I had told you the story the way our teacher told it, you would never have believed it!” [Why Didn’t Noah Swat Both Mosquitoes?, Hoover Rupert, p.22, adapted]

The child has a point. The story of Moses lifting his staff and parting the Red Sea is a challenge from a plausibility perspective. And there are many such cases in the stories of the Bible. An ark filled with pairs of animals on the sea for 40 days. Jonah being swallowed by a big fish. The Israelites marching around the city of Jericho seven times and then blowing a horn and the walls coming tumbling down. Jesus turning 150 gallons of water into wine. Jesus feeding over 5,000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. And then there is the resurrection story of Jesus coming back from the dead. Many stories in the Bible are questionable from a plausibility perspective.

The stories of the Bible keep pace with the best fiction has to offer. It’s no wonder the Bible is a best seller. In fact, it is the best seller of all time.

The Bible is significant for its impact on humanity, on varying cultures, on art, literature, language and on the human community as a whole. We use many references from the Bible in our every day speech: The kiss of death. An eye for an eye. The mark of Cain. The patience of Job. A house divided cannot stand. The Bible has been translated into countless languages. And it is read all over the world. One Sunday in Church School the teacher asked who knew the story of Jonah. One child raised a hand, and when called on gave an accurate summary of the story. The teacher complimented the student on having done the Bible reading for the week. But the child was honest and admitted, “I didn’t read it in the Bible. It was on a bubble gum wrapper.” [Rupert, p. 19-20] There’s no escaping the Bible!

When you think about it, it is rather bizarre that this collection of 66 books, gathered over the course of something like 700 years, and rooted in ancient far off civilizations extremely remote from our own, is still a best seller and is still having a major impact on human lives and the world today.

This morning we want to reflect on how we look at the Bible today. We will do this by reflecting on the quotation that we have been using regularly in the bulletin: “The Bible is truth not fact.” It is a quote from a contemporary spiritual writer, from the Episcopal tradition, Madeleine L’Engle. You may remember L’Engle for her best known book, A Wrinkle in Time.

Those who wrote and collected what we know today as scripture were motivated by a desire to share their faith community’s experience of their relationship with God. Our scriptures tell of how the people of Israel related to their God and how they experienced their God in their life together as a community. In the New Testament we hear of how that experience extended beyond the Jewish community among those who followed Jesus. From the creation through the prophets, and on to the gospels and epistles we are told of the experience of the people of God and their understandings of their relationship with God. There are a myriad of stories, perspectives, settings, types of literature, cultural influences, etc. but all share the ways that people of God from a particular tradition and geographical area experienced their relationship with God. Among those who wrote the texts of the Bible, the primary concern was truth not fact. They were not intending to write history as we know it with dates and factual information about events to be analyzed. And they certainly were not intending to write science.

These people were writing about how they experienced God’s power and presence in the life of their community. Did the people who wrote these texts imagine that they would be compiled and revered as holy scriptures? Probably not. In the book The Bible: A Biography, contemporary religious scholar Karen Armstrong discusses the case of the apostle Paul, credited with writing several of the letters in the New Testament. Armstrong tells us:

Paul traveled widely in the diaspora and founded congregations in Syria, Asia Minor and Greece, determined to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth before Jesus returned. He wrote letters to his converts, answering their questions, exhorting them and explaining the faith. Paul did not think for a moment that he was writing ‘scripture’ because he was convinced that Jesus would return in his own lifetime, he never imagined that future generations would pour over his epistles. [p.61]

The texts included in the Bible became scripture because they were found to be useful over an extended period of time by those in the faith community and they emerged as part of a long standing tradition. The texts were not specifically intended by the writers to be part of a Bible, as we know it. And again, they were not addressing the material in terms of truth or fact.

As the books of the Bible gained authority and were collected into the canon as we know it, a variety of perspectives was included because it was thought that no one view could completely encompass the reality of God. So there are two creation stories. In the first creation story, humankind is created all at once. In the other, first one human is created, and then another is created from the rib of the first. In Church School, the class was asked to write a summary of the second creation story. One student wrote: “God first created Adam. God looked at him and said, ‘I think I can do better if I tried again.’ So God created Eve.” [Rupert, p. 33] There are many stories in the Bible that are repeated with variations and interpretations. There are differing takes on issues because it was expected that scripture would reveal and promote dialogue, essential to an ever greater understanding of a God who could not be fully known, and necessary for the flourishing of the community.

Again, Karen Armstrong shares this perspective:

From the very beginning, the Bible had no single message. When the editors fixed the canons of both the Jewish and Christian testaments, they included competing visions and placed them, without comment, side by side. From the first, biblical authors felt free to revise the texts they had inherited and give them entirely differing meaning. Later exegetes [biblical scholars] held up the Bible as a template for the problems of their time. Sometimes they allowed it to shape their world-view but they also felt free to change it and make it speak to contemporary conditions. . . . The Bible ‘proved’ that it was holy because people continually discovered fresh ways to interpret it and found that this difficult, ancient set of documents cast light on situations that their authors could never have imagined. Revelation was an ongoing process [p. 5]

I don’t think those of ancient days would have had any problem with L’Engle’s quote, “The Bible is truth not fact.” They were constantly looking for truth, not arguing about whether the Bible was factual.

There is an historical tradition of lively debate and engagement with the Bible. There was discussion of differing visions and conflicting passages. People expected multiple meanings from the biblical stories because they believed that the mystery of God is inexhaustible and that scripture was intended as a living word. The Bible was expected to be interpreted to shed light on new circumstances.

Now let’s fast forward to today. How did we get from this historic perspective of lively debate to the contemporary bumper sticker, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it”? There is a strong trend in contemporary Christianity to equate truth and fact when it comes to the Bible. Many Christians believe that the Bible is true because it is fact. There is the assumption among a large segment of Christianity today that for something to communicate truth, it must be factual. Truth and fact cannot be separated.

This perspective arose in response to the Enlightenment and modernity. With the Enlightenment came the perspective of the scientific method, proof, and inquiry. Testing theories and suppositions. As religious and biblical studies developed, scholars began treating the Bible as literature, and analyzing it as one would other literature. Unfolding developments in archeology and linguistics and other academic disciplines shed light on the biblical texts. The discipline of biblical criticism began to emerge where texts were studied in search not only of application for contemporary times, but also for the issues, concerns, and settings of the original writers. What were the original messages of the writers given their settings? The quest for the historical Jesus emerged. In pre-Enlightenment times, the Bible was not examined for historicity and it was primarily a tool of the church. With the evolution of what became known as biblical criticism, there was an ensuent backlash. The Bible was not to be viewed critically, associated with “criticize”, rather than “examine”. The discoveries in archeology, science, etc. were not needed to understand and follow the word of God in the Bible. So it is in the mid 1800s that the concepts of inerrancy and literalism began to develop. There were those who believed the Bible had a single message, one meaning, not multiple meanings. There was no room for interpretation. The Bible was God’s word. It meant what it said. It was divinely inspired so it could have no mistakes or inconsistencies or contradictions. The Bible was fact and truth. Truth and fact. This perspective evolved as a reaction against the Enlightenment and the scientific world view. It is a backlash against modern biblical scholarship. It is a fairly recent trend. And this view is embraced by a very strong, vocal segment of the current Christian church.

There are four brief comments I want to make that help to inform the conversation about the Bible, truth and fact, as it is taking place today.

The first comment has to do with authority. Some Christians who view the Bible as entirely truth and fact, taking the Bible literally and claiming its inerrancy, have chosen to believe in the Bible and follow the Bible and worship the book itself. Peter Gomes, retired minister of The Memorial Church at Harvard University and religion professor at Harvard, names this phenomenon “bibliolatry”. [The Good Book, p. 36]. Gomes tells of this incident: “A colleague who went to a small Christian college in the South told me of a. . . preacher of her experience [who] stood up and read his lesson from his Bible. He then closed the book and threw it out of the nearby open chancel window, and said, ‘Well, there goes your god.’ He was of course making a point about idolatry, and he was illustrating it with an attack upon bibliolatry, or the worship of the Bible.” [p.36-37]

Gomes goes on to say, “In the absence of a visible God, the temptation is always near to make a god of whatever is visible and related in some proximate way to the real thing.” [p. 37]

And so, there are those in churches today who claim to follow the Bible, literally. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And thus make an idol of the Bible. I don’t know about you, but I was not taught to believe in the Bible. I was encouraged to believe in God. I was not instructed to follow the Bible. I was invited to follow Jesus. The Bible was to be a tool or guide for the journey.

Second, we make a comment about interpretation. As we have seen in the recent confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor, every one has an interpretive perspective. She was accused of letting her cultural heritage and background and experience influence her rulings, as if the cultural heritage, background, and experience of white Euro-American men and women on the bench does not influence their rulings. Everyone’s view of everything is influenced by culture, experience and background. There is no way to read something, to write something, to say something, or to hear something without bringing one’s perspective to bear on the process. So, there’s no way to read the Bible in a totally objective manner without interpreting it. The best we can do is to acknowledge the filters and lenses that we are using because of our experience, culture, and background, and to listen to others who have differing perspectives. Those who claim the Bible as truth and fact, generally also claim complete objectivity without interpretation. But this is impossible. You cannot read the Bible without interpreting it. Everyone brings a unique perspective and this can be seen as a gift to be shared, rather than as distortion or manipulation.

We also want to say a word about translation. The Bible is a collection of books written, selected, and translated by human beings with all kinds of room for human influence. As a brief example, I want you to take a few minutes to think about what words can be made with the two consonants S and T. You can add whatever vowels you would like, and you have to keep the consonants in order. By adding vowels, what words can be made from S and T ? Sit Sat Set Site Sot Suggestions from congregation. . .

In the original texts of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, the oldest manuscripts do not use vowels in the writing. The addition of vowels came later. So when the vowels were added, the transcriber had to decide, by context and meaning, etc. which vowels to put in and what the word would be. Just this little exercise shows but one tiny way in which human involvement has influenced how the Bible has come to us. You will hear a bit more about this in an upcoming sermon requested about biblical references to homosexuality. But this just gives you an idea of how humans over hundreds and hundreds of years in varying situations and cultures have influenced these texts. So to say the Bible is truth and fact, and that it is inerrant, minimizes the inevitable influence countless people have had over the Bible as we read it today.

We also want to say a word about the relationship between science and the Bible. The ancients didn’t know as much as we do about how the weather worked. As I mentioned last week, they thought there was a metal dome above the sky and above that was water. When God wanted it to rain, God opened windows or vents in the dome and rain fell on the earth. This influences the way scripture talks about and refers to weather, rain, snow, storm, etc. We have different explanations for weather patterns today. Or take the advancement in medical science. In the gospel of Mark, there is a story about a man who brings his son to Jesus for healing. We are told that the son is possessed by an evil spirit which gives him seizures – he is unable to speak, he falls to the ground, he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. [Mark 9:17ff] I am not a doctor, but we might associate something like this with epilepsy or some other medical condition, not a demon living inside the person. Those who claim that the Bible is truth and fact force themselves to divorce spirituality and intellect, head and heart. To read the Bible and suspend contemporary knowledge of science, both hard science and social science, is to deny and devalue the wonderful advancement of the human intellect which is a God given gift.

The contention over truth and fact in the Bible has been fomenting since the Enlightenment and has become more heated in recent years. With so much change in society, I think there are people longing to cling to something that they feel is cut and dried and does not change and is not relative. And they are willing to suspend reason to have that. There are others who are not willing to give up intellect, reason, logic and scientific discoveries to accept the Bible as a combination of truth and fact.

In a recent reflection piece in the St. Petersburg Times related to this very issue, the writer tells of how she was raised believing the Bible on faith. Then she encountered the academic side of biblical scholarship. In the article she talks about taking an introductory Bible course in college. She says:

I lost my religion in Religion Class. . . . It was not the college’s intention to undermine our faith, but religion was taught as history. Who were those tribes? How did they come to worship one God, and how did the books we call the Bible get written and put together?

I discovered that the Bible had come together over hundreds of years, written by different men in different times.

The writer continues:

Doubt crept in like a poison, or maybe it was faith leaking out.

All I know is, during those months, as I read my chapters, took notes and wrote papers, belief gave way to logic. God – at least the God I was kneeling to in church – was a construct, put together over centuries, codified, fought over, killed for, and what did we really know? Nothing, except we needed this story, needed to believe our souls went somewhere and that we didn’t blink out like lightbulbs at the end.

The writer stopped going to church, calls herself an atheist, and has moved on, “bidding God a goodnight.” [St. Petersburg Times, 7/5/09, Sunday Journal, “Moving on, and bidding God a good night” by Norma Watkins]

Frankly, this article surprised me because I have had the exact opposite experience. Having grown up in the liberal United Church of Christ, I absorbed the assumption that the Bible was fact, but not all fact, and a lot of truth. The Bible was important and to be respected. And there was actual fact in the Bible, but it wasn’t necessarily all fact. But I didn’t get much help about how to sort that out. Frankly, classes in college and seminary weren’t much help either on this score. This was pretty much left to the individual. Which left me feeling pretty ambivalent about the Bible.

As a pastor, I diligently studied the commentaries on the scripture texts for preaching each week, but not with much delight or enthusiasm, because of this fact and truth dilemma and not feeling equipped to sort it out.

But I have to say that for me biblical scholarship in recent years has been extremely helpful. It is through the insights of scholars and academics in the biblical field that I feel I have received new tools for addressing the interplay between truth and fact in the Bible. So I no longer feel bogged down with ambivalence.

Through scholarship, study of ancient texts, and archeology, a lot more facts about the writings in the Bible, the times of the writings, the people, the places, the cultures, etc. have come to light. So we have a lot more actual, verifiable factual information about the Bible than ever before.

We know that there was a band of nomadic people called the Hebrews. We know from sources outside the Bible that many of the kings mentioned in the Bible did actually serve. We know, again, from outside sources that an actual person named Jesus lived, around the time the Bible says he lived. We know that he was actually, factually crucified for treason. We know that Paul actually lived as well as some of the other disciples. Archeological evidence and outside sources have helped to verify factual information in the Bible. For me, this does not undermine the Bible but makes it more real and believable and less mysterious and remote.

There’s enough fact for me to take the Bible seriously and with respect. Especially when it comes to the life of Jesus. After that – for me, it doesn’t matter so much. I look for the truth, and don’t worry about the fact. There is still meaning and truth in the stories, regardless of factuality which in most cases cannot be resolved. What was the meaning for the original writer and reader? What is the meaning and truth for us today in our circumstances? This we can address without getting mired in the fact debate.

The more I have studied the Bible, particularly the work of the Jesus Seminar, and scholars including Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, John Shelby Spong, Rita Nakashima Brock, and John Morwood, the more the Bible has come to mean to me. The more facts I learn, the more truth I see. My love for the Bible has blossomed. I now find reading and studying the Bible stimulating, insightful and informative, because I know there is enough fact to ground what’s important, and without being bound in the truth/fact dilemma, I can let the stories speak truth. Fact or not, the truth is still there.

Do I believe creation happened in 7 24-hour days by fiat? No. But I do believe that creation is sacred and an expression of divine love. And I do believe that humans are special because, of all living creatures, they have the greatest capability of the expression of divine love.

Do I believe there was an actual Adam and Eve living in a garden? Do I believe an actual snake talked with them? No. But I do believe that humanity has fallen short of our full capability of embodying love.

Do I believe there were actual brothers Cain and Abel and that one killed the other over a birthright? No. But I do believe that brothers kill each other, out of jealously and greed, and that it is heartbreakingly tragic and separates us from God.

Do I believe that there was an actual person named Noah who built a boat and set sail with pairs of every kind of animal? No. But I do believe that God seeks the thriving life of all of creation. Animals and all of nature are needed for human life to flourish. All is sacred to God.

Do I believe that Joseph’s brothers actually sold him into slavery and that the brothers later had to go to him for food to be saved from starvation? No. But I do believe that brothers are capable of evil. And I do believe that people can forgive even what seems unforgivable. Yes, I believe people are capable of amazing grace.

Do I believe there was an actual person named Goliath who met David on the battlefield? I don’t think so. But I do believe that sometimes the underdog triumphs. I do believe that the purposes of divine love prevail, sometimes through unlikely people, often through unlikely people. Look around you!

There was a Church School class talking about the story of Jonah. The teacher asked one of the children the lesson of the story. The child replied, “It means that you can’t keep a good man down.” [Rupert, p. 17]

Do I believe there was an actual person named Jonah who was swallowed by a large fish and spit out again? No. But I do believe that we ignore, deny, and run away from God’s call, and that it is at our own peril and the peril of others.

Do I believe that a peasant girl Mary in first century Palestine was actually impregnated by the Holy Spirit? No. But I do believe that a child was born who, more fully than anyone before or since, embodied the fullest expression of love, and his name was Jesus and his mother’s name was Mary.

Do I believe that Jesus fed over 5000 people with 5 actual loaves and 2 actual fish? No. But I do believe that when people work together, amazing things can happen. Everyone contributing what they have can mean that all have what they need. Together we are more than the sum of our parts. Generosity and sharing can produce unheard of results.

Do I believe that the body of Jesus actually came back after literal death and walked the earth? No. But I do believe that Jesus’ friends continued to experience his presence in powerful ways after his death. I do believe that people can come out of hopeless situations to find new life. I do believe there can be life after grief, addiction, despair, mental illness, psychic trauma, and the countless other ways we may experience death in this life.

As for actual scientifically verifiable evidence of the resurrection, we don’t have it. Nor have the bones of Jesus been found and identified. So, we don’t know. And for me, I don’t need to know. Scientific evidence or not, I have seen the power of life and love bring new life, hope and transformation in the most desperate of circumstances. That’s proof enough of truth for me.

Thomas Jefferson is said to have cut out all of the miracle stories from the gospels and created what was known as the Jefferson Bible. This was what he felt a rational, educated person needed to know to be a Christian. But with those stories goes so much truth. 20th century writer Flannery O’Connor says, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” I believe that the stories of the Bible inform our faith whether they are fact or not.

There is an important insight in the article in the paper by the woman who lost her faith and left the church. Remember she says, “belief gave way to logic. God – at least the God I was kneeling to in church – was a construct, put together over centuries, codified, fought over, killed for, and what did we really know?” It was the conflict of truth and fact, again. And her church did not give her a way of integrating the two, finding a reasonable balance, accepting the facts and letting the truth shine through. It was all faith or all logic. No integration.

The reason we put the quote we do in the bulletin each Sunday is because we want people to know that we believe in the integration of truth and fact, intellect and story. Faith and reason. It is not either/or. Or all fact and all truth. Or all fiction and no truth. There are other choices. Integration is possible, in fact, it is desirable. We don’t expect people to suspend their logic and rational thinking when they come to church. The quote in the bulletin is an attempt at one way to say that. We could quote Marcus Borg, “We take the Bible seriously, but not literally.” The point is figuring out a way to say we respect the wisdom and truth of the Bible and feel it can be accessed without suspending reason and logic. We don’t have to abandon the scientific worldview when we read the Bible. We can integrate archeological evidence and study. We can bring the insights and findings of medicine and social sciences to the Bible and find they work together.

The quotation, “The Bible is truth, not fact” is a way of saying we do not limit the Bible to literalism. We may want to be literal about some things, like “love your enemy,” “love your neighbor,” “do unto others,” and other favorite teachings of Jesus. But we expect the rich and lively engagement, the conflict and contention, the multiple meanings and competing visions to speak to us today as they did to the people of pre-Enlightenment times. And we expect scholarship and intellect and emotion and the arts to be part of this lively engagement. In this light, scripture becomes a living word. And if you take it all as literal fact, you miss a lot of the truth.

With all this said, we may be tempted to throw the Bible out the window, too, and give up on this ancient, archaic book that is a source of division and contention in church and society. We can view much of the Bible as no longer applicable today. And as inane fiction. Why not read a good, insightful novel, some poignant memoir, contemporary spiritual reflections, or some stimulating non-fiction and forget about the Bible? In The Good Book, Peter Gomes tells of a parishioner who described listening to scripture “like eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant where the parties on whom you were listening in are speaking fluent French, and you are trying to make sense of what they are saying with your badly remembered French 101. You catch a few words and are intrigued, trying to follow, but after a while you lose interest, for the effort is too great and the reward too small.” [p. 6]

Why bother with the Bible? Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg reminds us in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, that the Bible is not the end in itself. Borg uses the Buddhist metaphor of the teaching of the Buddha as “a finger pointing to the moon.” It’s not about the finger, it’s about the moon. The Bible is analogous to the finger pointing to the moon. The Bible is pointing us to God, to the spiritual life, to the transforming power of love.

Borg also uses the image of a lens. One of his students commented: “You’re saying that the Bible is like a lens through which we see God, but some people think it’s important to believe in the lens.” [p. 34-35]

Why bother with the Bible? Because its truth helps us to know ourselves more fully. Its truth shows us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves. Its truth shows us God. There is truth in the Bible or this collection of books would not have been revered as scripture for well over 2000 years. The Bible continues to reveal light and truth. The facts that are needed to ground that truth have been revealed through scholarship. And we have the truth of the Bible validated in our own experience as we are transformed by the divine love embodied in the actual life of the crucified first century Palestinian Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.