Stranger than Fiction

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>Cafe Conversations is a new young adult group at RUMC that has just begun meeting on Sunday mornings prior to worship at a local coffee shop. Last week, each of those in attendance were asked to write a question or topic on a piece of paper. The idea is that all the subjects/topics would be pulled out of a hat at random and discussed at future gatherings. This week, the lucky question is below. Since I am usually unable to attend right before worship on Sundays, I thought I might be able to weigh in on some of these things here on my blog.

“In what sense is the Bible true and if parts of it are not factual in a literal sense (ex., Adam and Eve), how does fiction create truth?”

Not sure who came up with this doozy, but it is the kind of question that can have a dissertation-length answer. It is a question that begs a lot of other questions like: what is truth? …is truth different from fact? …what types of literature are found in the Bible and what is the difference between them (parable, poetry, historical narrative, letter, gospel, etc.)? …is the Bible, particularly the Genesis account of creation, meant to be a scientific account of creation, a kind of divine “how to” manual? …how does one account for parts of the Bible that do not hold up under current scientific scrutiny?

I can’t even begin to address all of these, but I would throw a few things into the discussion pool and hopefully shed more light than confusion – so here goes:

“Fact” vs. “Truth” – is there a difference, and if so what is it? In part, this is a question about the use of language and the obvious,but often overlooked reality that there are different linguistic communities. (If you doubt me on this, talk to a really up-to-date computer geek and see if you understand anything they are saying).

At least one of the differences between “fact” and “truth”is the narrative communities that most often use such terms and the context in which they use them. “Fact” is most often found in the vocabulary of the scientific community. “Truth” is more common to Scripture and the church. In both instances, there is a different way of “knowing” involved. The world of science and math relies heavily on observation and the use of the scientific method. The world of the church relies heavily on revelation. That is why one community can say things like “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” and the scientific community might respond by saying “we will start with the evidence, with what is seen, what is measurable, what is quantifiable, and what is subject to testing – only then will we draw conclusions.”

Of course, borrowing language from another linguistic community can be helpful at times, especially in exploding the myth that science always trumps matters of faith. Take the following statement that I will state as fact:

“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

That is a fact. By stating that emphatically, I mean that it happened in real space and time in this world; it is not metaphor, not mere conjecture, nor some type of spiritual assertion that bears no relation to actual historical events.

One can do this in reverse. Many contemporary scientists have acknowledged how much of their discipline requires certain leaps of faith that can later be found to be in error. What was once stated as “fact” was later “revealed” to be false. After all, it was science that once told us the world was flat, that one race of people was superior to another, and that the sun revolved around the earth. Science does not have a corner on truth, and the irony is, it also doesn’t have a corner on “facts.” Faith and science have more in common than one may first think.

As St. Anselm of Canterbury put it, Christians engage in fides quaerens intellectum or “faith seeking understanding,” not understanding in search of faith. It is a phrase that implies that we receive faith as a gift and come to know God through revelation, but such faith does not reject rigorous intellectual pursuit, science, or human reason. On the other hand, we also recognize the limits of human knowledge and realize that we cannot come to faith by reason alone. (Incidentally, that means you may need to bag the whole idea that an archaeological discovery in Israel will be the final answer to all those who doubt the truth about God in Jesus.) For more on fact versus truth, I highly recommend Lesslie Newbigin’s “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.”

Stranger than Fiction

If it is not already obvious, I believe that Holy Scripture contains “all things necessary for faith and salvation,” but that is very different from saying it is meant to be a scientific manual for how the world was created or that its primary purpose is as a history book. Modern accounts of history, with all of its dates, times, names, and data is, after all, a fairly new invention. Many contemporary historians have already pointed out some of the gaping weaknesses of our new way of doing history. It has long been acknowledged that there is no such thing as a purely “objective” account, and so many failed attempts at neutrality have often led to gross inaccuracies and falsehoods that often keep future generations from learning from their forebears. Take my high school history teacher who taught me adamantly that the real reason for the Civil War between the North and the South was the issue of state rights, not slavery. There are certainly some facts behind such a statement, but they distract one from the truth.

So how does “fiction create truth?” I would say it doesn’t, if by fiction one means “untruth,” “falsehood,” or a narrative genre that is primarily aimed at curing boredom and entertaining the reader. Truth is first and foremost a person – Jesus the Christ. If Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, than what I can learn from Genesis about creation and humanity must be read through this lens (read Christologically). The creation account may not say much about how God created the world literally, but it does reveal God as the Creator, and humanity as creature. It may not explain much about the dinosaur bones that were discovered last year in the desert, but it does explain how humanity fell into sin and disobedience and why things have been a mess ever since. It may not fully account for why a neanderthal skull differs from a 20th century one, but it does make plain that while God is infinite, we are finite – from dust we have come, and to dust we will return.

Just a little more grist for the cafe conversation mill this Sunday. Oh, and one parting thought – I love to read and reread the Bible. It is stranger – and more wonderful – than fiction.

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