What Place "Literalism"?
For a number of months now I've been listening to Dr. J. Vernon McGee's "Thru the Bible" study pretty much on a daily basis. And most recently I've been listening to several studies in a row as I do my jog/walks of 60- to 90-minutes. Needless to say, whereas my own study of Matthew has continued at it glacial 4-plus years pace, I've managed to listened to the studies on several of the Old Testament Prophets, the Book of Revelation and 30-some chapters of Genesis in the same time-frame. Needless to say, I like covering the text at this pace but it has given me a back-log of things to reflect on and write about. I hinted at several of my questions last time. The study on the book of Revelation was interesting, but I was more interested in my former pastor's take on the book as a "historical message to the church over time" slant (versus it being all about future events at the end of human history). I guess I'm just going to have to write him and tap his brain for his sources. Funny thing is that the fervor I remember from my youthful Christian experience was probably equal measure of being a young person with virtually no real experience of the "real world," being someone with no perspective on history and the somewhat overly dramatic black and white emotionally charged thinking of adolescence. So my main complaint against those most hysterical about these being the End Times is that so much of their anxiety seems to stem from their own ego-centric/USA-centric perception that "things are bad." If one widens the lens a bit to include our neighbors to the south or Asia or Africa, then one should understand that things have been very bad for these people for a very very long time. Another thing that really got me when Dr. McGee was studying Revelation was his comments about the futility of humanity trying to band together to create a better world. I mean, much of what we do enjoy in our culture as far as advancements in science and lifestyles is the result of people working toward a better future. Isn't it the hope of every parent that the world be a better place for their children. One doesn't have to be a utopian nutcase or anti-god to work towards that goal of a better world. That we can shut God out and make a better world, well, I know that I can't, and I'll just leave it at that.
Then in Genesis I found myself wondering at the whole literal creation in seven solar-days requirement for orthodoxy. I remember one of my former professors, Ron Pierce, commenting when he was working toward his PhD (in Old Testament at Fuller) about the symbolic nature of a story where the main character's name means "man" and the woman's name means "life." The line between a literal narrative and what we would normally be called tribal mythology is thus presented. So, is the point of the story a scientific record of what took place or a story about God's hand in the creation of our world? Dr. Pierce was (and is) quite committed to a firm belief in the Inerrancy of Scripture. He would probably never use the word "mythology" when referring to the story of Creation or Adam & Eve. But for me, I see the application of current measures of "accuracy" to be misguided and anachronistic. I find if fool-hearty to try to stretch things so that the narrative fits with our current understanding of cosmology. I mean, in another dozen or hundred years our current understanding of "reality" is going to seem as backward and mistaken as we feel the story of how Marduk created Man so that the gods wouldn't have to work from the Babylonian creation stories (see In the Beginning).
So, apparently I'm one of these weirdos who believes in the Bible and the integrity and importance of it's message, but I'm not about to get my shorts in a bunch because the geological and astronomical evidence suggests a different cosmology than the one suggested in the Bible. I don't know, but when I was listening to Dr. McGee, especially when he was making a point of aligning the Creation narrative to science (circa 1980s), I got to the point where I could see the narrative as being a way for the children of Israel to explain why the world was the way it was. Does that mean that it's any less the Word of God? Not to me, but then I'm sure I'm a bit odd that way. There is a truth here that science can't touch. But at the same time I find that it's important to have a mindset that would have been recognizable to the original audience 4,000 years ago. For me there is a universality here that is cloaked in a cultural garment that was woven 4,000 years ago. So, to deem the narrative irrelevant because it is the work of a small Semitic tribe is as foolish as it would be to pretend that we are reading a court transcription meant to record these events in a clinical unbiased manner. I mean, I'm not at all bothered that much of this narrative existed completely as an Oral Tradition until is was written down some time after the Davidic period and that the process of going from an oral tradition to text took several centuries (right up to the return from the Babylonian exile).
And here's another burnt bun from my mental oven, I think that the need to have every single recorded element maintain a scientific and historical validity that no other book with a 4,000 year history is expected to maintain comes, in part, from the need for Protestants to have an a-cultural written record because they've rejected the notion of a valid cultural tradition when they broke from the Catholic tradition. There's also the roots of every man being able to interpret for themselves in this mindset. What it means to me becomes the only important factor. I think we are mistaken when we take to interpreting the scriptures without cultural/historical reference and read back into it our own cultural/personal experience. The fact that the Word of God can still speak to us, given this whole mish-mash of 4,000 years of written and oral traditions is a miracle worth noting. I don't care that someone thinks that they can "prove" that God knew that the earth is round from Isaiah 40:22. What I do care about is that it records the very human struggle of our sojourn on this planet and a desire on the part of this planet's creator to have relationship with us as our Heavenly Father. JBB