belief … story or history? (RJS)

Francis Collins, in the brief stretch between stints as head of the Human Genome Project at NIH and, now, Director of NIH, put together a book, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, an anthology of readings he finds helpful in discussing rational reasons for belief in God. The anthology is, in some sense, a supplement to his book The Language of God. The essays  and excerpts in this book will not provide a proof for the existence of God – no such proof is possible. But they do provide arguments and reasons for belief.

The book includes an excerpt from a collection of essays by Dorothy L. Sayers: Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World. In this essay entitled “A Vote of Thanks to Cyrus” Sayers reflects on the way we classify different kinds of literature – in particular the implicit, even unconscious,  distinctions we make between the bible, classics, and history.

I owe a certain debt to Cyrus the Persian. I made his acquaintance fairly early, for he lived between the pages of a children’s magazine, in a series entitled Tales from Herodotus, or something of that kind.  … Cyrus was pigeon-holed in my mind with the Greeks and the Romans.

So for a long time he remained. And then, one day, I realized with a shock as of sacrilege, that on that famous expedition he had marched clear out of Herodotus and slap into the Bible. Mene, mene, tekel upharsin – the palace wall had blazed with the exploits of Cyrus, and Belshazzar’s feast had broken up under the stern and warning eye of the prophet Daniel. (p. 99)

The image above, obtained from wikipedia where you can find it with better resolution, is the purported tomb of Cyrus located in modern day Iran. For Sayers the connection between history and the Bible resulted in a reordering in thinking about scripture and the nature of the Bible in the text we have. It became a real book not a magic book separated from real life.

Has your view of the Bible changed through the years?

If so what factors have caused these changes? For better or for worse?

Dorothy Sayers describes the reordering required by the realization that she could not  neatly separate “Bible” from “classics.”  The book of Esther and the identification of King Ahasuerus with Xerxes provided another such example. The Bible is not something special and separate. History is all of a piece and the Bible is grounded in the same soil as the classics. This is not to eliminate God from the picture by any means – but to realize that God interacted with the real world, their world and our world.

Most children, I suppose, begin by keeping different bits of history in watertight compartments, of which “Bible” is the tightest and most impenetrable. But some people never seem to grow out of this habit – possibly because of having never having really met Cyrus and Ahasuerus (or Xerxes). Bible critics in particular appear to be persons of very leisurely mental growth.  Take, for example, the notorious dispute about the Gospel according to St. John. (p. 100)

Sayers continues on to describe an approach to the Gospel of John and how those who practice Biblical criticism have taken an approach long since reject in the study of other literature from the classical period. She pokes fun at some of the arguments and what she sees as their shortcomings and forays into the irrational.  Biblical criticism was, she found, still locked into deconstruction dismantling and distrusting the text long after other areas of study had emerged from the fad.

When it came to the Bible, the spirit of destruction was the more gleefully iconoclastic because of the conservative extravagances of the “verbal inspiration” theory. But the root of the trouble is to be found, I suspect (as usual), in the collapse of dogma. Christ, even for Christians, is not quite “really” real – not altogether human – and the taint of unreality has spread to His disciples and friends and to His biographers; they are not “real” writers, but just “Bible” writers. (p. 103)

The message of scripture and the power of the incarnation is in the real humanity of Christ, the notion that God became man, that God speaks to us in scripture and through the Spirit in a fashion that is grounded in everyday reality. The Bible is not a magic book, not a special language, not dictated from on high (with a few exceptions perhaps) – but a record from human perspective on the interaction of God with his creation. Sayers concludes…

“Altogether man, with a rational mind and a human body -.” It is just as well that from time to time Cyrus should march out of Herodotus into the Bible, for the synthesis of history and the confutation of heresy. (p. 104)

Sayers’ essay here hits a nerve for me, because there have been several experiences where the connection between bible and reality has been brought home. In sermon or Sunday school the Bible is cute stories or bits of wisdom, or magic book … but this is a distortion. The bible is a profound book – but grounded in real life.

What do you think – have there been instances of realization that brought the Bible to life?

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The inscription above  found in eastern Turkey is attributed to Xerxes (image from wikipedia where a larger version can be found).

According to the caption from wikipedia in Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite, it says (roughly):

Ahuramazda is the great god, the greatest god who created the sky and created the land and created humans Who gave prosperity to the humans Who made Xerxes king King of many kings, being the only ruler of the totality of all lands. I am Xerxes, the great king, the king of kings, the king of the lands, king of all the languages, king of the great and large land, the son of king Darius the Achaemenian. The king Xerxes says: “the king Darius, my father, praised be Ahuramazda, made a lot of good, and this mountain, he ordered to work its cliff and he wrote nothing on it so, me, I ordered to write here. May Ahuramazda protect me, with all the gods and so my kingdom and what I have done.”

  • David N.

    I think my view of Scripture has definitely changed in the last few years. 5 years ago I was hardcore that the Bible was perfectly and absolutely accurate in the most literal sense down to the smallest detail. Now…not so much. I’m still trying to figure out how to read it as authoritative when I don’t look at it with that same lens anymore.

  • Joe Paparone

    I’ve found that as I’ve moved from a strict literal reading of Scripture to a view that is decidedly less so, I’ve grown in appreciation and love for the Bible. There are some things that make more sense to me when I don’t have to be sure that they are factual, and instead I feel like I grasp the truth of the story, whether factual or not. I’m much less defensive about Scripture, too. A lot of people get confused when I tell them that facts and truths are not necessarily the same thing.

    @David N. – look for an article by N.T. Wright titled “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” A google search should do it. It’s been very helpful to me.

  • Rick

    “Has your view of the Bible changed through the years?”

    I would say in regards to God working in history (life of Israel, Christ, the church). Although I still think that is the case, and that it is an important theme of Scripture, I am trying to be more discerning in seeing where apparent historical accounts are really overtaken by more purely theological reflections.

  • Susan N.

    I think it is a healthy step in the right direction to merge the historical biblical account with secular ancient history. I have done this with my kids, as we studied ancient history, and it has changed my view of the Bible and world history. This gets to “concrete” thinking and understanding.

    As Rick in #2 suggests, I do think that, then, we must at some point “progress” to a more mature, “abstract” manner of thinking about a good deal of the Bible. Are all those cute stories (Noah and the Ark, Jonah and the Whale) literally true, or rather metaphorical? My 10yo was talking about last week’s Sunday School lesson on Jonah. They were asking if Jonah was really swallowed into the whale’s belly, and if so, how could he survive the stomach acid action? Good question, right?

    At some point in our spiritual development, perhaps it is a sign of faith to move from a concrete, literal understanding of absolutely every word to a more discerning, “abstract” form of thinking/understanding?

  • Tom

    I used to see the absolute literal view as an absolute of faith, I now don’t see it that way. I see that there were different types of writing and that the idea that Genisis my not be a historical account doesn’t change the importance it has both in theology and life.

  • Steve Billingsley

    John Sailhamer has an extended discussion on how the study of history has related to biblical interpretation, particularly the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures in his book, “The Meaning of the Pentateuch”. He argues that the if we are not careful, historicism can lead us to ignore what the text itself actually says and what they author’s intent within their historical context was.

    It is a long extended discussion with a lot of historical context. I am still chewing on it myself and am not sure exactly where I will land regarding his argument.

  • Rick


    Good reminder about Sailhamer.

    About a year ago, Scot posted a good review of Sailhamer’s book by Art Boulet:

  • DRT

    About 20 years ago I decided that I needed to read the whole bible, so I did, over about 8 months. I got absolutely nothing out of it. I also tried to do what I have seen some people do, where they open it at random, read a verse or two, and try and take that as divine inspiration. That did not benefit me much but I did do that periodically over years.

    Also, I have listened to many people read the bible and announce it much like a declaration, like every sentence was a divine declaration that on its own was the word of God. In the original post you say “Like a magic book”, But now, realizing the Bible as Story makes a huge difference.

    I remember reading one of Rob Bell’s books where he describe Jesus in some movies where he is clean and wearing a sash like a beauty queen with blow dried hair and light shining on him. I agree with Rob that that image is most unhelpful.

    The biggest ah-ha for me came first when I learned to read the gospels and picture Jesus first as a man instead of a deity. Suddenly what he did and thought and was involved in popped to life. I had been taught that Jesus is God, Jesus is God, Jesus is my God, and then to remember Jesus is God. Thinking about Jesus as man brought it to life. Christians seem so preoccupied with declaring Jesus is God but I have not found that to be helpful to my faith.

    The next big ah-ha was when I started ready the good Bishop Wright and instead of thinking of Jesus as God I started to think of Jesus as Messiah and what all that meant. Wow, that made a big difference.

    Now, in the past couple years, I am starting to come to grips with looking at the OT as Story. Less of an ah-ha, but great deepening of the context, I am now enjoying the Bible and instead of thinking of it as something I should read I look at it as something I get to read.

  • EricG

    When I was in High School I took a “Literary Allusions” class that compared the Bible to ancient literature from around the same time period (e.g., Gilgamesh and others). Coming from a fundamentalist background I wasn’t able to work my way through the concerns this raised, and decided that Christianity was for people who burried their heads in the sand.

    I came back to faith a few years later, but with lingering questions about the Bible. Now, about 20 years later, I’ve been helped a lot of Pete Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation, and by the story method of interpretation endorsed by Scot and N.T. Wright (and others). And I like what Brian McLaren had to say about the Bible as library in his last book. I’m still working through my views, but I feel much better equipped to think about these things.

    Beyond academic questions, I think it is more important that the Bible comes alive when it becomes a living document, spanning thouands of years to speak to our circumstances. Recently reading through the Psalms really brings this sort of thing home to me, as I face various challenges in my life.

  • Jeff Doles

    Since my Bible college days, over thirty years ago, one of the things I have come to understand about the Bible is that, no matter how well I may be trained in hermeneutics, apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit I will not really be able to understand it. An Aha! moment came for me when I paid some attention to what 1 Corinthians 2:11-14 says:

    “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the £Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

  • David N.

    #2 Joe – I just went and read the entire thing. Excellent. Thanks!

  • Edward Vos

    When I attended Calvin College I took a class in how the Bible was written and boy were my eyes opened to idea that the Bible is a history of God’s saving grace in our lives. It is not a literal book of recipes as to how to behave to gain God’s favor nor story / historical book to help prove God’s existence.

    It is a book of the stories of men and women who had faith in God so we too can learn how to have faith in Him who created us.

  • John Mc

    There was a time when I saw the Bible and especially the Hebrew Testament as an impenetrable tome full of bizarrely arrranged, and bizarrely themed stories, likely mythological in substance, used by devout Jews as a mystical guide to daily living and by devout Christians as a cherry orchard for vignettes and aphorisms to be used as weapons to frighten one another into theological submission. And I thought other, not so devout Jews and Christians, while reverring the Bible, pretty much ignored it because they didn’t know what to make of its violent episodes and its non-rational presumptions about nature, history, and Divinity.

    Then 20 years ago I read “Understanding the Old Testament” by Bernhard Anderson and fell in love with the Bible, and especially with the Hebrew Testament. The book as a whole and its various parts fell into place for me as a collection of narrative testimonies to the ongoing covenantal relationship between God and God’s people, composed by God’s people working from within the frailties of their own contexet, usually responding directly to the stesses of their own historical contexts. I came to understand the necessarily unavoidable limitations on what could be related factually and to suspect what needed to be related metaphorically.

    And I came to my own conclusion that the most profound influence the Holy Spirit, was not on its composition, but on its preservation, and even more importantly, on those who read it with a generous heart, open to the heart of God. I especially love the image from Isaiah 55 of the word of God coming down from Heaven like a nurturing rain, most certainly doing God’s will before returning heavenward. And I trust that the rains will come again every season in a cycle of blessings.