Friday, August 15, 2008

Oh, it's on!

So, a while back a friend of mine wrote a facebook note about how he, as an atheist, has been discussing the bible with his family, and trying to show them alternate ways of viewing the bible (other than the fundamentalist literal infallible interpretation thing). I wrote a comment saying that I liked his post, and offering the literary objections to the literal interpretation business:

Being a lit major, I come at this question from a completely different angle than you do, I'm sure: when I'm talking to those of the more fundamentalist persuasion, I often mention that I object to a literal interpretation of Genesis (as well as several other books of the bible) not for scientific reasons, but for literary reasons. When we accept that the various books of the bible are not all written as History in the sense that we 21st Century Americans think of it, we can see that Truth doesn't always come to us in the form of historical narrative, or even in the form of non-fiction prose. (The Psalms are a good example of this.)

Often enough, it doesn't matter much to a Christian faith whether or not certain biblical stories were historically accurate in the sense that they actually occurred in reality: whether or not the book of Job is based on actual events, or the book of Esther actually occurred that way, doesn't matter to us nearly so much as what the stories they tell mean; the messages they convey. I would argue that the same is true of Genesis. Rather than being a scientific document or a historical document, it a creation myth; but to me, that makes it no less valuable a work, and no less indicative (to a Christian) of humankind's relationship with God.

Well, time went by, and I almost forgot about the comment; but then yesterday I got an e-mail saying that someone else had posted a comment, and found that it was a response to mine:


If you'll allow me an analysis of your view...

If these stories are just stories, but their true value lies in the lessons we can adduce from them, what would those lessons be? For instance, what useful understanding can we glean from the creation stories in Genesis? What knowledge can we take home from the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son at god's nod or from the command to kill those who break the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2)? It's fine to say they're allegories, but allegories to what? Surely nothing praiseworthy.

The apologist here will likely try to explain why the bible offers such seemingly inaccurate claims historically, morally, and scientifically, but the fact that they must do so, and that they can apparently do so with more clarity than the book itself, should lead somebody to conclude that the book is muddled and unnecessary, given that we have human reason with which to acquire actual understanding.

Additionally, one thing the bible has that other stories, such as Goldilocks or The Illiad do not, is several claims to the books literal and unchanging truth (these claims lead us into very murky waters, with 33% of the world taking the stories as the book instructs - literally). Again, perhaps it's an allegory, but if so, it's an allegory that could be usurped in clarity by virtually any man, woman, or child on this planet (and an allegory, if you're approach is correct, that has only been grasped by a handful of people - making it a very poor allegory indeed). Both god and humanity could easily do better.

It's been a while since I've engaged in an internet debate, but I thought I'd pick this one up and play with it for a bit. Here's my first response:

Thanks for the analysis. I'd be loathe to derail Jonathan's comment section, so we might need to take this elsewhere if it leads anywhere.

I find your frequent use of the word "Allegory" intriguing, because allegory is exactly the genre of literature that can be best deciphered in the sort of rational, logical way that you are talking about. In the symbolism of allegory, there is generally a one-for-one correspondence between the symbols and the things symbolized. In Bunyan, the character of Christian represents your average Christian, while the Slough of Despondency represents...being despondent. It's also exactly the sort of symbolism that myth doesn't do.

This is why I disagree so heartily with your statement that apologists can explain (well, you said the bible, but I was talking about Genesis so as to not step into other genres) with greater clarity than it can itself, and further, that because something is unclear or difficult to read that it is therefore unnecessary. "We have human reason with which to acquire actual understanding," you say. This makes my eyelid twitch. Are not myths (and stories in general) ways that human knowledge and understanding find expression? A prominent fantasy author once wrote an essay entitled "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to be Said." Another author once wrote, "[Aspiring authors trained in over-rational interpretation] still do not realize that a symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically. They mistake symbol (living meaning) for allegory (dead equivalence)." This is, in fact, why some people write fiction instead of nonfiction in the first place, and why many authors, asked what their works are about, will often say that they want the piece to speak for itself.

Now, it's possible that you're trying to say that given the traditional Christian view of God and his authorship of the books of the bible, it would have been more effective to communicate what he wanted through other means: actual historical and scientific treatises, perhaps, or at least a point-by-point credo and/or list of rules and regulations. Well that would open an entirely different can of worms, and I'd say if we want to continue we should probably find somewheres other than Jonathan's comments to do it. The space limits here are a bit constraining, anyway. If you want, I can send you a friend invitation and we can work something out.

We'll see where it leads.

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