In reading Genesis 3 over and over again, I realized that I wasn’t actually reading it as a story, but more like a news report. I’m not saying that the events it portrays didn’t on some level happen; but it became clear that I was missing the actual substance of what the chapter was saying because my overly-literal reading had totally flattened the landscape of the story by reducing it to a series of factual assertions.
Let me say that another way. We’re twenty-first century Westerners. We’ve been marinating for most of our lives in a super-scientific Enlightenment mindset. We want nothing but the Facts. We value material realities over substantive truths. Christians like to say this leads to the embrace of evolution (or to Darwinism, or whatever you want to call it), but the crazy thing is this: it also leads to fundamentalism. People don’t read the Bible to encounter God; they read it to explore trivialities. They want to know exactly where the Garden of Eden is located, and on which of the numerous mountains called “Ararat” does Noah’s Ark rest, and how many gallons of water did Jesus turn into wine and was it really wine or just grape juice (umm, probably wine), and how many kingdoms does the Beast rule over and which mountain does Jesus touch down on when He descends again from heaven and how long is the Great Tribulation, seven years or three and a half years?
I’m not saying there aren’t answers to all of these questions. I’m not saying the answers aren’t occasionally helpful. But I think they miss the point. And there are times when they can even be profoundly destructive.
The blogger Fred Clark tells a story of the time he traveled to the Holy Land with a group of college classmates. It was an illuminating experience for some people, but devastating for others—not least when they arrived at the walls of Jericho, which according to their tour guide had been built 8,000 years ago.
This was simply too much for one of his fellow classmates, who had been raised in a fundamentalist church:
… There my friend stood, in 1990, in Jericho, believing that the universe was 5,994 years old and staring at a man-made wall that was 8,000 years old.
Something had to give.
The most dangerous thing about fundamentalism is not that it sometimes teaches wacky ideas, like that the world is barely 6,000 years old or that dancing is sinful. The most dangerous thing is that it insists that such ideas are all inviolably necessary components of the faith. Each such idea, every aspect of their faith, is regarded as a keystone without which everything else they believe — the existence of a loving God, the assurance of pardon, the possibility of a moral or meaningful life — crumbles into meaninglessness.
When the Bible is read like a news report, all truths become equal, which is another way of saying that all truths become equally meaningless. It matters just as much that Samson simultaneously killed a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass, as it does that Jesus has conquered every single principality and power. It matters just as much that all the cattle in Egypt were slain—twice!—as it does that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. If it were somehow proven that neither of these two events had actually happened—if we uncovered, say, an old Philistine video which showed Samson only killing five hundred people with the asses’ jawbone—it would invalidate, or at least render suspect, every single word of the Bible. If we even conceive that the Gospel of Luke was written, not as a transcript, but to convey substantive understanding—if the thought should ever cross our minds that perhaps Mary didn’t spontaneously utter the entire Magnificat as written, but that it is, nonetheless, a reflection of eternal realities and the depth of Mary’s heart—then the Word of God is lies and God Himself a liar, incessantly spinning out stories when He should have been giving us the Facts.
This is what people like me have been brought up to think. This is how atheists are formed.