It’s easy to critique the American church, though. What about solutions? If it’s wrong to read the Bible as a documentary-in-print, then how should it be read?
Perhaps controversially, I’m going to suggest that we borrow a substance from the Catholic Church. (All truth is God’s truth, after all). The Catholic Church teaches that under certain, occasional, very limited conditions, the Pope is infallible. There is a huge lack of understanding of this fundamental doctrine in the Evangelical community, and even among many Catholics. What it absolutely does not mean is that (as an aggrieved ex-Catholic tried to insist to me not long ago) the Pope is an “infallible man.” It doesn’t mean he’s perfect, or that everything he says is true in all circumstances.
What it does mean is that when he stands up as a teacher with respect to a matter of faith and doctrine, and specifically states, “Hey guys, this is an infallible statement, and you can’t reject it without doing serious harm to your soul,” the substance of the statement he’s making at that moment is infallible and free from any taint of doctrinal error. Lest there should be any misunderstanding, let it be noted that the Pope hasn’t said this (or anything like it) since 1950.
Moreover, as Pope Benedict reminded us early in his tenure, “papal infallibility” doesn’t mean the Pope is an oracle. It doesn’t mean that when he stands up to make an infallible declaration, he will automatically say the right thing. In reality, all it means is that he won’t say the wrong thing. The Pope (according to Catholicism) is prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking in error. If the Pope was taking a test—on a matter of faith and doctrine—and he didn’t know any of the answers, the test would be left blank.
Again, I’m not suggesting that Evangelicals suddenly embrace the doctrine of papal infallibility. I’m saying there’s some excellent truth about the Bible in the substance of the Catholic teaching. The Pope can be wrong; no one denies that. The Pope can be wrong in his facts. The Pope can be wrong about history or math. The Pope can be wrong about unicorns and zebraphants. But when he stands up to speak ex cathedra (from the seat of St. Peter)—well, he may not be right, necessarily, but if he isn’t, he won’t speak at all. The one thing we know for sure that he won’t be is wrong.
In matters of substance, claims the Church, Scripture and Tradition are always right. When the Pope speaks ex cathedra, he can never speak amiss.
And what I’m claiming here is that the Bible is likewise infallible, and that the richest, most rewarding way to read it is as a story which has been given to us not for the purpose of knowing all truth but for understanding the deepest relational realities of God’s heart and our place as individuals and as humans in the ongoing saga to which the Scriptures bear witness.
“Many today,” writes N. T. Wright, “operate with two quite different types of ‘truth’”:
“If we asked, ‘Is it true that Jesus died on a cross?’ we normally would mean, “Did it really happen?’ But if we asked, ‘Is the parable of the Prodigal Son true?’ we would quickly dismiss the idea that ‘it really happened’; that is quite simply not the sort of thing parables are. We would insist that, in quite another sense, the parable is indeed ‘true’ in that we discover within the narrative a picture of God and his love, and of multiple layers of human folly, which rings true at all kinds of levels of human knowledge and experience.
Fred Clark picks up on this theme in another post on young-earth creationism:
The sun rises. The sun sets. A certain man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell among thieves. The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
None of the above examples are necessarily true in the strictly “literal” sense that is normally intended by the Guardians of our Moral Tradition when they ask theological questions whose purpose is to classify people into strict binaries of “Bible-believing Christians” (normally Evangelicals) vs. “Everyone else” (atheists, Jews, Catholics, gays, liberals, etc.). One of the great joys of growing up in a fundamentalist church is relentlessly getting to engage in this ritual of determining whether people are “really” Christians or not, depending on the Pharisaical rigidity of their answers to various questions. But the reality that the Guardians are missing is that a story can be “wrong” in fact, without being wrong in substance.
So, for example, it is the official position of the Catholic Church that the opening chapters of Genesis, “although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method . . . do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense . . . [these] chapters, in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the fundamental truths which are necessary for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the history of the human race and the chosen people” (Pius XII, Humanae Generis, 38). Anyone who denies the verity of the most basic elements of the Genesis story (the encyclical goes on to say) has departed from the Christian faith as traditionally taught and practiced.
Again, I’m not proposing that we all become Catholics, but that the Catholic position in this instance is a reliable indicator of orthodoxy’s borders, benevolently shepherding us away from the twin dangers of radical demythologization (“nothing in this story is true!”) on the one hand, and fanatical literalism (“exegetes, burn!”) on the other. The creation story is indeed mythic, not in the sense of being untrue, but in the sense of being a concise and symbolic narrative expressing realities that a documentary-style rendering of the actual events in question could never convey (c. f., Mary Healey, Men & Women are from Eden, pg. 21). In other words, there really was an event, a literal event that occurred in the mist-shrouded morning of time—an event of devastating import for the future of the human race. That is the event that the story in the Garden is describing, but the story employs symbolic language to describe it. In telling this story, states the Church, the biblical writers were assisted by divine inspiration, whereby (as we have just seen) they were “protected from error” in the endeavor of selecting and rewriting the ancient Sumerian myths in which the basic story likely has its origin (Humanae Generis, 38).
True in substance. It really did happen. One man and one woman, our parents, had a calamitous encounter. Whatever it was, whatever it looked like, it was horrible. They were driven from the presence of God. And the world has never been the same.
I vividly remember a preacher declaring from the pulpit at a revival I attended as a child that the story of the rich man and Lazarus was a “true” story (meaning it had actually happened), because “Jesus used a man’s actual name, and Jesus never lied.”
I submit that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a true story because it incorporates relational paradigms and substantive realities into the framework of an (on some level) imaginative narrative. That’s what a story is; that’s what it does. In that respect, this parable is true. In that respect, the Bible is true, and always will be.