Recently, I got word from my former stomping grounds of Knoxville, Tennessee, of a dispute that had arisen over a biology text book. It seems that the book approved and recommended by the committee responsible included a description of creationism as a myth. This raised the ire of at least one parent, likely a Christian of a more literal frame of mind when it comes to the Bible, who insisted that the book should be prohibited on the basis of this statement. Apparently there was enough “umpf” behind this sentiment to bring the matter all the way to a hearing in front of the School Board.
My interest here is not to explore the vicissitudes of text book approvals in public schools (though, it seems to me, that it should be clear that the text book should be approved). Rather, the situation gave me occasion once again to reflect on the way in which we speak of God and the sacred, and how so very often these days, people seem (in my humble opinion) to get it wrong.
It is interesting to me that the woman who pushed forward the case against the text book objected to the characterization of creationism as a myth. I’m sure that she defines myth as something that is untrue, for that is the way that the word is most commonly understood today. It is not, however, the only possible meaning for that word, nor is it the way in which the word has most commonly been understood for most of human history. Far from being something that is untrue, a myth is something that is deeply true. So deeply true, in fact, that it cannot be straightforwardly described. So the deep truth in question must be put forth in the form of a story or a poem, in which the indirect language of metaphor can express the depth of the truth in a way that engages us and connects with us deeply.
In the case of the creation stories in Genesis, the deep truth which the biblical authors were keen to convey was that God created everything. The stories themselves, when we delve into their details, contain more truths than simply this, speaking deeply to the relationship not only between God and creation generally, but between God and humanity, between humanity and creation, and of the sense of alienation which came to characterize the human experience of life that did not live up to a dream or vision of paradise. We don’t have space to explore all of this here, so it seems best to keep it simple: these stories are meant to assert that God is responsible for creation, it exists because of God and it has a relationship to God. The ancients who put together the Bible probably never thought of these stories as describing the way in which God created. That was a mystery to them, and it was not until the modern scientific method showed up on the scene that humanity began to understood the “how” of creation (though we do not understand the how completely yet). They were simply keen to express the why of creation and to give meaning to creation by linking it to God. The stories are myths: deeply true in their meaning, but not in their details.
Please note that I am not suggesting that all biblical stories are exactly like the creation stories. One basic and essential way that the creation stories are different is that they speak to something that no one witnessed. No one was around as creation began and formed, and so there were no “eye-witness accounts” to draw from. There are certainly many biblical stories which are based on events that people witnessed (like episodes in the life of Jesus, for example) and yet still contain mythic qualities, in the sense that as the stories are told in the Bible, they are designed to convey deeper truths. We can think of it as a basic account of something that happened meeting the imagination and skill of a poet or writer. The story that emerges from this encounter preserves something of the original event, but it becomes at the same time more than the event itself.
I have heard it said by some that the biblical stories are problematic, but I don’t think they really are. The stories are just fine. It is our reading of them that’s problematic. Beginning probably in the 19th century, where the beginnings of Christian fundamentalism are to be found, Christians began to read these stories differently. People began to read them as factual accounts. The way we saw these stories shifted, so that instead of reading them for inspiration, instead of allowing them to engage our hearts and souls in imaginative ways so we could drink deeply of the truths they offered, we began reading them for information. As science asserted itself more and more, we came to see truth in terms of facts, and going down that road eventually meant that in order of the Bible to be true it had to be factual. And that opens the door to biblical literalism.
But the Bible was never intended to be factual – though it does contain many facts. The biblical authors were not writing textbooks of history. They were writing poetry of proclamation, seeking to convey the deep truths of life and of God as best they could. The Bible is a tremendous resource as we seek to live faithfully as followers of Jesus, but in the end, it is a resource that points us toward God, that helps us into a relationship with God. But it does not replace the relationship itself.
So to speak of God is a dangerous thing, for the language we have at our disposal is by its very nature limited, because it is a human thing. Fortunately, we have the richness of metaphor and poetry that allows language to ultimately transcend itself, to point beyond itself much as our lives and all of creation point to something more, something greater: to God. Let us not impoverish the biblical texts by imposing upon them an alien framework that insists that they be factually accurate. Let us allow them to sing us their song and lead us beyond the text into the reality of God.