In a column published earlier this month at the Huffington Post, David Lose (author of Making Sense of Scripture) asks this teasing question in the headline, but then points out that what we typically mean by “true” is based on post-Enlightenment concepts that were alien to the Biblical authors. Narrowly identifying “truth” with “fact”, we have no choice but to line up on one side or the other of the liberal-conservative divide, either contorting ourselves to align the text with the latest scientific and historical discoveries, or assuming that because this can’t be done, the Bible lacks authority. Lose begs to differ:
…Both sides, however, miss the literary nature and intent of the Bible as stated within its own pages. Take for example Luke, who in his introduction acknowledges that he is not an eye-witness to the events he recounts but depends on multiple other stories about Jesus. He writes what he calls “an orderly account” so that his audience may believe and trust the teaching they have received (Luke 1:1-4). Or consider John, who near the end of his gospel comes clean about carefully arranging stories of Jesus so as to persuade his readers that Jesus is the messiah (John 20:30-31). The gospels — and, indeed, all of Scripture — do not seek to prove but to persuade. And so John, convinced that Jesus is “the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (1:29), portrays Jesus as clearing the Temple of money changers at the very outset of his ministry because he, himself, is God’s sacrifice. Similarly, Jesus dies on the Day of Preparation at the exact moment the Passover lambs are slaughtered. John’s aim is thoroughly theological, not historical.
For this reason, the Bible is filled with testimony, witness, confession and even propaganda. Does it contain some reliable historical information? Of that there is little doubt. Yet, whenever we stumble upon “verifiable facts” — a notion largely foreign to ancient writers — we should keep in mind that the biblical authors deployed them not to make a logical argument but rather to persuade their audiences of a larger “truth” that cannot be proved in a laboratory but is finally accepted or not accepted based on its ability to offer a compelling story about the meaning and purpose of the world, God, humanity and everything in between. To attempt to determine whether the Bible is “true” based only on its factual accuracy is therefore to make a profound category mistake, judging its contents by standards its authors were neither cognizant of nor interested in.
By way of illustration, recall for a moment the scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction when the two main characters, Jules and Vincent, argue over how to explain what happened when a drug dealer unloaded his handgun at them at close range but missed them entirely. Vincent (played by John Travolta) believes it’s a freak occurrence. Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) considers it a miracle. Jules’ defense of his judgment bears closely on our discussion. In response to Vincent’s assertion that what happened didn’t qualify as physically “impossible” and therefore could not be considered miraculous, Jules says, “You’re judging this the wrong way. It’s not about what. It could be God stopped the bullets, he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found my … car keys. You don’t judge shit like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt God’s touch. God got involved.”
Jules’ sense of the criteria necessary to assess truth is far closer to that of the biblical writers than that of not only Vincent but also both contemporary liberals and conservatives alike, as he asserts that the ultimate criteria of truth isn’t factual accuracy but a compelling, even transformative witness.
This is a nice attempt at a third way between the liberal-conservative impasse. Still, it seems to me that there are some factual claims in the Bible that we simply can’t get around. Did God become man, or not? Did He raise Jesus from the dead, or not?
If you say no, or yes only in the metaphorical sense, your version of Christianity may be good and satisfying for you, but it’s still fundamentally different from the “yes” version. Death and sin are real, historical, scientific, this-worldly facts. A God who enters into the concrete realm where these conditions hold sway, in order to triumph over them, is a different God from one who only inspires us from afar and strengthens us spiritually within.
The facts of the Incarnation and Resurrection haven’t been proven by Enlightenment scientific and historical methods. The Resurrection could even be disproven by them someday. In the meantime, I believe in them because that story offers me the “compelling, transformative witness” Lose describes. But in order for the magic to happen, I have to believe in them as facts.
And that, perhaps, is why attempts to reconcile religion and liberalism never completely succeed. A Christian like myself believes in certain scientific and historical facts on the basis of non-scientific, non-historicist criteria. That necessarily scandalizes the modern mind. Even the postmodern turn away from factuality into narrative, such as in Lose’s article, doesn’t take you all the way there, because some facts (most of all, death) are impervious to anything we say or feel about them. As my husband likes to say, nature gets a vote. But I want to believe God gets a veto.