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Facts, Stories, Faith

Facts, Stories, Faith

By Walter Hesford

I have a friend who is having a crisis of faith.

He was raised to see the Bible as a coherent series of non-contradictory facts from Genesis to Revelation. To challenge one fact is to challenge the truth of the whole Bible.

Now he has met an evolutionary scientist who is a sincere Christian. And he has met me for whom the power of the Bible is in its challenging, encouraging stories.

My friend is adamant that the Bible has to be factually true to provide a firm foundation for faith, and is on a quest to prove it so.If his quest fails, he is ready to ditch the Bible and his faith. 

I fear for him. I suspect that a fair number of young biblical fundamentalists have evolved into atheist fundamentalists, locked into a fact-driven world-view.

Atheists and believers, seekers and scientists, all need stories to give their work and their world meaning.

The Bible offers a wide variety of stories with sometimes conflicting perspectives, as one might expect from a collection of stories gathered together over centuries from different communities. Any scripture that does not show inconsistencies is probably the work of a cult.

But my friend wants consistency. He challenges me to show him a conflicting perspective in the Bible. I’m sure some FāVS readers could come up with many. I offered my friend a small but interesting one.

In II Samuel 24.1 we learn that “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go count the people of Israel and Judah.’” When this episode is rephrased a couple centuries later in I Chronicles 21.1, we hear that “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.”

Biblical scholars suggest that the later telling reveals the dualism that had infiltrated the monotheism of Israel during the Babylonian Captivity. Harmful acts became attributed to Satan, not God. (Scholars speculate that a census was considered harmful because it led to taxes and military conscription, dangers associates with monarchies, as the prophets warned.)   

I offered this shift in perspective because it reveals the ever-shifting theology of the Bible, itself a dynamic story of the living word.

I don’t want my friend to lose his faith in the Bible, but to understand its history, its myth.

“When history gets serious, it gets mythic,” stated Northrop Frye, a great Canadian literary critic who saw the Bible as providing the core myth for the Western literary tradition:  a quest romance which concludes with the hero (Jesus) rescuing his bride (the Church) from the clutches of the villain (Satan).

Frye is using the original meaning of myth—a plot that reveals and fosters the beliefs of a people. But because “myth” has come to mean something false, perhaps I had best avoid it in conversations with my friend. 

One could talk of a unifying theme, such as deliverance. Christians traditionally offer a typological interpretation of what they call the Old Testament that points to Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah.

Understandably Jewish interpreters of Hebrew scripture object to this appropriation of their stories. Feminist scholars, among others, also object to the practice of reducing the Bible to one mega-plot, arguing that this obscures scripture’s multiple voices, multiple perspectives.

In my opinion, the best witness to how Bible stories may open multiple perspectives was “Genesis: A Living Conversation” moderated by Bill Moyers. This ran on PBS stations in 1996; a book companion was published the same year. Moyers’ conversations (modeled on those conducted by Rabbi Burton Visotzky at the Jewish Theological Seminary) brought together people from various faith and non-faith traditions; what they had in common was a belief in the power of the stories in Genesis.

 These TV conversations spun off other stimulating conversations, private and public. I remember how surprised I was when my 90-year old mother, a pretty staunch Lutheran, told me as we watched the show together that she agreed with an Islamic scholar’s interpretation of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac/Ishmael.

And I remember with fondness when folks from conservative and liberal traditions gathered together in Moscow’s community center to discuss Genesis stories. Perhaps Spokane had similar gatherings. I don’t know if minds were changed, but people did listen to each other, something that doesn’t happen much these days.

Except, of course, right here in the FāVS community! We should all thank Tracy Simmons and her board for being so open to differing faith perspectives, for keeping the conversation going.

I have let my friend know of FāVS and given him a copy of “Genesis:  A Living Conversation.” My hope is that he will hear ways in which his faith can grow.

About Walter Hesford

Walter Hesford, born and educated in New England, gradually made his way West. For many years he was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, save for stints teaching in China and France. At Idaho he taught American Literature, World Literature, and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow. He and his wife Elinor enjoy visiting with family and friends and hunting for wild flowers.

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