Invisible deities. Virgin births. Talking donkeys. Food falling from the sky. Sticks turning into snakes. Talking serpents. People rising from the dead. Water turning into wine. Talking fire. Blind people suddenly seeing. City walls crumbling for seemingly no reason. Loaves of bread miraculously reproducing like amoebae. Talking whirlwinds.
That’s just a very partial list of all the patently absurd stuff contained within the pages of the Bible. And when it’s all laid out in that way, “You don’t seriously believe in that stuff, do you?” — which is the question nearly every one of my nonreligious friends asks me whenever the topic of religion comes up — really does become a perfectly fair question. The answer to the question is, “Yes, I believe it all, but …” And I usually leave it at that and start talking about baseball, because despite the question, my friends don’t actually want to spend much of their Friday nights discussing theology. But the “but” has to do with the way we believe.
I know of no one who is a Christian because they find the story of the talking donkey to be a super-convincing historical proposition. For that matter, I kind of doubt anyone’s a Christian because they find the Resurrection of Jesus to be an especially convincing historical proposition. Rather, people are Christians because the Christian stories — be they biblical, cultural, congregational, musical or liturgical — have resonated with them on some level and have led them to the revelation of God, which in turn has made those stories even more meaningful to them. In other words, belief is narrative, not propositional.
The problem is that much of the dialogue relating to Christianity in the popular culture is propositional in nature. (Most of the rest is political in nature, which is also deeply problematic, but irrelevant to this column except in tangential ways). That is to say, what we see most often in the public sphere are debates over scientific or historical propositions the Bible is supposed to have made. The creationism vs. evolution debate is only the most visible example of this. Outside of the all-too-large Christian self-help genre, the most popular Christian writers today are apologists, who arm their evangelical audiences to try to do the impossible and defend Christianity on entirely rational, largely propositional grounds. Theologians and historians like The Jesus Seminar and N.T. Wright, meanwhile, argue over how closely the historical Jesus matches the Jesus in the Bible. In these ways, the debate over Biblical proposition extends far into the walls of the church and into the halls of academia.
This is all a very modernistic way of approaching a religion. And that’s just the issue. Post-Enlightenment modernity demands that everything make sense in a rational, logical way. This is the way most people approach the world. And I’ve often heard Christians claim to believe the things they believe because they “just make sense.” But the reality is that talking donkeys and reproducing bread and people rising from the dead never “just makes sense” in any sort of rational way. They can, however, make sense as part of a narrative.
Of course, Jesus healing a blind person with nothing more than mud as part of a narrative is not necessarily any less absurd than just stating flatly that Jesus could heal blind people with mud. But when it’s part of a narrative, the absurdity can be seen to serve a purpose. What the blind man needed was for someone to actually see him. That the story is medically impossible is beside the point. The Bible is not “Gray’s Anatomy.” We should believe in the story because it tells us how to live.
So then, did Jesus actually heal the blind man? Did the donkey really talk? Did food really fall from the sky? Do propositions serve any purpose at all? Within the narrative, absolutely. And it’s within the narrative that matters. It kills a story when you stop every five minutes and say, “But, of course, that’s historically unlikely.” We should stop acting as though modern conceptions of history and science are the only ways to approach truth. Likewise, we need to remember that the bible was never meant to meet those modern criteria.
Christians often get annoyed when people call the Bible a collection of stories. But that’s precisely what the Bible is. Indeed, the entire religious experience is a collection of stories, from songs to prayers to liturgical rites to testimonies to sermons to the pleasantries we exchange when we walk through the doors of a church. Our entire lives are defined by the stories we hear and tell and believe and live. Instead of recoiling from that, we would all do well to embrace it.
Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.