Well, as it happens, I’ve gotten myself roped into helping out with our church’s vacation bible school this week. I’m in charge of upper elementary crafts, ha. The theme is High Seas Adventure, which is kind of fun for me because I’ve actually been sailing on a schooner. However, it is a bit awkward for me because I’m not a Christian, and this is a very Christian sort of event. It’s not that I don’t like or don’t agree with what’s being taught, because for the most part I do. It’s more like I feel like I’m not the person that ought to be teaching it, you know? Luckily, the other gal I’m working with is doing the talking part, and she’s very, very good…so it’s not so bad.
Today’s motto was God’s Word is True. Now, when I read a phrase like that, my hackles automatically go up because it’s so easy for people to misunderstand. Not all truth is factual truth, and a story doesn’t have to be historically, factually real in order to be “true”. However, these are kids we’re talking about. How do you explain the concept of genres in the Bible to a fourth grader? Simple answer: you really can’t. Wait until they get into junior high, and then maybe you can start explaining how the various parts of Scripture are true.
However, there is a vast difference between saying “everything in the Bible is true” and “there are no made-up parts in the Bible; all the stories are all true”. Heaven forbid you start saying things like “Everything that’s written in the Bible actually happened in history, and happened exactly as it is written”. See, I’d agree with the first statement and need to majorly clarify the second, and I think the third statement is blatantly false and is entirely missing the point of entire sections of the Bible.
It seems like many Americans have this notion that factual truth is the only truth worth knowing. In other words, if it didn’t actually happen, it’s meaningless. It’s “make-believe”. It’s not real. It causes people to turn their noses up at fiction writing as “fairy tales”, or worse, “lying”. It causes people to decide that certain movies and books cannot possibly contain truth because they’re about talking animals, or people who can do magic. It’s why some people won’t watch anything but the History Channel. In this worldview, only facts have value…mythology and legends are “just stories”, and are therefore of no use whatsoever. (Even though a people’s mythology can often reveal more about who they are and what they believe than their history can.)
Therefore, if the events in the Bible are not all historically, factually true, they conclude that the entire Bible is meaningless. Thus, when people outside of the faith encounter such Bible-believing Christians, they conclude that all Christians must be mindless morons, if they really think everything in the Bible “actually happened”. In trying to maintain the “factual reality” of the events in Scripture (which they mistake as The Truth), such literalists are actually destroying the credibility of the overall message (i.e: the Actual Truth) to people who, you know, actually understand how to properly read various genres of literature.
How can I put this delicately? Ever heard of an allegory? A poem? A metaphor, for crying out loud? The Bible has all of them! People who dismiss any story because “it’s not real” are missing the purpose of the story. People who read a myth the exact same way they read a historical document, and require the myth to have the same factual information as the historical document, and automatically dismiss the myth as not being worth their time when it inevitably doesn’t have the same factual information as the historical document…it becomes obvious that they don’t know what a myth is for. Basic reading comprehension fail.
For example, personally I think Genesis is an allegory of creation, not a factual account of creation, and here’s the kicker: it doesn’t have to be factual to be in order to be true. The story employs archetypes and uses allegorical language to describe humankind’s fall away from God. (Come on, the people’s names were Man and Mother of All Living, and they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The language is rhythmic and poetic. Allegory!) On the extreme opposite pole, there exists a relatively modern movement in America called Young Earth Creationism, which maintains the God created the world in seven literal days around 6000 years ago, despite the veritable mountain of evidence to the contrary. I think such “literalism” stems from this need for every Bible story to have happened “in real life”. People try to convince YECs that Genesis cannot be factually true, but all the YECists hear their critics saying is “Genesis is meaningless”. And if Genesis is meaningless and therefore false, than the whole Bible is meaningless and God is a liar. And this is all because in their reality, stories that aren’t historical fact are meaningless, and therefore false. Fact = Truth. NotFact = Falsehood. It’s simple, black and white…and utterly blind to most of humankind’s collection of Truth in the form of poetry, allegory, metaphor, parable, fairy tales, and bedtime stories.
As a writer, I could not live in such a world.
Not everything has to exist in real life to be true. “Made up” stories can still be “true”…that truth simply exists in a different form. Jesus himself made up stories to make a point, and I don’t think many people are suggesting that the events in those little stories actually happened. That wasn’t the bloody point. Stories don’t have to be real to be true. The truth is not in the provability of the events. The truth is in the message conveyed by the events. It doesn’t matter if Genesis never happened. It doesn’t matter if Revelation never happened, or never happens. Those stories are still true, in that they contain universal truths that aren’t bound by fact or history.
This sort of thing is obvious to me because I write fiction, and so I find myself boggled when other people don’t understand. Maybe it’s because I write fantasy fiction, which is both “fantasy” and “fiction”…a double dose of unreality, as it were. I have a more ephemeral notion of Truth, I guess, which is based less on the “real world” and more on what sorts of things are worth believing. In my mind, some facts are True. Some Truth is factual. But not all Truth is factual, and not all facts are True. The nightly news about all the horrible stuff that goes on during the day might be fact, but such things are not expressions of Truth…and in my mind, the news is not more worthwhile than Lord of the Rings just because the news is “real life” and LOTR is “make-believe”. Sometimes fiction is truer than real life.
In fact, I think I write fiction because it’s actually easier to write truth when one isn’t confined to fact. We live in a messed up world. It’s far easier to tell the truth when you don’t have to tell things exactly as they really happened. And given the sheer amount of poetry and metaphor and allegory and parable and storytelling in the Bible, I think God understands that.