Part of a series for our CWOTI study group, this session we are reading “Inspired” by Rachel Held Evans.
A nation of people, exiled from their land, their temple, the centerpiece of their national identity, destroyed, the walls of their capital city torn down.
And through these oral stories, of their origin, of their God, the Israelites begin to form, intentionally or not, the books that, for better or worse, would change the world.
This is where our discussion begins. While we could recount the history of “How We Got The Bible”, that is not the focus of this study (and there are many excellent books on the subject!) Instead we’re talking about what the Bible says, and WHY it says what it says.
In chapter 1 of ‘Inspired’, we’re talking about origin stories. The origin of the Bible, a bit, but also the origin of a people, preserved in stories and songs and, later, written, compiled and preserved.
Rachel Held Evans (RHE) describes for us the origin of the early Bible stories, in what we now know as parts of Genesis -Deuteronomy, and asks the question, “Just what the heck are we supposed to do with these stories?”
“The role of origin stories,” she writes, “is to enlighten the present by recalling the past.”
She continues, “Contrary to what many of us are told, Israel’s origin stories weren’t designed to answer scientific, twenty-first-century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing, ancient questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation.”
And I couldn’t agree more. The Israelites, huddled in their homes in the land of Babylon, needed something to hold on to. They needed something that told them God was still looking out for them no matter what else was going on. That they, as a people, were still separate, distinct, and special, in spite of Babylonians in whose land they lived.
I have done a lot of study on my own regarding the origin of the Bible and I’ve read many books from historians, anthropologists, linguists, theologians, and others. There is no consensus on just how the library of books we know as our modern Bible came to be, whether it was first put in writing during the time of Moses or later, during or even after the Babylonian captivity. But what almost all agree on is that there was, indeed, an oral history that was preserved, passed on generation to generation, long before anything was written down.
But what do we DO with these ancient stories?
“Spiritual maturation requires untangling these stories, sorting fact from fiction…and embracing those stories that move us toward wholeness while rejecting or reinterpreting those that do harm,” RHE says.
Untangle them. As if they are a ball of string that’s been knotted up and needs to be straightened out. Keep those that move us forward, reject or reinterpret those that hurt us or hold us back.
For me personally, that’s hard to wrap my brain around. My earliest experiences with church and the Bible (that I can remember) were with the Methodist church in our little hometown in Nebraska. It was the only church in town so I think, by default, our family became Methodists. I don’t remember going often. Christmas, Easter, and a few times otherwise. (The church was also sort of the social center, where scout meetings were held, where many spaghetti dinners were had, where Santa came for children to ask for their toys and puppies and ponies. But that’s another blog post.) From those early childhood church experiences in Sunday School and services the Bible just WAS. No one really talked about whether we should interpret the Garden of Eden or the Ark as stories or fact. It just was.
When I was in Junior High my parents and church sent me to camp. The same camp my mother went to at that age. (If had asked me at the time I would have said this is when I became a Christian – it was also around the time I was Confirmed, after several weeks of class, into the Methodist church, and also Baptized – if you ask me now I would say it was the ‘seed planting’ of what would later, much later, become my ‘blooming’ as a Christian. But that’s another long story that needs its own blog post.) It was at camp that I was instructed in the concept of literalism. I don’t honestly know, now, at this time of my life, long removed from the Methodist church, whether what I was taught at Riverside camp was the official position of the church or just the official position of the camp counselors. But during that week of camp (and two more weeks the next two summers), it’s what I was taught. And I just accepted it. It just became part of the ‘infant’ theology and spirituality of my 12-year-old self, and a concept I still struggle with all these years later.
So the idea of untangling and rejecting or reinterpreting these stories is something I just… it’s hard to get my head around. While intellectually I know, having spent as many years studying science as I have studying the Bible, that 6 literal 24 hours of Creation is not how it happened, that the Ark story is more legend than history. I know that. Intellectually. But spiritually… my ‘spiritual self’ is holding on to the belief that God is big enough to make everything in 6 days, to make an old old man build a giant boat and fill it with animals, to give a man named Abraham a child when he and his wife should have been dead.
It’s hard to get my head and heart, my intellect and my spirit, to agree on what to do with these stories.
Later in chapter 1, Rachel touches on an idea that I hadn’t thought of before.
“Christians can learn a lot about Scripture from the people who have had it the longest.”
And she mentions the Midrash.
If we took all the study Bibles on the shelf of your local Christian bookstore and took all the commentary out of them, even those that disagreed with each other, and compiled them all in one place, that would be a facsimile of what the Midrash is. It is the imaginings and expansions and commentaries on Jewish scripture that has been going on for hundreds of years.
Few modern Evangelical Christians would consider anything the Midrash says to be “Biblical”. But that’s not the point. The Midrash is the centuries’ worth of ‘untangling’ that the Jewish people have been doing all along with these stories of snakes and arks and pillars of salt.
And I feel we as Christians have missed out on so much by insisting on literalism instead of untangling.
There’s a dangerous subculture that has developed in Evangelical Christianity. One of the loudest (and, in my opinion, most obnoxious) voices in that subculture is Ken Ham, famous (or infamous) for his Ark Encounter ‘museum’. Ham and others insist that the only correct interpretation of Genesis is a LITERAL interpretation.
Ham writes on his blog: “…it is vital to believe in six literal days for many reasons. Foremost is that allowing these days to be long periods of time undermines the foundations of the message of the Cross.”- https://creation.com/the-necessity-for-believing-in-six-literal-days
For Ham and other literalists, there is no room for interpretation. For them, if we can’t believe in literally only 144 hours of creation that happened about 6000 years ago, then we can’t believe in anything that comes after. We can’t believe in David and Solomon and, worst of all, in their opinion, we can’t believe in Jesus. If Adam isn’t literal, neither is Jesus and that’s just wrong in their theology.
And I think that when we do that, when we insist that everything in these early stories in Genesis are 100% historical, the end, case closed, we miss out on so much that we can learn when we do the untangling that Rachel mentions. And she is encouraging me to do more of that in my own study.
We, I, miss out on the opportunities that Jewish culture gives us in the Midrash, the opportunity to WRESTLE with these stories. To see them as the start of the conversation, not the end.
I really enjoyed chapter one. It’s reopened my mind a bit to the possibilities. I am an RHE fan, her previous books have really been special to me. I have found chapter 1 to be a bit… long-winded? maybe? for lack of a better term. It seemed that Rachel was repeating herself in some places and maybe it could have been edited down, tightened up a bit in my humble opinion, but in the end, I found her insight something I could appreciate.
I look forward to chapter 2.