Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon. Science might be considered description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible or specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end). Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action). The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective valence, their value, their motivational significance.
– Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning
THE POWER OF NARRATIVE
The meaning of the world is contained in stories. Of course, the world is made of things, but the meaning of those things, their connections and purposes, are revealed in stories. Our lives are meaningful to the extent the stories we see ourselves apart of are meaningful.
Some stories, the enduring ones, embody universal patterns – these stories last, they enter our consciousness, engrain themselves in and form our culture, support our identities and become the underlying web of references on which we structure our interactions and our lives.
That is what the Bible is – a web of interconnected stories, from creative origins, through the garden, to the call of Abraham, through the Exodus, through the prophets, and then into the narratives of the Gospels and the other Christian writings – a series of stories that weave a cosmic web of logos – of meaning.
To call oneself a Christian is to claim these stories as one’s own – to locate one’s life in some manner in the ongoing narrative(s). And to be Western is to have some reference to this set of narratives as well.
STORIES FROM ANOTHER WORLD
The worldview of the authors and communities that wrote the various books of the bible understood the world much differently than we do today. Their worldview is not that of our own. Let me repeat that for emphasis – the scriptures were written by people who had a different worldview than our own.
As such, we must filter our reading of the texts through awareness of these differences. Many of the meanings and much of the wisdom of the scriptures remain relevant for us today. We too value kindness, freedom, integrity, and compassion. We can share much of their vision for a better world where the lowly were raised up, where justice flowed like a mighty river, and where healing, peace, and love prevailed.
We can appreciate the meanings of the subplots, seeing ourselves in David’s bravery as a youth but also in his lust. We can appreciate the challenges that Moses faced leading a people. We can lament with Rachel. And we can understand something of the experiences of Peter, John, and Paul as they tried to make sense of their encounters with Jesus.
We can accept many of the truths the ancients conveyed, without accepting their worldview and how it led them to explain things. The opening chapters of Genesis are not scientific texts making claims about astrophysics. Miracles and exorcisms were how people interpreted disease and recovery without the benefit of chemistry or biology. We must read these stories with modern eyes, otherwise we will render them unable to speak meaningfully to us today, turning them into fairy tales and works of fantasy.
THE NATURE OF THE TEXTS
Evidential theology proceeds from the conviction that the Bible is not inerrant or infallible – it is a collection of stories that mix fact with fiction, poetry and prose, metaphor and symbols.
The writings are the recorded collection of our ancestor’s understandings of the divine, notions of goodness, human nature, and the meaning and purpose of life. To claim these stories as meaningful and culturally significant, does mean we need claim them as magical.
The texts were not written to serve as historical, scientific, or even moral documents (as we understand these disciplines today). Scripture instead combines history remembered with history metaphorized, expressing sacred myths that are primarily sweeping spiritual statements, providing context for answers (but not necessarily the answers themselves) to life’s basic questions. Literal readings skew the meaning of the texts and render the core myths irrelevant.
Suppose you find yourself standing in front of a statue of Lincoln swinging an ax to break the chains attached to a slave girl’s foot. Is the statue true or false? Hopefully, you’d realize that truth is layered, and ask, true in what sense? Historically, we have no record of Lincoln swinging an ax to free a slave child. But the statue still speaks a meaningful truth.
– John Dominic Crossan
Since the writings consist of many viewpoints, and sometimes contradictory ones, our reading is always selective. Further, the texts should be read contextually – from the perspective of the historical periods and cultures in which they were written.
Context matters. Much of the Bible was written by and for Jewish culture – the narratives and wisdom conveyed the basis for the Jewish identity. Later, the Christian community applying midrashic technique to the texts, explicated the meaning of their own movement. A prominent background theme for both sets of writings is the dehumanizing and oppressive effects of empire – be it that of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, or Rome.
No text is self-interpreting, the Bible included. Any textual engagement is by necessity, hermeneutical. Claiming the Bible as one’s mythopoetic source is a process of ongoing interpretation and application – a conversation with the past and present, with the text and our lives.
Every reader has a voice in this conversation and a role in the ongoing reinterpretation. Each individual in each age must apply the texts to current realities – with both the text and current understanding of reality in dialog, neither trumping the other in an ultimate sense. Even when we decide to disregard or reject specific parts of the text, we must still wrestle with what the ancient authors intended, and their experiences and concerns that led them to write such.
FINDING MEANING IN THE TEXTS
Like any text, the scriptures require interpretation and as such, we will never exhaust the meanings of the texts. The narratives are overladen with metaphors rich in meaning – ideas concerning humanity, freedom, goodness, and the importance of love, justice, and kindness. The actual historical circumstance of these metaphors is often clouded.
The Bible contains revolutionary ideas (for their times) – such as the dignity and equality of all humanity and an early sense of the equality of men and women. It dictates love of strangers and calls for the care of the poor and the outcast. These aspects of the text’s vision remains relevant for any people who wish to be considered humane.
Yet in a strict sense, the Bible is not necessary for understanding and living a good life – much of moral understanding is achievable through reason. Yet the priorities and development of moral understanding within the texts are enlightening and point us toward a way of living – a vision that calls us beyond the normal understanding of morality and what constitutes a good life.
The moral priorities of the text are the poor and lowly are the important ones. The imperfect are favored over the legalistic. Mercy and justice are ultimate concerns. Marginalization is considered beneath human dignity. The violent power of Empire is supplanted with the gentle power of generosity of self.
Conversely, the Bible also contains many ideas and moral notions that we rightly reject – genocide, patriarchy, sexism, divinely-sanctioned violence, holy war, misogyny, outdated views on divinity, sexuality, and marriage, in part the remnants of an ancient worldview that lacked the benefit of today’s scientific, psychological, and historical knowledge.
Yet at its core, the sacred writings speak of the primacy of the transformative dynamic potential of kenotic love. The vision is one of integrity through love, and the true meaning of sacrifice and self-emptying becomes rawly visible throughout the stories – regardless if the details of such be a blending of allegory, spiritualized fiction, and fact.