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Does God Talk to Us Through Fiction? Unpacking a Non-Literal Interpretation of the Bible

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Talking about science and faith is a good way to start a fight with many conservative Christians.

The topic in general doesn't raise hackles. Conservative Christians have pretty much learned their lesson from Galileo: you can't count on the Bible to answer scientific questions. But for conservative Christians today, "science and faith" is a trigger for much bigger problem: evolution and Christianity.

The special creation of humans is found in both parts of the Christian Bible, the Old Testament (Genesis 1 and 2) and New (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). That is why conservative Christians have a hard time yielding ground to evolution. In fact, many conservative Christians are warned to avoid the conversation altogether in order to keep (godless) science from damaging faith.

Conservative Christians are not the only ones who have trouble with science and faith. Popular atheist writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others warn their readers that there should be no such conversation at all. Talking about "faith" poisons the scientific pursuit.

For conservative Christians, science is a threat to faith. For atheists, faith is a threat to science. For either, the science/faith conversation does not -- cannot -- exist.

Surprisingly, one reason for this shared antipathy has to do with the Bible.

I've read enough of the New Atheists to see a pattern in their thinking about the Bible, and it is disturbingly similar to what you see in the Southern Baptist Convention or Bob Jones University. Conservative Christians and New Atheists share naïve views of what the Bible "ought" to be, namely the notion that if the Bible is really the "Word of God," it will provide accurate historical and scientific information.

Conservative Christians are very clear about this assumption, and it is just under the surface for New Atheists. This shared assumption is taken in polar opposite conclusions.

New Atheists point out that Genesis is wholly out of sync with scientific reality. This is true, but they assume that this sort of thing is sufficient grounds to declare the Bible a stupid book, Christianity a stupid religion, and Christians stupid people. "See how sloppy the Bible is with basic facts known to every middle schooler? And you call this the 'Word of God!' Get over it."

Lack of elementary scientific credibility renders the Bible suspect. Oddly enough, conservative Christians hold the same assumption. If the Bible is not historically, even scientifically, accurate, then God is a "liar" and there is no reason to trust him. The Word of God cannot make such huge factual errors. Based on this assumption, the scientific evidence is either ignored, marginalized, selectively appealed to, or re-interpreted to ease the tension.

New Atheists and conservative Christians have all sorts of reasons to be at odds, and their shared naïveté about the Bible is certainly one of them. Both have false expectation of what the Bible ought to deliver, and this sets them on a collision course. Both sides have some homework to do.

To state the obvious, no ancient writer was aware of what we take for granted today about the creation of the world and the evolution of life. You'd think that wouldn't need to be said, but it does. You cannot expect the Bible -- written in ancient times for ancient eyes -- to enter a modern scientific discussion, and you cannot fault the Bible when it fails to answer our questions.

This is not a new insight. Augustine said famously 1600 years ago that Christians embarrass themselves when they appeal to the Bible to settle scientific matters (cosmology was the issue he was dealing with). Even if many Christians throughout history did assume that the Bible is scientifically accurate, the problems with that position have been understood for a very long time, long before the modern era.

The problems with thinking of the Bible as a science book have been made clearer in recent generations. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, archaeologists unearthed other creations stories from the ancient Mesopotamian world, the same environment that produced the Bible. These discoveries have helped us understand a lot about how creation stories worked in the ancient world.

Ancient peoples did not investigate how things came to be; they assumed that there was a "beginning" when the gods formed the earth, people, animals, trees, etc., as you see them now. You can hardly blame them for making this assumption. The "how" question of creation was settled. They were interested in the "who" question: which of the gods is responsible for all of this? Each society had its own answer to this question, which they told in story form. The biblical story cannot claim a scientific higher ground. It, too, works with ancient themes and categories to tell Israel's distinct story.

New Atheists reading this might say, "Thanks for making my point, Enns. The Bible tells stories and so it can be ignored." Not so fast. What if God likes telling stories? Why assume that fiction is a problem? Why assume that for God to be God he needs to speak in modern ways of knowing?

The Bible may not be of any value as a scientific conversation partner, but that has nothing -- nothing -- to do with the character of God or the Bible. And it certainly does not devalue the science/faith discussion as a whole. Most Christians I know are far beyond fundamentalism and have thought long and hard about all of this. The New Atheist response to "faith" is a caricature.

Conservative Christians might respond, "The Bible can't deal in ancient stories. It is the Word of God. It is different. It has to be at least consistent with science." Not so fast. However different the Bible may be, intersecting with modern science is not the reason why. Many Christians understand that the Bible speaks in an ancient idiom and that we need to learn to ask its questions, not ours. False assumptions about the Bible erect a barrier to honest scientific investigation.

Simply put, both sides need to be clear on why it is a problem for God to tell stories.

Conservative Christians need to do a much better of job of keeping the Bible out of discussions where it does not belong. Atheists need to do a better job of not letting Fundamentalists define for them how thoughtful Christians have been thinking about science and faith for a very long time.

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