Monday, 26 October 2015

Metaphorical Bible Stories

As I and others grew up in church, bible stories that we would read from each week were given, read and discussed in Sunday school. These would be portrayed as literally true, with no evaluation or critical thinking about the story perhaps not being an historical event, but rather metaphorical. Verses were memorised in exchange for sweets or other rewards every Sunday when I was very young, to stories of God’s literal provision of the various characters in the books of the bible as I got older. As far as I can remember, no one ever outright explicitly stated, or even hinted, that some qualified people and Christians around the world do not take large portions of the bible as literally true and perhaps therefore, neither should we.

Studying science and biology as I got older and at university, I began to find evidence that conflicted with the literal stories and words within the bible, such as the genetic evidence for the impossibility of the whole human race having two ancestors by which they descended. (I don’t intend to discuss the evidence here, but suffice it to say, the evidence against the literal existence of Adam and Eve is clear-cut and anyone can contact me if they need further convincing.)

Further reading by myself on history and linguistics, seemed to cast huge doubt on stories in the bible book of genesis and exodus. Linguists tell us languages are not created in an instant, but evolve over years, casting doubt on the story of the tower of Babel.

It is clear to most people that the story of Noah is also not meant to be taken literally. The huge number of problems with the logistics of fitting the number of animals on an ark, combined with the science of biogeography and other similar criticisms of the story, also show this story to be figurative. The concept originally was perhaps based on a large flood in the area at the time, adding to the knowledge of other such flood myths from other cultures based in the same area, with the Noah story being passed down through generations and combined with a story of God’s providence.

One of my favourite parts of the bible, the whole of the exodus story, from Joseph being taken into Egypt to live under pharaoh and the Egyptians, to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land, is now considered to be one huge metaphor and literary device. The evidence of this coming from archaeology and the lack of a presence of a large society in the area at that time, leading experts to believe that these were figurative, non-literal stories told at the time and passed down, to express the oppression of the Egyptian civilisation in the area during that time-frame.

“Cheated” or “betrayed” are perhaps a too strong or emotional words to use to describe the feeling, but Church and Sunday school preachers have a responsibility to inform themselves on the facts of the issue which they are teaching to children. Myself and the generation of children in my age group (and large amounts of others by which this misinformation is continuing today) were ultimately let down on this issue.

I am not saying these adults misled children deliberately to brainwash kids, (although the effect is largely the same, whatever the intention and cause) but were simply ignorant of the issues themselves and therefore saw no need to inject critical thinking of the bible verses they already clung to, as truth, themselves. The leaders and teachers were nothing but wonderful people during my years at church and I will never say a negative word about their well-intentioned personalities and conduct. However, a wider research and reading on the issues preached fell far short and it still does today.

I’m sure as people read this, they will be disagreeing, out of hand, with the large list of known metaphorical and non-literal stories in the pages of scripture, showing the need to address the problem and educate. The sheer number of events in the bible that formerly were taken to be historical and now are accepted to not be, seems to deal a death blow to the tenants of Christianity and large aspects of theology. If large amounts of scripture, such as Adam and Eve, Moses and the Exodus, Noah and the tower of Babel be taken as figurative and allegorical then why should the rest be taken as literal. This leads to fundamentalist, literalist Christians having to jump through intellectual hoops and deny large portions of the evidence which supports this, to escape the consequences of these revelations, or as the only alternative, believe almost the entirety of their bible is metaphorical and perhaps deny their faith altogether- a step too far which they will not take.

The response of “We always thought these stories were figurative, no one ever thought they were literal” I find to be intellectually dishonest. This was never made clear in the years of me going to church and I wasn’t too young to hear and understand this perspective if it ever was enunciated. This smacks of back peddling in the light of new evidence given by science and archaeology in the 21st century, to hold to the belief in the Christianity at all costs, rather than jettisoning the belief as would be done with all over ideas when evidence of this type comes along.

To also hold to the belief in the literal truth of these bible stories and deny the evidence that shows these beliefs to be misguided shows intellectual dishonesty. People should reject beliefs they hold when conflicting evidence is discovered that casts them into doubt. I can often almost see the thoughts in Christian’s minds as they happen, in real time, when explained the evidence contradicts these events being literally true, as they come to realise they would have to reject the whole of scripture and theology, if they accept the evidence for these stories being metaphorical. What’s to stop the entire bible being in the same category if some parts have been shown to be metaphorical, they think, and so I can’t accept that any of it can be metaphorical.

It is also not my responsibly as an Atheist to try to work out my theology and which parts I agree and don’t believe- this is for Christians to work out amongst themselves. I neither sit on the “believe all parts of the bible are literal” side of the coin, nor “most of it is figurative” side, such as some very liberal theologians and vicars do. I have rejected the entire bible as fundamentally untrue, despite some nice, useful parts, as an atheist and this makes it far simpler. 

It is clear what the bible writers were trying to do, in writing these stories, by trying to explain the world to which they found themselves in, thousands of years ago and we should not blame them for writing a figurative story that Christians coming later mistook to be literally true. However, people need to be told the extent to which many of the bible stories are not considered to be literally true, so they can teach this perspective to children and others in the church, to keep my experience of finding out years later from happening over and over again.