The Truth of the Bible Is Metaphorical---a more than literal meaning

Much of the conflict between science and religion is the result of literal interpretations of the sacred text of the Christian and Jewish faiths known as the Bible. A literalist view of the Bible is actually an outgrowth of the philosophy and time period from which modern science arose (called the "Enlightenment"—the 18th century) that identified truth with factuality and that truth must be verifiable as fact. Therefore, it is a relatively recent view that does not go back to the original community of Christians that wrote the materials collected together in what Christians call the "New Testament" (and, therefore, not even further back to the communities of the Hebrew Bible, the "Old Testament"). Our pre-occupation with whether an event really happened would seem pretty strange to the New and Old Testament communities (and anyone before the 18th century). Asking if an event actually happened in the Bible is not important because much of the language of the Bible is metaphorical. A literal reading also misses the deeper---truer---meaning of the text. Jesus often criticized the group of Jews called the "Pharisees" of his day for abiding by the letter of the law (the Hebrew scriptures) but missing the meaning---the spirit---of the law. In his famous "Sermon on the Mount", there are many times Jesus teaches about the difference between a literal and true meaning of the law saying, "You have heard it said ..., but I say ...".

F Belton Joyner Jr. tells of the difference between a literal reading vs. a deeper reading of the Bible in his book "Being Methodist in the Bible Belt" by using the illustration of confusing the wrapping of a present with the gift inside: some people are "more interested in the way the truth is wrapped than they are in the truth itself" (Joyner Jr. quoting a youth Sunday school teacher who had read an earlier draft of his book, p. 29-30). Joyner Jr. also notes that no one can "take their Bible straight" because any reading of the Bible goes through our all-too-human filters. That's why you can pretty much prove anything you want by quoting Bible verses picked out to conform to your point. Oftentimes the Bible verses someone quotes tells you more about the person quoting the Bible than about the Bible verses themselves. Joyner Jr. concludes his discussion of "the Book" with a good statement of how to read the Bible, "Life is a journey for each of us. The Bible provides not so much a detailed map for that journey as it does a compass: directions that move us closer to God and to neighbor" (Joyner Jr, p. 32) Don't use the Bible for information; instead, use it for transformation.

I am writing this non-astronomy piece to offer an alternative approach the Bible that takes it seriously, as a sacred text, without taking it literally; how to read the Bible with the heart while not negating our rational intellect. The material below comes from "The Heart of Christianity", a book by Marcus Borg, a popular Christian scholar who has articulated what literally millions of mainline, non-fundamentalist Protestant Christians in the United States have felt for many years but did not know how to put it into words.

Truth of Metaphor

First let us be clear what is meant by "metaphor": the word means "a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance as `A mighty fortress is our God'". There is "more than literal" meaning of the language in the Bible—not inferior to a literal meaning. Much of the language of the Bible is obviously metaphorical (e.g., hands, eyes, feet of God, etc.).

The Bible has both history and metaphor. Even when describing an actual historical event, the metaphorical meaning of the event is what is important. For example, the meaning of the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon is more than what happened in the sixth century BCE. The story includes "abiding images of the human condition and its remedy" (Borg, p. 49).

Because of the pervasive influence of the Enlightenment on our society today, we value metaphorical language less than literal language, even distrusting metaphorical language. However, when describing profound truths that can transform lives, metaphors must be used. Metaphorical truths are profoundly true but not necessarily factual. This "more than literal" meaning is what a storyteller means when he says, "I don't know if it actually happened this way or not, but I know this story is true." Today we can listen to people like Garrison Keillor tell about the happenings in Lake Wobegon on the "Praire Home Companion" radio show and hear the truth in the fictional stories (and laugh at the silliness & foolishness of ourselves). The truth of the Bible does not depend on historical facutality. It contains true stories even if the particular stories are not factual reports. Borg gives a new way of viewing the Genesis story and the Jesus birth narratives that I will not try to condense (see p. 52-53 of his book). The reason for the literalist Christians' passion on their interpretation of the Bible is that they have "identified truth with factuality; thus, in their minds, if the stories aren't factual, they aren't true. And if these stories aren't true, the Bible isn't true. What is at stake is their view of the Bible." (Borg, p. 51) Many scientists view the Bible with the same literalist filter but come to the opposite conclusion: since the Bible is not factual, it cannot be true and the two camps shout at each other trying to prove a Bible passage correct or wrong. (Many of us religious scientists just shake our heads and wonder why there is such a conflict.)

Borg's response to whenever the debate between the students in his religion/philosophy classes at a large public university arises of "it happened" vs. "no it did not", is to say "Believe whatever you want about whether it happened this way; now let's talk about what the story means." Emphasizing the miraculous parts as facts makes the stories sterile and unable to touch our soul the way a "more than literal" meaning does. For example, a central story of Christianity is the Easter story of Jesus Christ's resurrection. For the non-literalist Christian, rather than being concerned with the historicity of a bodily resurrection, the key point is that Jesus is alive today in his/her life and that He is Lord. Even literalist Christians knowingly use metaphorical language when they say "I walk with Jesus every day" even though a camera wouldn't record that.

Metaphor as Bridge

Much of the preaching done in literalist and non-literalist churches uses metaphors. For example, to people "paralyzed" by various things or relationships, Jesus tells them to "get up and walk." The transforming message of the Easter story is especially potent to people feeling at the end of their life from a tragedy or a big disappointment: "they go to the tomb but the tomb is empty"—they find new life, new beginnings. They experience resurrection.

For the non-literalist Christians, "the point is not to believe in the Bible, but to see [their] lives with God through it." (Borg, p. 57)

This is how I approach reading the Bible as a scientist who is a practicing Christian with both an open heart and a rational mind. This piece quoted liberally from Marcus Borg's book "The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith" (New York: HarperCollins, 2003; ISBN 0-06-052676-9). I found the book very helpful in clarifying my view of the compatibility of science and religion in the human quest for truth. For my church I created a study guide for his book and it is posted on the church's website. F Belton Joyner Jr's book quoted from at the top of this piece is "Being Methodist in the Bible Belt: A Theological Survival Guide for Youth, Parents, and Other Confused Methodists" (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004; ISBN 0-664-22685-X).

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last updated: April 28, 2006

Author of original content: Nick Strobel