I attended a Catholic high school in Toronto which was a great experience for me. But I can still remember the fear of debating my religion teacher; someone I believed had genuine faith. In this case though, I was afraid he was leading his students astray and that it was my job to prove him wrong.
The topic: Are we supposed to take the Genesis accounts of creation literally or not?
Growing up, I believed it was vital for Christians to read the Bible and believe what it says. I didn’t realize that I actually just wanted people to believe the Bible in the same way as I did. If they didn’t, then they obviously didn’t understand the Bible properly. I accused people of picking and choosing what they wanted to hear, while thinking that I had it figured out. However, as I met more Christians from a wider variety of denominations, I learned that they all took the Bible seriously. I now understand that the difference among Christians lies not in our love of the book, but in our interpretation.
Back to the debate. My teacher had the audacity to claim that the Earth may not have been created in 6 literal days. To me that was blasphemy. I thought that we had to believe that the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2 were supposed to be taken as scientific truth, and if we didn’t, we were discounting the whole story of Scripture at which point we might as well throw it all out.
I quickly realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere with my teacher. In fact, as soon as he suggested that we weren’t meant to take the whole Bible literally, I tuned out everything else he was saying. He had lost my confidence; there was nothing else he could say that would make me believe he was a true Christian.
And then I went to Bible School.
My Christian formation and education after high school led me on a journey to read Scripture in a whole new way. I realized that there’s so much more to the Bible than I once thought. I wasn’t actually defending the Bible in my debate with my teacher, but rather my own interpretation of it. And once I realized that being a part of the Christian tradition meant learning to let go of my own ideas, Scripture became alive and life-giving once again.
The general principle of hermeneutics (interpretation) is that we need to understand what the Bible said in its own time to the people it was originally written for in order for us to understand what it is saying to us today. We need to learn about genre (like narrative, poetry, epistles, parables, and apocalyptic), language (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), translation (different english words in different versions), and context (cultural, historical, and linguistic).
A powerful image that comes out of studying the Bible in this way is that of counter-narrative. In our world we have many competing stories that attempt to answer some of life’s biggest questions. Questions like: Who is God? Who are we? How did we get here? Why are we here? Why is there evil? How are we supposed to live? What do we do about death?
Our world (culture, society, media) is writing a narrative for us by answering these questions all the time. Day after day we are being told what to believe and how to live. Our lives are influenced by that message, and for the most part, we buy into it. The Bible offers us a competing message, a counter-narrative, in order to lead us on a different path. Let me use Genesis 1-11 as an example.
When it comes to the stories of Genesis, we must ask ourselves what the stories were meant to do in their time. Are we making these stories say something that they were never meant to say, like using a cookbook to answer algebra questions?
When we actually dig into the context of the Ancient Near East, we find that there were other stories floating around that taught people about the beginning of the Earth. One of the most common stories was the Epic of Gilgamesh. There are some similarities between it and Genesis, but we really need to focus on the differences.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a tale of gods who are fighting each other, and out of the carnage of war, they create the world. Humanity is made to serve the gods and taught to be afraid of them. Just because they feel like it, the gods cause a flood to cover the Earth. The reward for those who survive the flood is immortality - becoming like gods themselves.
In the Genesis account, we see that there’s only one God who made the world by speaking (not fighting). God created the world to be peaceful and good. God gave humanity a purpose and longed to be in relationship with it. It was humanity that walked away from God and destroyed all of God’s creation. This grieved God and He decided to start fresh through a flood. But even though God sent the waters on the Earth, He preserved life in order to bring about a new beginning.
The differences between these stories are huge, and what they say about God and the world is vital to understanding what the stories are meant to do. We aren’t free to read into Scripture something that isn’t there. Instead, we should interpret the Bible for our time, using the message in its time to apply to our context. If we do that with Genesis, we see that its focus wasn’t on proving the number of days in which the earth was created, but that it was a counter-narrative meant to answer much bigger and much more important questions about God, us, and the world.
Narratives aren’t dead in our modern times. We hear them all the time. The narrative of our modern culture is that we have no idea why we are here. We can’t prove God scientifically, so we can’t prove God at all. We should look out for ourselves because we are the most important. We should also be good people, but what it means to be good is up to the individual. We can decide what is right, so live it up, because in the end, we all die. Be more, get more, learn more, earn more.
How might the story of Scripture act as a counter-narrative for our time? How does the life of Jesus lead us in a different direction from what we see around us? How might God be wanting to use His word to show us what He is all about in this world? Once we start reading the Bible with these questions in mind, we may be surprised at how much it will transform us.