Friday, July 29, 2005

Then Israel sang this song (Biblical language)

Okay, one last post about context before I really start with specifics. Or at least I hope I'm done; I'll give myself the weekend to ponder the matter.

There are two things to keep in mind about the Bible as you're reading it.

First of all, you have to take each piece of the Bible as it was intended to be read. The Bible is full of different styles of writing, and each style has different purposes. The majority of the Bible is in four styles: historic, epistle, prophecy, and poem. There are others, I think, but this is what I remember off the top of my head. Type one is most of the Old Testament through the book of Esther, and the New Testament Gospels and Acts. Type two is the rest of the NT excluding most of the book of Revelation, and bit of the OT here and there. Type three is most of the OT after Song of Solomon, and the bulk of the Book of Revelation. The last type is scattered about here and there, but most of the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.

Why are these so important to understand? Well, in particular, the last two types largely use symbolic language, and are far less likely to be intended for taking literally. Poems will use a lot of flowery imagery that one is not intended to take literally at all, while prophecy is often filled with bizarre images and personifications of nations and social concepts. When Daniel is seeing multiple-headed beasts rise out of the sea to spew filth from their mouths and cast nations into the bottomless pit or whatever, you're not meant to assume there is a literal interpretation of this probably 99% of the time. It's pictures of concepts with its own coded language that unfortunately isn't always easy to understand. In a poem, if the LORD holds the world in the palm of His hand, we need to know that God doesn't have a real hand, nor is anyone really holding the world; it's also a symbol, but usually one easier to understand, and not so deep in symbolism. I may get back to this subject in a later post, most likely when I get to passages of these types.

Secondly, despite what a few odd people seem to believe, the Bible is not a science textbook. One of the most well-known examples of this is Leviticus 11:13-19. Aha! the skeptic thinks, a bat is not a bird! Actually, it is, and this is why. I'll make mention of it when I go through Genesis 1, but in the system of classifying animals in the Bible, there are just a handful of catgories. If it swims, it's a "fish", regardless of whether it has gills, scales, flippers, etc. If it walks on land, it's either a "beast" or a "creature that creepeth," whatever that's supposed to mean. And of course, if it flies, it's a "bird".

While many of us are likely to scoff at this system of classification, one only need look at our own culture to see that we do the same thing. The most prominent place we do it is in nutrition. When we talk about foods, we classify them in a completely different way than zoologists and botanists do. Tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, peppers, and a number of other food items are fruit, but we don't call them fruit, because we think of fruit as a nutritional classification. I've actually seen diets that classify Coca-cola as a fruit, believe it or not! More specific to the sort of classification listed above, though, is the fact that we have things like "jellyfish" that are called by the name "-fish", but aren't truly fish in the technical sense. Generally, these and other things of a scientific nature are rather arbitrary and determined by culture, so we have to look at the information through the cultural lens of an ancient Hebrew.

Now, to leave a parting thought to contradict these two items in an odd way, I think it's interesting that the closest the Bible comes to being scientific is in the writings of Solomon, which happen to be among the most poetic of the whole book. Go figure. I'm sure I'll end up talking about that if I get to it eventually.

The Alpha and the Omega (The Bible and God)

There are a few things that need to be said in an overview sort of fashion before I dive in.

The mantra of the student of the Bible is "context, context, context..." It's always important to remember to look at the context before criticising any Bible passage. One of the most important contexts is the somewhat obvious and overlooked fact that what you are reading is part of a book that's about "God", and all that entails.

I've heard it said many times that if you can believe Genesis 1:1, the rest is easy. Indeed, one of the most important things to remember about just about anything you read in the Bible is that this is the story of a being supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and completely good. The question should rarely be, "How could that have happened?" but occasionally, one might be fair in asking, "Why would something else not have happened?" While I don't know that one can effectively second-guess God, I don't think it's wrong to intellectually question things that God does. That's straying from my main point a bit, but it's important because I don't want to fall into the pattern of "God said it, I believe it, that's all there is to it." There is a level where a Christian has to just accept, but if you aren't a believer in the God of the Bible, this will be wholly unsatisfying; and even as a believer, one runs the risk of committing intellectual suicide, which opens the door for many things, most notably heresy.

Getting back on track to the point I wanted to make at the beginning though, there are more than a few moments in the Bible where something absolutely bizarre happens, and a casual unbelieving reader is likely to shake their head in disbelief. One of the biggest ones in the book of Genesis is actually the story of Noah, which I have had various skeptics point out to me as a story that's physically impossible on numerous levels. Frankly, I think Bible believers largely miss the absurdity of the story, and envision it as a simplistic children's Sunday school tale, with a cute little boat having animals standing two by two on the deck with smiling faces--and invariably giraffes with their heads stuck through a window towering over the rest. Well, that's unkind of me, but I do think many people simplify almost to that level, when truthfully the logistics are a nightmare. The thing for the skeptic to remember is that this story is one of the works of God.

The Bible reads a lot like science fiction in a way, especially to the non-believer. It's my view that in a good science fiction story, the reader is often presented with a specific item about which to suspend their disbelief, and after they've done that, the story should flow naturally. In the movie "The Terminator", the item is that a cyborg has been sent to the present from a nasty dystopian future. If you can buy that, the rest of the story makes sense and flows pretty well. In the case of the Bible, whether you believe it as true in real life or not, you have to accept that this is a story about "God", a being as described above. Once you accept (if only for the sake of following the story) that there is a "God", the rest should make sense. Thus when we come to Noah, the answer to most of the problems comes down to, "God did it." Maybe you don't buy that God exists, but you need to accept it as a major part of the context of the story for it all to make sense.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

In the beginning... (Introduction)

Okay, this may be more of a test post than anything else.

Not having written a blog before, I'm not sure what the standards are. Honestly, I still don't quite understand what a blog is, whether it's different from a web journal and if so, how. Yet here I must post an introduction to this project I'm undertaking, so I guess I'll just say what's on my mind.

I'd been intending for some time to try to dedicate a little more time to Bible study. I really haven't done nearly enough of it lately, and I think the practice of my faith is suffering for it. It occurred to me that one of the things I'd always enjoyed greatly in the past was taking the Bible as an intellectual study; pulling it apart and analyzing it as best I could and dealing with the issues it raises. I don't think an unexamined faith is a healthy one, and whatever religion a person happens to subscribe to (and I include atheism in the category of "religion", whether the reader agrees or not) they should take time regularly to ponder whether it really stands to reason.

One of the more interesting ways that I have done this in the past was to discuss Biblical matters with people who were not Christians. The fact is that while discussing the Bible with fellow Christians is something that every Christian should spend some time doing on a regular basis, no matter how much we try to be intellectually honest, when a bunch of Christians sit down to discuss the Bible together there's a tendency to settle into a state in which we all nod our heads and say, "Isn't God great?" and move on, because it's a rhetorical question when we all already share that belief. I don't think it's intellectual dishonesty per se, but just something akin to the way we don't notice the smell of our own house, even though every house does have a distinctive odor. You invite an atheist in, and they say, "What's that smell?!" You reply, "Oh, it's 2 Kings 2:23-24; I totally forgot I left that there..."

So, getting to my point after several awkward run-on sentences and a questionable metaphor (probably par for my writing), I intend to work my way through the Bible in study, essentially using the Skeptic's Annotated Bible as my study guide. Well, assuming that editor Steve Wells approves of my doing so, which I think he will. I have contacted him via e-mail, and he seems to be pleased with the idea. If not, I'll find another source, I suppose, or use some of the concepts in the SAB without direct quotation so as to avoid any form of theft of his intellectual property. Oh, and I'll have to change the name of the blog, which I might do anyway.

Well, off to play a bit with the settings to see how this stuff works. My next post or two will be an overview of what I'm thinking rather than hitting any particular passage, but I hope to hit Genesis 1 by early next week.