Friday, October 9, 2015

On Biblical Inerrancy: Engineers Interpreting Shakespeare

It's not easy to figure out exactly what some people mean when they say the Bible is "inerrant." And it doesn't help when they explain themselves by saying, "God said it; I believe it; that settles it."

To see my trouble, consider the following. When I look through my Bible I see a collection of writings in a wide range of literary genres: poetry, short stories, transcribed oral histories, aphorisms, letters of exhortation, sermons, myths and legends.

Myths and legends? Short stories? Yes. I think the Bible contains symbolically rich, non-factual literary forms that (like the best fiction) illuminate the human condition and help us to deepen our understanding of our world and the meaning of our lives.

But when some people say they think the Bible is "inerrant," part of what they mean to say is that my view of the Bible is false. There are no myths. There are no short stories. Whenever the Bible says "so-and-so did such-and-such," we should believe that so-and-so doing such-and-such was an actual historical event. (Well, unless it's in the Gospels and is something Jesus is saying in one of His parables--Jesus is allowed to tell fictional stories, so long as we all agree that it is an actual historical fact that Jesus actually told this fictional tale.)

The story of Jonah, they say, is not an ancient Jewish short story with a message about the divine, but a perfectly accurate description of historical events--and, they argue, to think otherwise is to deny the authority of the Bible. And so it becomes all about whether a man was actually swallowed whole by a big fish and spit out alive three days later, rather than being about the extent to which we are like Jonah, resisting God's call to reach out to heal our enemies because we think they don't deserve to be healed.

The tale of Job, they say, is not a brilliantly edited synthesis of a folk tale and a philosophically pregnant poem. It's a record of actual events. And so it becomes all about whether God really made a bet with Satan and heaped suffering on Job for that reason (and then, later on, disingenuously told Job, "You can't understand why I do what I do!" even though the folk-tale part of the Book of Job lays out a perfectly understandable human reason why God, if He behaved the way some schoolyard bullies behave, would heap suffering on him).

When Job is treated as a factual record, the reader misses the meaning that might be found in the tension created by bring together two disparate literary forms, one (the poetic theological reflection) breaking into the middle of the other (the folk tale where God messes with human lives on a bet). Maybe the deepest and most profound divine inspiration in Job, the deepest insight into human suffering, lies in that editorial juxtaposition itself--the way the mystery and skepticism of the theological poem repudiates the pat, ready answers offered in the folk tale. If so, you'll miss the source of inspiration if you're committed to the dictum, "The text says here that God shattered Job's life on a bet, so it must be a fact of cosmic history that God shattered Job's life on a bet."

It's like a bunch of engineers without any literary imagination who have gotten hold of great literature.

Now I have friends who are engineers, and some of them love poetry and can appreciate fine art. Nevertheless, there are engineers who exemplify the stereotype of the literal, concrete thinker great at designing bridges but utterly tone-deaf to abstract reflection and literary interpretation. I'm sure you know such people. They slept through their humanities courses in college.

My point is this: Sometimes, those who claim the Bible is inerrant strike me as engineers of that stripe. It's as if they've set out to reflect on Shakespeare. We can imagine how this is likely to go:

"Well, the one guy kills the other guy. And then the first guy rambles on for fifteen minutes. Why can't these guys talk in plain English? I mean, you could probably get the whole play down to five minutes without missing a single plot point! They should let me write this thing. But anyway, then this ghost shows up. Then there's more pointless gibberish..."

But suppose that these same engineers have been convinced that Shakespeare's plays were inspired by God. They can't dismiss the monologues as long-winded gibberish anymore. What are they going to do? I can imagine it would go something like this:

"Alright, so one important lesson here is that there are actual witches in the world who say 'Boil, boil, toil and trouble.' If the text is inspired by God, then that's really true. Wow. Who knew? But what about this stuff about the lady walking around rubbing her hands and saying, 'Out damned spot'? Does she have a dog she wants to put out? Well, the important thing is that God here is telling us that there was this lady who said that, for whatever stupid reason. God said it. I believe it. That settles it."

My point is this: Fiction can be inspired, even if it's fiction. Poetry can be inspired, even if it isn't asserting any facts. But inspired fiction isn't explicitly asserting things that are true, even if it reveals truths. More significantly, the most inspired fiction requires interpretive engagement by the reader. While some are fables with a blunt, in-your-face moral, the best fiction isn't like that. Instead, it invites us as readers into the fictional world, to experience what something is like--experiential understanding rather than a set of facts--so that we can approach the actual world and our neighbors with a deeper sense of what life and reality are like.

What does it mean to say that fiction of that kind is "inerrant"? Maybe something like the following: "When we immerse ourselves in the story, live in its characters, and wrestle with their struggles, we come out of that with experiences that are true-to-life, as if they were things that really happened to us. And so we end up wiser than we were before, with a richer body of experience to draw from, better equipped to wrestle with our own struggles."

But what exactly is "inerrant" here? All of this is really just a long way of saying that "inerrant" is a category mistake. Inerrancy applies to factual accounts but not to fiction. So if you insist on treating a work of fiction as if it were inerrant, you are squeezing it into a literary form (factual account) different from its actual form (fiction). And when you treat it accordingly, you miss out on the kinds of insights that it's meant to provide. In the only (metaphorical or analogous) sense that fiction can be called "inerrant," treating it as inerrant encourages you to approach it in a way that prevents you from uncovering its truths.

If the Bible is inspired by God, then it matters a lot what kind of literary form we're dealing with at any particular place in the Bible--because if we get the form wrong, we'll be like those engineers reading Shakespeare. Those who say, "the Bible is the inerrant word of God" intend to lift up the Bible. But if, in saying this, they aren't open to the possibility that a biblical narrative is a myth or short story, then they are in danger of forcing the Bible into a mold that distorts its meaning. In the quest to earnestly uphold its truth, they shut out the truths it has to share.

By the way, this whole post is, in a sense, an argument for why Christians should support a broad liberal arts education. You know, the kind where engineering majors are required to take philosophy and read Shakespeare.


  1. Personally, I think the crux of the discomfort is that the Jesus story itself is most likely chock full of all these genre elements in not even so many words.

  2. Some people just use "inerrant" to mean that they believe that Scripture does not contain errors, which is consistent with Scripture containing fiction. You don't accuse an author of making an error because he writes fiction.

  3. Very well said. Understanding the role and place of the Bible in understanding God as beyond human comprehension may be the most crucial issue to potentially take contemporary Christendom forward beyond the current theological/partisan impasses.

  4. As the sound-bite puts it: The deeply errant 'Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy'.

  5. Here's a worked example from a Romeo and Juliet sonnet that I wrote earlier this year:

  6. I have often offered Aesop’s Fables for a straightforward comparison: The various human truths to be found in Aesop are not in the literal fact that lions, mice, foxes, crows, hares, and tortoises can talk and behave like humans. To read Aesop in this superficial, unthinking way is to completely miss the point of the stories. So why do certain Christians insist on making this same error? The foundation of fundamentalism rests not on God, Jesus, or the Bible, but rather on poor reading comprehension skills.

  7. I prefer the category "reliable" to categories such as inerrant or infallible. Scripture is reliable to accomplish the purposes for which it is inspired by God. But understanding those purposes will require understanding the genre and context of the literature those purposes are expressed in.

    I was Evangelical, and even a 6 day young earth creationist for a time in college (I'm now an Episcopal priest, if that tells you anything!). It seems that the view of the Bible to which inerrancy belongs is custom made to lead adherents to miss the point of what Scripture is saying. If you ran a politico-economic system based on greed and exploitation, you would want to create a non-prophetic religion that rendered people without concepts to critique the system.

    Perhaps the best way to do this is to confuse their categories in such a way that they feel like they are standing for religion/God/Bible, while in fact doing just the opposite. One way to do this is to shift religious commitment away from axiological issues (How should we live? What values should we pursue?) and toward epistemic issues (How do I know? How can I be sure?). That way, adherents can get wrapped up crusading for "The Truth" and advocating for the veracity and inerrancy of the text, without actually spending much time (if at all) pondering what it actually means (and even less trying to live it). You get all of the comfort of feeling like you are being "Biblical" and even counter-cultural, while actually capitulating to the same values of conspicuous consumption that everyone else is engaged in.

    I know such a conspiracy theory is tinfoil hat worthy. But if you were the "powers and principalities" of the current hegemonic socio-economic system, isn't conservative American Christianity precisely the kind of religion you would devise to stay in power?

  8. I would go one step further: Even when there is no clear category mistake (perhaps the historical claims about Jesus' bodily resurrection or the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as opposed to the mythological language of Jonah), we should not assume that clarity on Biblical-literary genre leads to clarity on our spiritual mode of consumption. One can admit that the Bible (or some part of the Bible) makes historical claims which are categorically correct without demanding that the claims reflect reality within their category, and yet find that these parts have spiritual value in some other way. The power of the resurrection stories in the Bible does not rest upon the relationship of intended literary genre to reality, but rather between reality and our spiritual mode of consumption.

  9. Basically, we should be wise consumers of the Bible and the Christian tradition and not assume that actual errors within a category (as opposed to category errors) should cripple one's spiritual engagement with these error-filled parts of the faith. I'm not really saying that you claim this, but many people live by a more elevated version of "God said, I believe it, that settles it."