The Flood, Gungor, and Biblical Literalism
This week a couple articles have become popular on social media that provide some good fodder for conversation about biblical interpretation. The first one was from World Magazine entitled “Gungor Drifts from Biblical Orthodoxy.” (Gungor is a band that focuses on Christian themes.) The second was a response from Michael Gungor on the band’s website entitled “I’m with you.”
There are a number of nuances to the issue, but at the core the disagreement is biblical literalism. Do we take the stories and metaphors in the Bible literally? The article is especially focused on the events of creation and the flood. (Michael’s response focused most on the flood.) There are books that have been written about these issues, so I have no intention of pursuing the minutia of the topic in a blog post, but reading these articles spurred a few thoughts that are important to me in approaching biblical interpretation.
Jesus is the Center
The Mennonite Brethren Church (Trailhead’s denomination) speaks of this as having a “weighted canon.” The Christian faith rests on the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, if Jesus has not been raised our faith is pointless–mere fantasy. There are things that must be taken literally if we are to have a faith that honestly reflects the overall witness of Scripture (not just a verse here and there) and the teaching of Jesus.
I spent some time in a denomination where some churches had lumped everything about Jesus into the category of myth. While some kind of humanistic religion remained, it was not Christianity. I’m not sure where the line is on what must be taken literally in Scripture, I do know it is before the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus.
Beginning with Jesus gives us a lens for viewing the rest of Scripture. Since these articles used the flood as an example, let’s run with that. How does the literalism of that event impact the truth of the gospel that is wrapped up in Jesus? If the flood were more myth than truth, would it negate the importance of Jesus from incarnation to consummation? Would it tell us less about the reality of the human condition and God’s desire for humanity?
One more point on this. One real fear for giving up literal interpretations of things like the flood or the creation account are that it is a slippery slope that leads to giving up the Bible as literal completely. Agreed. As I said above, I’ve seen it happen. So another question would be, does seeing some of the Bible as poetic or metaphorical necessarily lead to seeing it all that way? Can we commit whole-heartedly to the reality of Jesus, from incarnation to consummation, without committing to a literal reading of every story in Scripture? (I’m asking this honestly.)
Jesus is revealed in Scripture, so these questions must be taken very seriously. My hope in my life, community, and world is that he will be received as Messiah and King and that his kingdom will come. My framework starts with Jesus and works out from there.
Is science pitted against faith? That is the message that can come across when we get into these discussions. The Bible says the world was created in six days; science says it happened gradually over millions of years (I am not even talking about evolution here, that is another debate, only about time). The Bible records 6,000 years of history; science says there are hundreds of millions years of history. The Bible says there was a flood that covered the whole earth; the geological record doesn’t support this. So must we choose? Hold on to the evidence of Scripture or agree with the evidence of science?
People on both the side of naturalism (as an ideology) and Christianity seem to answer yes to this question. The naturalist community wants to sever faith from thought for the sake of dismissing faith as a fairy tale. At times the Christian community severs faith from thought for fear of having to rethink things like creation and the flood. Both of these approaches embrace an unnecessary dualism.
God created humanity in his image as beings who have the ability to think rationally and to know things that go beyond that ability. We are meant to be beings who embrace and know through thought and experience. This is not to suggest that the biblical accounts are irrational either. The truth of all reality as expressed in Scripture does take faith, but it is also rational. All philosophies require faith at some point–Christianity, atheism, and everything in between. This is not a coincidence. Any explanation of the world requires both thought and faith because that is a reflection of our Creator.
We were created as whole beings, in the image of God, to function as a reflection of God who is both word and mystery. It is unnecessarily dualistic to say that we must set aside rationality or faith when they lead us into tension. We should engage that tension using both–trusting that God has given us rationality as a good gift but that it is unable to hold the full weight of reality (and that is true no matter what your ideology).
Start with a literal reading.
On Facebook I had a friend write, “I tend to go with a literal interpretation of Scripture unless it’s obviously not literal.” That’s not a bad way to approach the text. I would say that fits with my approach. I believe the Scriptures overall are not only God’s revelation of himself–his character and his work–but also an account of history. That history may not be quite as scientific as modern history, but that doesn’t make it less true. Much of the narrative of Scripture, especially the history of the Israelites and the Gospels are written as a recording of things that actually happened. Beginning with believing that to be true is a great place to start.
The questions come up when there is significant (even overwhelming) challenge to the literal account. Michael Gungor goes into some depth on this point in relation to the flood in his article. At the very least, there are substantial challenges to maintaining a literal reading of what happened. Does that make it impossible–no–and he says that. Does it make it problematic, especially if we are not required to hold to a literal reading in order to hold on to the truth about Jesus–from incarnation to consummation–perhaps.