Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Veritas? Quid est veritas?

"Truth? What is truth?"

However crazy Mel Gibson may turn out to be (he just keeps raising the bar for himself, doesn't he?), you can't deny that he got it right at least once. For those of who who have not seen The Passion of the Christ, the quote that titles this post may be confusing. It is spoken by Pilate to his wife as tries to decide whether or not he should have Christ executed. (Side note: if you haven't seen it, you should. It's really a great movie.) Truth is a tricky concept. Some say that there is no such thing. Some say that truth exists, but that it is different for every person, or that it changes across cultures and times. Some think that it exists, but that we will never be able to pin down a satisfactory definition of it while in this imperfect world.

It's an important question. We need to know what truth is, so that we can decide what to teach our children in schools, so that we can decide which leaders to elect, so that those leaders can make executive decisions about laws and wars and social justice. We need to understand truth so that we can relate to one another in constructive and harmonious ways.

Christians need to understand truth because we need to know how to read the Bible. There are some passages of the Bible that are clearly meant to be taken metaphorically (such as in Job 38, where God talks about the ends of the earth, or the storehouses of snow and hail, or the gates that hold back the seas). In fact, there are so many passages that are either full of poetic hyperbole or are limited by the cultural and historic understandings of the authors (ancient Jews), that it can be hard to pinpoint which, if any, are meant to be taken literally.

The big question on the lunatic fringe of both Christianity and secularism is the question of creation. When the Bible says that God created the world with nothing but the power of His words in six days, does that mean that in six 24-hour periods, life as we now know it sprang forth from the void, or does that mean that life has passed through several stages, all of which were planned, executed, guided, and intended by God?

There are plenty of writings to address that particular question, but the real problem is this: the question is not "How was the world created?" but rather, "How can we believe that the Bible is true and accurate if we can't take everything it says literally?" I have my own opinions on that topic (addressed more fully elsewhere), but my real frustration here is a question of vocabulary.

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried has a passage about the difference between story-truth and happening-truth. It's a wonderful and somewhat tricky concept, and i recommend the book (because it's awesome, and also does a good job explaining this concept), but for now i will do my best to sum it up briefly.

Story truth (hereinafter referred to as "truth") is something that speaks to a real experience, even though it didn't necessarily happen. For example, in this post i tell a story about sitting on my grandmother's porch swing during a thunderstorm. Everything that i say in that post is real. I have a grandmother. She used to have a porch swing. There is a window behind the swing that once broke when someone swung back too far. We used to count the seconds between lightning and thunder in order to calculate the distance of the storm.

But that post is not based on one particular moment. It is a collection of moments, an impression of many memories. My grandmother moved out of that house when i was nine, so many of my memories of that house have run together into one big story. And i was certainly not reflecting on the fleeting nature of joy, or on the differences between joy in childhood and adulthood, or anything of the kind. I was counting the miles.

That post is true. It is full of "truth". But it is not a factual event. It is not a newspaper article of one particular storm. It is not an historical account.

On the other hand, let me tell you a story that displays "happening truth" (hereinafter referred to as "fact"). When 2000 came, my siblings and i were spending the night at my grandmother's house. I was a little disappointed that all electronics did not instantly explode (or whatever the new millenium threatened. People got a little hysterical in 1999). But i remember thinking, "At least we can still watch cartoons in the morning." And i remember trying to sleep while the German exchange student played computer games.

That story is pure fact. Those things really happened. Those are true, concrete memories, not a pretty quilt patched together from fragments of memory and nostalgia.

The whole Bible is true. But not all of it is factual. Some parts of it, while they tell great stories to illustrate points, are not based on anything that ever actually happened. Some parts of it use metaphor to make a point. Some parts give us guidance for our behavior by embroidering what happened.

So how do we know which parts to take literally and which parts to take metaphorically? To tell you the truth, i don't think it's all that important to make a distinction between fact and truth in the Bible. I think that all of the Bible is true, and that it is therefore all useful for instruction and guidance in the Christian life. But as long as God is speaking to you through Scripture, does it really matter whether He is using history or poetry to do so?

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