Back in my college days, there were many evenings spent chatting about the Bible with a good friend. While we agreed on most things the book had to say, our conversations would inevitably turn combative upon touching what I regarded as its more allegorical parts. And this was how they usually went:
“That bit in Revelation 6 about the sun turning black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the moon turning blood red, and the stars falling to earth as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind,” I would say, nodding my head as if in deep thought. “It obviously refers to a great war to come. The stars falling to earth are bombs, and the moon and sun changing colour possibly denote the after-effects of a nuclear catastrophe.”
He would shake his head in response. “If the Bible predicts stars falling to Earth, it would be wrong to expect anything else.”
“But that’s impossible! A million Earths can fit inside our sun, and our sun is not even a particularly big star! It would be like a thousand elephants falling on a fly!”
My friend, however, had his Biblical convictions etched in stone. “Who are we to say what’s impossible for the Lord?” he would insist. “If He wants, He will make stars just the right size for the purpose.”
Despite knowing perfectly well that nothing was impossible for God, the argument didn’t sit right with me. Sure, it was not beyond Him to turn gigantic celestial bodies into miniature fireballs just so they could rain down on our planet, but would He really?
Let me draw upon some pop culture trivia to illustrate my reasons. Remember that brilliant ending to Casablanca, which has Rick Blaine and Louis Renault walking into the mist with that line about the beginning of a beautiful friendship? But what if things had turned out wildly different just then? What if the air had cleared abruptly just then to reveal not the end credits but the dreaded Kayako from the Ju-On: The Grudge franchise, all set to pounce on them from the dark? Or maybe a velociraptor from Jurassic Park, gnashing its razor-sharp fangs in eager anticipation of a midnight meal.
It wouldn’t have sat well with reason, simply because dinosaurs and vengeful spirits do not belong in wartime love stories involving American expatriates and Czech resistance leaders in bustling Moroccan cities. They hail from a different genre.
So – to put my theory in a nutshell – the reality of our world is its designated genre, and things are unlikely to take a turn for the fantastic even in its waning hours. A scenario where a seven-headed dragon hangs around in the sky to gobble up a divine newborn is possible, of course, but most likely in a metaphorical manner of speaking. The same goes for the four horsemen of the Apocalypse; the rider of the white horse with a sword for a tongue; and the Garden of Eden.
The reality of our world is its designated genre, and things are unlikely to take a turn for the fantastic even in its waning hours. A scenario where a seven-headed dragon hangs around in the sky to gobble up a divine newborn is possible, of course, but in a metaphorical way.
But I am probably preaching to the choir here. There is now a general consensus that the books of Revelation and Genesis are metaphorical narratives, and even Rome – despite centuries of holding out – has come to acknowledge long-disputed theories on evolution and universe. “The Big Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it,” Pope Francis said at a ceremony several years ago. “The evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.”
The days of the Scopes Trial are gone, thankfully.
But what if we were to dig a little deeper into the Bible than just its first and last chapters? Jesus spoke in parables, but what if much of the Bible has also been laid out before us in metaphor? The Tower of Babel maybe, the destruction of Sodom, or that bit about Jonah and the fish.
The New Testament is no stranger to extraordinary occurrences either, be it the episode where Jesus walks on water, the return of Lazarus from the dead, or the cautionary tale of Ananias and Sapphira. While they may be authentic enough (I am nobody to suggest otherwise), I believe the real treasure is to be found in the teachings themselves.
Back when I was a scruffy little teenager, we had a pastor named Michael hold prayer meetings at our home. I remember him for how sincere he was as a man of the world, how passionate he was as a man of God, and the manner in which he explained verses 37-40 of Luke 19, which is about a few Pharisees asking Jesus to rebuke his disciples for singing praises in loud voices.
“I tell you,” Jesus had told them, “if I silence them, the stones will cry out.”
This wasn’t the first time I heard somebody speak of this episode in a sermon, but Michael put it in perspective like nobody else I knew. “What do you think Jesus meant when he said that the stones will cry out? Please do not take this literally. He just meant to say that if his disciples are silenced, others will praise God in their place.”
I admit to being a little disappointed back then. So Jesus hadn’t intended for the stones on the Mount of Olives to cry out with little Mickey Mouse mouths after all. He just meant others.
But why do we take the Bible so literally? I think it is because we subconsciously find comfort in following however little is spelt out, and not a letter more. Obtaining an actual understanding of the book would be akin to hunting for more strictures to bind ourselves with, and that would be such a pity.
Why do we take the Bible so literally? I think it is because we subconsciously find comfort in following however little is spelt out, and not a letter more. Looking deeper into what it has to say would be akin to hunting for more strictures to bind ourselves with, and wouldn’t that be a pity!
Take, for instance, the Ten Commandments. I found poring through them a very gratifying experience until recently, mostly because they served to testify that I wasn’t that bad a human after all. And, in my opinion, the first one was the easiest to follow. Simply read, this is what it says: “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
Nothing very tough there, right? I certainly didn’t have any gods, whether before or after the God we were supposed to worship. In fact, I did not even know if any existed outside of Greek and Hindu mythology. But then one day, I happened to listen to a sermon by Pastor Greg Laurie and my world came crumbling down. He dwelt just on the first line, but that was enough to make me see how wrong I had been about my innocence all along.
According to pastor Laurie, the ‘gods’ referenced in the first commandment are not idols of clay or stone as we tend to believe but any aspect of our life – be it an object, person or mission – that we hold in higher regard than Him. So, if you covet money, your god of choice could be Mammon, and if you covet sexual gratification, it could be either Baal or Asherah. Turns out, I had been worshipping these very gods without knowing it!
While we are on the subject, have I ever mentioned how Pastor Greg Laurie’s sermons have helped me through the most difficult times of my life? He is wise, funny, full of God’s word, and I have great respect for everything he has to say. I don’t agree with some of his views on politics and international affairs, but let’s just chalk that up to being human. In any case, here is where I go to catch up on him. Take my word for it, he’s good!
So there, I couldn’t even fulfil the first commandment, and my spiritual life thus far suddenly seemed like such a sham. Couldn’t things be simple for a change?
But that’s exactly the problem with us. We like to keep things simple – and literal – because that works to our advantage. Jesus said “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them”, and so we visit church religiously every Sunday to partake of some bread and wine before going back to our sinful ways. It’s simply convenient to ignore the fact that he was talking about the supreme sacrifice to come and not a mindless ritual fated to become the mainstay of the Church for centuries to come.
Having a literal understanding of the Bible, in my understanding, can be more dangerous than having none at all. One of the primary allegations levelled against Jesus by the Pharisees was that he threatened to destroy the temple at Jerusalem, and raise it again in three days (Mark 14:58). He was referring to his death, of course, but that wouldn’t have served the purpose of getting him crucified. Taking things at face value helped his persecutors, and it is helping us now.
And, in a sense, that is what we do each day of our lives. We act like hypocrites, taking refuge in a literal understanding of Jesus’ teachings while going about doing the very things he warned us against. And deep inside, we know all about the wrong we do.
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