One of the most fascinating yet rewarding experiences in teaching undergraduates about the Bible is to watch them develop and grow, realizing that questions need not be inimical to their faith but can rather inform it in rich and diverse ways.
Recently some in my class have been struggling with a ‘critical’ approach to the biblical text. Discussing issues such as multiple and different creation accounts, the writing of the Pentateuch, the historicity of the exodus, problematic portrayals of God . . . . the list could go on . . . . has troubled some.
Reflecting upon our class discussions, I have come to realize that what seems to undergird many of these reactions is the assumption that “truth” and “history” are synonyms. I have cautioned them against swinging from one extreme (the Bible is entirely historical and should be taken literally in every instance) to the opposite extreme (nothing in the Bible is true). The middle ground seems to be a helpful place to be. The Bible contains history, yes, but that is not its primary (or even secondary?) concern. That, in my view, is theology . . . . addressing their understanding of life and existence in relationship with God.
I have addressed this issue of a presumed connection between “history” and “truth” from several trajectories in class. One that seems to have resonated quite well with the students was the following quotation by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:
“Some stories are true that never happened.”
But how can something be “true” and not “historical”? I have tried to impress upon my students that the biblical text is true in that it addresses the perennial questions of ‘who are we’ and ‘who is God.’ The truth of the Bible need not rest solely (indeed, should not!) in matters of historicity but rather in the Bible’s ability to communicate important aspects and meaning to how we understand life, the world around us, and God.
As another example, take this Native American quotation:
“I don’t know if this happened or not, but this story is true.”
How beautiful and mysterious is that! Another illustration I have used with some students will be helpful. I could articulate how yesterday I went to the post office, only to realize upon arriving that I had forgotten a package at home. I returned home, only to find I didn’t have an envelope large enough to contain the item I needed to send. I called my wife at work and she said she didn’t have anything that would work either. What’s more, I realized I forgot to buy stamps while I was at the post office. Now, this story is historical. But does that make it true? Hardly. At least not in the sense I am speaking of “true.” This story, while historical, is hardly going to inspire anyone. The biblical stories, though, have, can, and do inspire a great many. They speak to realities that transcend history. This is why, in my view, the Bible is both a ‘time-bound and ‘timeless’ text.
The moral of the story? History and truth should not be seen as synonymous when dealing with the Bible. It is a false dichotomy, and one that is so ingrained in many of us. My students have largely been responsive to this approach. They are wrestling with the questions, which is important. And the end result will be a wonderful thing: their ability to articulate not only what they believe but why they believe it . . . . in effect, they will have a faith that is truly their own.
What do you think? For those who have taught and confronted this obvious hesitancy from students, how have you addressed it? And what is your take on my discussion here, that “truth” and “historical” are not synonymous?