Growing up, I sensed a lot of fear at school and at church when people asked questions about whether the Bible was “literally” true. Whether Adam and Eve existed was a litmus test for salvation, I thought, and people who didn’t use the exact numbers in the Old Testament to calculate that the world was 6,000-10,000 years old weren’t Christians at all.
Then I went to Duke University, where lots and lots of smart people studied and taught, and almost no one believed that Moses had parted the Red Sea, or that David had anything to do with the psalms that bear his name. Having been raised with a very strong sense of God giving people unique gifts to use for his glory, all these very smart people confused me. I could tell that knowledge wasn’t a curse, or something to be afraid of–I knew that they had been given a great gift in their intellect. Their questioning had somehow led them away from God–“beyond” God, some might say of themselves–and I had trouble holding together the inquiring mind I’d been given and the mystical Christian faith I’d known and practiced for almost two decades.
Duke’s motto is “eruditio et religio”–knowledge and religion. I wrote extensively while an undergraduate about the relationship between these two forces as they interacted on Duke’s campus. When I graduated, the then-Dean of the Chapel, Sam Wells, inscribed the Bible given to me upon graduation from this “secular” university (each student is offered a leatherbound NKJV as they graduate), “May you always find knowledge and religion united in your heart.”
Now a few years out from my Master of Divinity at Duke and more than a year out from my ordination to the priesthood, I had a flashback of the fear I knew well from my formative years in Ohio. The surprise was that it came from the other “side” of the tracks, this time. Defensiveness surfaced when it was suggested that Jesus came back to life in a physical, literal way after he died on Good Friday. Such a supernatural, inexplicable occurence was tamped down by explaining, “the myths are still true in the deepest way.”
The church is happening here, folks. We’re talking about what’s “literally” “true” and what’s myth and what “myth” means. We’re not agreeing, but we’re staying in the room together and we’re smiling at each other and looking each other in the eye (and praying together).
I see fear on both “sides” of this Biblical Literalism debate, and I think there’s hope on both sides, too. Everyone’s got a dog in the fight, because the fight is about the basis of our faith. Everyone’s been wounded in this fight by ignorance, impatience, and hard-heartedness from others. Knowing that everyone’s a little bit afraid and nervous and sincere, I wonder if we can find a way forward together by putting down some of our armor and some of our weapons.
(I’m no N.T. Wright, but it’s my goal during the 50 days of Easter to read Surprised by Hope; join me, if you’d like!)