Monday, January 15, 2007

What If It's Not Historically True?

During Thanksgiving dinner, a conversation ensued about whether or not the events recorded in the Book of Job actually took place. Of course, most critical scholars reject Job's historicity, so those who agree with the critical scholarly consensus, but who wish for Job to still have some meaning, have some explaining to do. Some do this by asserting that the truths taught about God, Satan, man and the problem of evil in this beautifully poetic, albeit mythical, story are still true, even thought the events that convey the truths are not.

I made a feeble attempt to defend Job's historicity — I'm not very good on the spot unless I've recently studied the idea under discussion and even then … — but over the next few days, one statement kept nagging at me: "Whether or not the Book of Job is literally true doesn't make a difference in my day-to-day life." Everything in me revolts against such a statement because I believe the Bible to be a completely relevant Book that should make a difference in our day-to-day lives precisely because the things in it actually happened. The picture of God and His sovereignty found in the Book and Job's character under utterly unique and horrible circumstances cries out for us to live with a bigger picture of God and a humbler view of self. I don't think the message cries out so strongly if the story isn't literally true. However, I couldn't think of a precise way to argue that point with someone for whom Job's historicity doesn't make a difference. So, as is the case with many of the thoughts that give us pause throughout our lives, since the topic didn't come up again, I stopped thinking about it.

Until a few days ago, that is. Amidst the slew of Evangelical books published in the past decade addressing postmodernism, I actually found one worth reading. It is Heath White's Postmodernism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian. If you don't quite have a handle on postmodernism and would like a place to start, this is it. If you do have a handle on postmodernism and would like a fresh perspective on how the Church ought to live in such an age, read this book. Even if you don't care about postmodernism at all, read it. It's just that good.

Anyway, in addressing the importance of the Bible's literal historicity, White, with characteristic simplicity and clarity, says:

"So let's ask: why is it so important that the Bible be (literally, historically) true, rather than merely instructive or edifying or inspirational? The answer, I suggest, is that the Bible is fundamentally the record of God's action in history. It begins with God initiating history in creation; it continues with God's calling Abraham and forming a special people, the nation of Israel. It passes to the life of a genuine historical man who was also God and to the founding of a uniquely inspired institution, the Christian church. It ends with the promise of a future divine intervention in history, a final judgment. The message of the long trajectory of the salvation story is that God acts in this world for the purposes of judgment and redemption. He has in the past with others: he will in the present and future with you. That's the story's point, and it isn't a very plausible point if the story isn't basically—literally, historically—true."

On the one hand, I admit that denying Job's historicity doesn't deny the historicity of the whole Bible. We don't have to believe in Job the way we are called to believe in the Resurrection. On the other hand, where lies the line of demarcation between those Books and events accepted as historically, literally true and those that aren't? If we don't have to declare Job a myth, why should we? A number of Evangelical scholars readily admit that Job has gone through stages of redaction. For instance, there is no need to believe that the story's participants originally spoke in such constant rhythmic, poetic patterns. At the same time, there is no need to deny that all of the main elements of the story have a historical core, of which the opening and closing chapters seem to be trying to convince us. I think the message of the Book of Job carries more weight if it literally and historically took place. Rather than side with the critical scholars, many of whom deny that God exists or that He acts in the world, I choose to trust those scholars who take the message of the Bible seriously, but not blindly, and who seek to figure out how the Book of Job can be so beautifully dramatic and poetic yet still preserve for us a literal, historical account of God acting in the world, a message which gives us hope that He can and will do so with us as well. I could be wrong, but with no reason to believe that I am, I'll let the story speak to me as most of my fellow believers throughout history have let it speak to them, i.e., more powerfully because it actually happened.


Trader Joel said...

It depends...if the author didn't have any intention of recoring something historical (Luke, for instance, shows every intention of attempting historical accuracy), then the power of the story lies in its ability to convey truth about suffering and sovereignty. This would put it in the same category as the powerful but fictional parables of Jesus.

I know... you didn't ask :)

Great entry, provocative and thoughtful.

Trader Joel said...

Whoops..mispelled "recording" oh well.

dale said...

Hey Eric... just got your newsletter about your blog... so I'm checking it out. Nice work.

I've gotta say that from a storyteller's perspective, it concerns me less that Job would be literal. I've always puzzled over Satan's conversations with God behind the scenes and who really know this and if God's 'court' operates like that. It does start with the texture of ancient myth, like Homer.

But regardless, I have no trouble believing a guy named Job exists and that he had great troubles and that his friends were unhelpful and that he wrestled with God through the darkness and came out the other side with a deeper understanding and a deeper relationship with God.

From a storytelling perspective, I am more concerned with the meaning of things. And Job tells the truth, even IF the events were not actual. And it troubles me less in part because the events of Job possibly pre-date Abraham and, thus, pre-date the history of Israel which was the argument in White's quotation.

So for what it's worth.... those are some thoughts which shift and change from day to day. :)


Sam said...

Thanks for addressing this in more detail. I have two immediate responses in reasoning:

First, you write "For instance, there is no need to believe that the story's participants originally spoke in such constant rhythmic, poetic patterns." Why not? It seems this is denying an element of the historicity. Yet this has not led you to question where you've to draw the line of demarcation, has it? If it is simply that the historicity of that individual element is not substantive, well, that's how I feel about other things.

Secondly, you write that "If we don't have to declare Job a myth, why should we?" Of course there is no need to deny anything, or declare anything a myth. The point of "accepting" figurative readings is not to claim certainty on a contrarian point of view, but rather to avoid tying faith to something that seems nonsubstantive.

To me, basing one's faith on the literal accuracy of such things simply inserts vulnerabilities in our faith; we should worship God regardless of whether that literalness is shown to be untrue. Put another way: If God HAD chosen to tell his story in a variety of formats, including metaphor, non-literal poetry, etc, how is that any of our business to question? How would that change our relationship to it? I contend it wouldn't. Unlike White, I accept the plausibility of God's story not because I trust the historical record of 3,000 years ago, but because I trust God.

I'm going to wait a few days to reread your post so I'll understand better your reasoning. Save that White book for me when we visit you in Ukraine.