Guest Blogger: The American Jesus

July 25, 2012

Today, I’m really glad to bring you my blogging friend, Zack, author of the fantastic blog, The American Jesus.  Read, comment, and then go follow his blog and his Twitter.  I’ll be back on Monday, July 30.

Did God really create the world in only six days?

Was Noah really able to squeeze two of every animal on earth into the ark?

Are the streets of heaven really paved with gold?

Answer any of these questions the “wrong” way among the right group of people and you’re likely to get yourself into a world of trouble. After all, something is either “true” or it’s not, right?

But what does it mean for something to be “true”? If a Biblical story isn’t a historical account of something that can be documented through archeology, does that necessarily make it not true?

Many of the battles lines in the church today seem to be drawn around how this issue of how we should interpret a given passage from scripture. In other words, should the Bible be read “literally” or “metaphorically”?

When Literal Just Won’t Do

The answer, of course, is both. However, the implication of such a question often is that if one reads a passage of scripture metaphorically, then that person doesn’t believe it, or subsequently the Bible, to be “true.”  Truth, it is then argued, can only be found in a “plain” or literal reading of the Bible.

I’m not convinced that is the case.

Not only is there truth to be found in metaphors, but to read the Bible as if every passage is intended to be read “literally” as an exact representation of history renders it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to hear the actual “truth” of the Bible.

The “truth” is that metaphors aren’t just a good thing. They are a desperately important tool for communicating “truth” which literal expressions can’t fully express. Metaphors give expression to those things which even our wildest imagination cannot fully comprehend.

How do you “literally” describe heaven, the presence of the Spirit, or the nature of God?

You do not.

You cannot.

This is why we need metaphors, to communicate truths that transcend our ability to talk about them. Likewise, the Bible uses metaphors, not because a thing isn’t true, but because it’s truth is so true and so real that it defies our ability to put that truth into words. It is only through such metaphors that we are able to glimpse through a mirror dimly the mystery of God and the beauty of heaven.

What Is Truth?

So, the question inevitable becomes then, “what is truth?”

Truth is staring us right in the face.

Truth is Jesus.

As the way, the truth, and the life, Jesus directs us beyond the truth of the way things are and towards the truth of what they should be. This is the Truth found in the Bible and all of its many stories, both “literal” and metaphorical.

Truth is not bound by historical circumstance. The truth of Jesus is something which refuses to be hijacked by those who seek to exhaust it through their own cultural context or personal interpretation.

It’s the openness that scares fundamentalism because it refuses to allow Truth to be held captive to one single interpretation or incarnation.

The Truth Is Out There

Certainly, the Bible is filled with historical information and literal accounts of what “actually” happened. After all, as Paul said, if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then we are the biggest of fools.

The “truth” of Biblical stories and the metaphors they so often employ lies in their ability to point to the Truth, to Jesus. It doesn’t matter how long it took God to create. The truth is that God loved us enough to create us. The truth of Noah’s ark isn’t found in zoological physics, but in a God who watches over us in the midst of the storm. And even the most beautiful, eloquent description of heaven could not capture the truth that God is preparing a perfect place for God’s people which defies even our greatest expectations.

Metaphorical or literal, Truth can found on every page of the Bible. We just need to know where to look.

What do you think?  Have we lost the truth in the search for “literal?”  Or do metaphors open a Pandora’s box of doubt?

15 responses to Guest Blogger: The American Jesus

  1. Interesting blog. More than truth we need the revelation of God. Unless the Holy Spirit illuminates the “truth” nature of a text, we’ll spend a few more centuries fighting over context, original Greek intention, metaphors and everything else.

    And the greatest question, what if some of the Scriptures were literal, metaphorical and prophetic at the same time? For example the Wedding in Cana. Jesus pulls off his first “holy crap!” miracle. No one seems to dispute that it’s a historical account. But what if we looked deeper and saw all the symbolism as the Gospel itself? Bringing the “new wine” to the unbelieving wedding attendees?

    How about Paul’s ship wreck in Acts? What if that historical account was also a prophetic picture of the church (ship) breaking up into denominations and everyone getting saved? Some exclusive splinter group is going to be mad.

    We spend all our time arguing the ‘truth.’ But Jesus said “the sheep know my voice.” But how many Christians claim they rarely if ever here God? Christians want to be like Jesus, yet he lived under the Old Covenant fulfilling the law. That’s legalism. Christians want to be Christ followers, yet Jesus didn’t ask the post-resurrection church to do that. He said, “do what you see the Father doing.”

    We have service formats every Sunday so that most of us can be spectators. Paul said that we needed to participate. (1 Cor 14)

    We need to be out there preaching the Good News, casting out demons, and healing the sick. Otherwise it’s just talk, and that is cheap.

  2. Truth is the bottom line, what always works, what can’t be changed no matter how we feel about it, vote on it, or argue around it. Truth can’t be changed. Jesus is the truth and in the end everyone will know that when their knee bows to Him. “He who is faithful in little…” is truth. Always happens that way.

    There is so much energy put into proving the 6 day creation story and the flood that it becomes THE test of faith instead of Jesus Himself. I respect those who defend the literalness of the bible because so many others are walking away from it and treating it like some sort of cultural document from another day. This leads to the explaining away of sins like homosexuality. The integrity of the Bible has always been attacked and we must defend it. Bible interpretation is a skill that needs to be taken seriously. Too many times I have read comments where people have “proven” their point by lifting verses and making them say what they want to say. The Bible is not easy to get, but it is worth the effort to get.

  3. One of my favorite exchanges with Jesus was when he was being questioned by Pilate. “…I came into this world to testify to the truth…” to which Pilate could only throw his hands up and exclaim, “what is truth?”

    It was only staring him in the face! Great post, something we too easily gloss over or take for granted.


    I think they give an awesome, balanced approach to viewing Scripture. Does God actually have feathers/wings? No…some of Scripture is clearly poetry.

    But the other thing to consider is that the temptation of Eve was exactly the questions you just asked, “Did God _REALLY_ say…..” Getting us to question the truth/facts of Scripture are literally the oldest trick in the book.

  5. Love this post Zack! And I think you’re brave to say it, especially in view of the “world of trouble” you could be bringing to your door. (Side note: Why do Christians think it’s okay to be nasty to someone who has a different theology?)

    I have a friend who likes to say “The Bible contains truth . . . and some of it actually happened.” When I think about the Bible, I think about Shrek. In the original movie, Shrek tells Donkey that ogres are like onions . . . they have layers. In the Bible, the layers are history, metaphor, prophecy, and personal application (among others). Although not all verses have all layers.

    What many people don’t seem to realize is that Bible literalism is a product of 19th century theologians, in response to the increase in scientific inquiry by Darwin and others. When you go back and read the writings of earlier theologians (like, for example, Augustine), literalism is not a consideration.

    Speaking of Pandora’s box, literalism is putting God in a box. I like the way you put it Zack: “we need metaphors to communicate truths that transcend our ability to talk about them.” Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did when he taught in parables?

    I also agree with David that not many Christians claim they hear God’s voice. I was reading a dissertation by Delphine Ciafardone Rossi recently in which she cited studies that found spiritual experiences are more common than we think. We have a cultural bias against hearing God’s voice. We all know what happened to Joan of Arc. Anyone who starts to talk about hearing from God is opening a door many would prefer to leave closed rather than risk the consequences.

    As far as opening a Pandora’s box of doubt, I think we already have that. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have so many denominations. Even within denominations, we don’t all agree. But that’s okay, the Bible isn’t internally consistent, either. Is it grace (Paul) or works (James)? Which of the three versions of the Mosaic slavery law did the ancient Israelites follow? (Exodus 21, Deuteronomy 15, or Leviticus 25?)

    The biggest issue for me is that anyone who calls him/herself a disciple should be studying the scriptures, spending time in spiritual disciplines, and seeking God’s will for his/her own life. Not just blindly accepting what “pastor” says a scripture means, but asking the Spirit to grant understanding. As David says, too many of us are just spectators.

  6. Yes! The meaning of the text is whatever the author’s intended meaning was, not the meaning we first think of when we read it now, in the 21st century. Maybe some things are literally true, and other things were intended to be metaphors. And that’s okay.

    I think both sides need to be open-minded about this. If you’re strongly defending a literal 6-day creation, then ask yourself, why is it so important that this is the “correct” interpretation- would the world end if the author meant it figuratively? And if you’re strongly opposing the 6-day creation, ask yourself, have you already made up your mind that it’s not literal because “that’s ridiculous”, or are you open to actually hearing what the bible has to say?

  7. It is humbling how wise God is. He knew we would argue and bicker about all this so He made Himself truth incarnate. He made truth person who we can have a relationship with, so we are no longer “right” or “wrong”. To be close to the truth is to be close to Him and vice versa, and the closer you are the smaller these sorts of disputes seem.

  8. This is a great post. I especially like your point that throughout the Bible, God speaks to us on many different levels. I have also realized how much we need the Holy Spirit to help us understand what God is telling us through His Word. I also think that our understanding of truth expands the more we seek Him. Just as we don’t expect a toddler isn’t expected to understand the complexities of thermodynamics, but we do teach him the difference between hot & cold, “baby” Christians are sometimes more limited in their understanding of a particular truth. But even “mature” Christians see dimly because we are not God. And when we try to argue with other Christians over “truth”, we might be drowning out God’s voice speaking to the person. I know that I need to follow Micah 6:8 better.

  9. When we debate over these issues that we struggle to understand, I am reminded of what scripture says:

    For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. -13 Corinthians 13:9-12

    We don’t understand right now because we can’t understand fully. We’re like children. But one day God will make it right, and we’ll see the truth fully. I look forward to that glorious day!!

    • Chris,

      Brilliant. There are certain truths we can know 100%, of course. But the majority of Jesus is yet to be revealed, and He will do so when we are indeed face-to-face.

      Just don’t tell the Fundamentalists who believe The Scripture is the fulfillment of said Scriptures! Yikes!

  10. “Metaphorical or literal, Truth can found on every page of the Bible. We just need to know where to look.”

    Pow. And there it is. Jesus told us He is The Truth. Simple and to the point. I like that about Him.

  11. I am with you man. So much of the Bible is beautiful poetry and if we read with a literal eye we are missing this beauty.

    When it comes to the bible and translation after translation and cultural relativism I say there are things I hold in the a closed hand and things I hold in an open hand.

    Jesus Chris0t, son of God, died and rose again for my sins…Closed hand. Everything else…open hand.

  12. People have been around for almost 2 million years. There have been at least 128 gods that followers have worshiped and died for. Everyone is an atheist for the other guys god. The bible is the earliest docment written with an alphabet and therefor its contents have lasted these brief 3,000 years. It defines a culture with a male viewpoint . Zack states that every page of the bible is the truth. The old testiment contains some beautiful writing but I don,t believe a word of it and I have read it . Ignoring the history denyers, why so late on the scene. Did African Eve’s offspring not fit the human mold? Did they not have a soul? Please don’t attemmpt to answer my quiries.

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  1. Ogres, Onions, and the Bible | Hear God's Voice - July 26, 2012

    […] found a great post yesterday by the author of a blog called The American Jesus. Not that Zack is claiming to be Jesus . . . he just writes about the Jesus movement in America. […]