Can God use a talking ass to communicate to us?
Sure He can. Those asses have names, like Martin Luther or John Calvin. Ha!
I believe I’m on record having called John Calvin a “wang,” and I stand by that.
Of course, those aren’t the asses I wasn’t actually referring to. In one of the most fantastical, unusual, perhaps unbelievable stories of the Old Testament, Balaam’s donkey opens his donkey mouth and speaks to him.
One of the perennial debates that goes around evangelical circles is the topic of biblical “inerrancy” and “historicity.” Did the events in the Bible actually occur? Can the Bible be trusted as a factual document? My buddy, Zack at The American Jesus wrote a really challenging blog a few weeks ago about the topic. You’ll have to make up your own mind about his assertions.
But every time this debate surfaces on my blog reader, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that we’re missing something. My “missing the point” radar goes haywire. Given two choices – to either believe all of the Bible, or be a heretic, there must be a third choice.
I finally found the third choice. And it has everything to do with Balaam’s donkey.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Raise your hand if you love C.S. Lewis. That’s what I thought.
Raise your hand again if you believe stories like The Screwtape Letters or The Chronicles of Narnia provide apt analogies for truth about God and humans. Yep, me too.
Now, raise your hand if you believe C.S. Lewis’ stories are factually true. Uh-huh. Just as I suspected.
See, there is a very real difference between a story that is merely factually true in its reporting of the facts, and a story which illustrates and leads the reader to a greater truth. Lewis was a master of allegories which, while not true the way we expect a newspaper article to be, provide illustrations of rich truths of the human spirit.
When we discuss the Bible merely in terms of facts, arguing which facts are to be believed, we are really kidding ourselves. We are pretending to think critically about scripture, when really we are only scratching the surface. We are missing the intent of scripture.
Let’s say some future civilization digs us all up and finds the tools in your garage. The future people have no idea what they are. They can study and hypothesize about the facts of the tools – their material makeup, their shape and form. But their understanding will be fundamentally shallow until they discover the tools’ intended purpose. The facts won’t produce understanding until intent is included.
Flatly Factual Fundamentalists
Bart Ehrman has written another book, which inevitably tries to make our entire faith look foolishly unfactual.
Do you know what kind of religious background produces a Bart Ehrman?
The teaching that you either must believe every word of the Bible is factually, literally true, or don’t believe it at all.
That’s a false dichotomy. It’s a dichotomy that is driving away droves of young people who think they have to choose between their brain and their faith. It’s a dichotomy that the Bible doesn’t even present for readers. It’s a dichotomy that glosses over the literary beauty and the intended purpose of the text and forces people to base their faith on only a surface understanding of the Bible.
The point of the Bible is not a bunch of cute little stories, all existing independently, and whether or not they happened. It’s about something so much bigger than a boat or a donkey.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying
Is the point of Genesis 1 that God created the world in six days, or that God is our amazing creator?
Is the point of the Bible that Isaiah supposedly wrote the book of Isaiah or that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews? (He didn’t.) Or is the point that scripture is “God-breathed?”
Is the point of scripture to be a purely factual account – a history textbook? Or is the Bible a piece of literature whose function is to point to a truth that is bigger than even its pages can hold? (Didn’t John say the gospel accounts, nay the whole world could not hold the whole truth about Jesus?)
And the big question of the day:
Can God use a talking ass to communicate to us?
I think He can.
And if God can do that, then God can use an ancient text, written over centuries, whose authors were fallible humans, as a vehicle for the Holy Spirit to penetrate our hearts and show us the truth about who He is. If I start with the belief that scripture is God-breathed, then it no longer matters if Balaam’s donkey actually talked. The question is what does this story say about God? How does it fit into the whole story?
God can use stories, fantastical, even legendary to show us Truth. And learning and embracing this was how I learned to stop worrying about “inerrancy” and love the Bible. I don’t love the Bible because of its facts (lowercase.) I love it because of its Truth (capital.) I believe the Bible is inerrant, meaning the Bible is exactly how God intended it, not merely that Jonah survived in a fish for three days…
…But who knows. Maybe I’m just another talking ass.
What do you think? Does the inerrancy debate even matter?