In my freshman year of college, I registered for a class called “The Bible as Literature.” Man, was I excited about this class. If any college subject resonated with me, it had to be the Bible. Certainly, I knew a lot of what would be taught and would ace the class.
I got a B.
I looked on in dismay and horror as others in the class, some of whom claimed to have no connection with Christianity, received the much-coveted A. How was this even possible?
Looking back, I realized the problem was that I held onto a fairly literal interpretation of the Bible. Metaphors, similes, allegories–these were all literary devices that weren’t relevant when it came to reading the Bible, at least I told myself. What’s more, having to find the irony or alliteration in a Bible passage took away from the pleasure of reading. (Note that this is how I viewed, and continue to view most comparative literature assignments.)
There is a much deeper reason why I chose not to view the Bible through literary devices. If I did, I would have given myself the chance to believe that the Bible was simply a work of fiction, that some really creative writers added stories throughout thousands of years to create two books with very detailed, very engaging fictionalized people and events. The idea that the foundation of what you’ve believed in your whole life could be fake is terrifying, but ultimately it’s something with which you must deal.
And so yesterday, while I was sitting in church, questions came flooding into my head as I listened to the readings. Why did Jesus start his ministry in Capernaum, a tiny dot of a town? Why was his first act there to drive out an evil spirit from a man inside the synagogue? Was Capernaum chosen simply because of its nice location near the sea? Does the evil spirit represent darkness in the soul of man in general? Is this Jesus character just an intriguing figure with superhuman powers who meets his fate due to the cruelty of mankind? Is the Bible a bunch of ancient fairy tales full of metaphors and other literary devices?
I had to shut my mind down so I wouldn’t become overwhelmed. No writing, no thinking about any of this for the rest of the day. And this morning, I had a mini-revelation. The Bible is a book written by many authors. It does feature metaphors, similes, etc. It does tell the tale of great people who were brought down by evil forces, only to be lifted up again. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be true.
If the stories sometimes seem beyond belief, maybe that’s because some of the most famous characters in the book possessed a faith that most of us can’t begin to comprehend. That’s why Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son if God told him to, why James and John and the rest of the disciples left their previous lives to follow Jesus, and why lepers and sinners believed that Jesus would heal them. Faith is the theme of the whole book.
Even if some stories turn out to be embellished, they can still teach us lessons. Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt for looking back as they escaped Sodom? Couldn’t that mean we should keep looking forward and not cling to our old ways? Isn’t that plausible? I think so.
There’s no reason why you can’t have a phenomenal piece of literature that proclaims some of the greatest stories ever told. And, if you look at it that way, the greatest storyteller of them all is God, the creator of all things, even literary devices. If only I had figured that out as a college freshman. That A would have been mine.