The Bible is a Joke

Chickens, boy magicians, and creationism.

21 November, 2017 // in The Coffeehouse Cleric // by Alex Rowe.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” When you read that sentence, you instantly knew what you were dealing with — the start of a joke. You didn’t question whether a chicken would really have the intellectual capacity to render his road-crossing anything more than mere happenstance. You didn’t do this, because that would be silly — it’s a joke! But how did you know that?There is nothing explicit in the words themselves that suggest this to you. You just know it. And anybody who asks such a question we would judge to not have a very good sense of humour.

Here’s another scenario. You find a book lying open on the coffeetable. Without checking the cover, you pick it up and begin to read. Soon enough you encounter wands and wizards, magic and monsters, muggles and mysterious train platforms. As you follow the adventures of this young boy and his friends, you become immersed in the action. You don’t slam the book shut and mock its fantasy. You don’t ridicule its lack of realism. Why? Because you know it’s a story. You’re reading Harry Potter.

Reading Genesis for a modern scientific account of creation is like reading Yeats’s poetry for cartography of Northern Ireland. It’s like having a bad sense of humour, or ridiculing Harry Potter for a lack of realism.

As I speak with friends about how to read the Scriptures well, it often comes back to this — attentiveness to the literary genre in which the text presents itself. Many of our ‘problems’ with the Bible can be resolved this way. How so? Because identifying the genre ensures that we ask the right questions of the text. That is, questions which the text was intended to answer, and issues it was intended to address. Two examples serve to illustrate this point.

(1) The biblical creation accounts. Should we really expect detail of the precise mechanisms by which the universe came into being from texts like these — written in artful Hebrew poetic prose, many centuries before the rise of scientific empiricism and observation? I don’t think so. Don’t hear me incorrectly on this. I think the biblical creation accounts are profoundly significant. But I’m not convinced that this ancient text was written with the intention of answering questions that have only seriously burdened the minds of readers for the last two or three hundred years. Reading Genesis for a modern scientific account of creation is like reading Yeats’s poetry for cartography of Northern Ireland. It’s like having a bad sense of humour, or ridiculing Harry Potter for a lack of realism. When the biblical creation accounts are alongside other creation myths of the period, such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish, it becomes clear that it was written with other questions in mind. By contrast with the Enuma Elish, the biblical creation accounts emphasise the unity of the divine will, the peacefulness of God, the goodness of creation, the dignity of human beings, and much more.

(2) Paul and his letters. A letter is almost always written with a specific audience in mind. In the case of Paul, his letters were addressed to specific church communities in prominent towns and cities of the Roman Empire: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, and Thessalonica. Although the early circulation and eventual canonisation of these letters meant that their contents were (and still are) taken as significant for wider communities and later contexts, the specificity of the original audience ought to be taken into consideration. Not everything that applied to Galatia or Corinth necessarily and directly applies today. A wise and careful reading for today of Paul letters to Galatia or Corinth needs to take into account the letters’s original audiences.

The reason I put ‘problems’ in inverted commas above is because I want to emphasise the fact that many of our apparent problems with the Bible are exactly that: our problems. And many of these problems arise from a misidentification of genre. By contrast, the first and earliest readers of the Bible would have identified the correct genre with ease, and would have asked questions of the text that it was intended to answer.

As modern readers we are often at a great disadvantage when it comes to recognising genre. We no longer inhabit the cultural world that the text presupposes. We lack acquaintance with the historical customs and literary conventions with which the text is saturated. As a consequence, where the biblical text appears lacking, insufficient, or completely impenetrable, we must first ask whether or not we are misidentifying the genre. The first and earliest readers might not have bat an eyelid.

In order to read the Bible well, we must learn to identify the genre of the text and then read accordingly. Do this, and you’ll hear the Bible on its own terms, answering its own questions. Do this, and the Scriptures come alive.

Thank you for reading. The Coffeehouse Cleric is a Medium publication dedicated to asking the big questions of life. It features writing on three main areas: minimalism, spirituality, and learning. If you enjoyed this piece, please do share it with friends and family on social media.

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