Jared Witt l August 24, 2017
Did the talking serpent in the story of Adam and Eve really exist? This question was once posed to Karl Barth, maybe the most influential theologian of the 21st century.
At the moment the question was asked, either a fundamentalist or a somewhat naïve critic of Christianity might expect the famous Christian to jump to a knee-jerk defense of scripture: “Ah, yes, well. It’s not for us to say what literally can and cannot happen, given that we ourselves cannot be present for every individual event.” A fellow academic might suppress an eye roll at the childishness of the question and wait for Barth to launch into an overview on the different types of literature that we find in scripture: “Well, you see, let us first understand the language of mythology and how it functioned in the ancient mind…”
But Barth, being neither a naïve nor an indifferent Bible reader, said something else: “I’m not interested in whether the talking serpent existed or not. I’m interested in what he said.”
This is what makes it so mind numbing to watch any debate that is staged between a self-proclaimed “atheist” and a self-proclaimed “fundamentalist” or “creationist.” They're debating the wrong questions. A somewhat recent example of this was when Ken Ham and Bill Nye (the Science Guy) took the stage together. Who decided that these are the men who should speak for either science or scriptural interpretation, I can’t tell you. What I can tell you is that, while the draw of this spectacle is supposed to be their disagreement, what they agree on runs much deeper, and neither seems to be aware of it. They both agree that the only truths that matter are those that can be weighed or measured in a test tube. And, in that sense, both are a fairly clichéd product of their time.
Debating what the Bible says about the Mars Rover or the age of the Earth is like debating whether two plus two equals red or Nantucket. At that point, you’re debating a question that any sane person prior to the European Enlightenment would not have asked the Bible to answer. Before that, people might have gladly adopted the kind of tools we have today for understanding what our universe is made of, but they would have reserved an even greater curiosity for why our universe was made at all. And while we’re at it, Why do babies always make us smile? Why do some poems make us cry? And why does one bag of random molecules ever bother to love another bag of random molecules? To paraphrase the English writer George MacDonald, you can describe the chemical makeup of a Lilly until the cows come home and not have gotten one step closer to explaining why it’s beautiful.
A self-identified atheist friend of mine once tried to denigrate the Bible in a somewhat predictable way by calling it a “fairy tale,” as if this were a downgrade from the serious business of trying to count the protons in a hunk of Polonium. It made me think of G.K. Chesterton’s quote: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” Then, naturally, that quote made me start to think of Game of Thrones (because pretty much everything makes me think of GoT). We don't tune into Game of Thrones to find out if the ice-zombies known as White Walkers are real but to find out if they can be defeated. Can the fire of beauty, truth, love, and companionship defeat the ice of mindless power? And if you’ve picked up a newspaper lately, no question is more urgently real than that.
If people are still talking about Game of Thrones in 2,500 years, I really hope that what they glean from it as truth isn't that dragons used to roam the earth.
Genesis isn’t prepared to tell us how long to the world has been around. It is prepared to tell us why we should care about it. The point of the story of Jonah isn’t to tell us whether a big fish could really save Jonah. The point is to tell us whether a big God could really save Nineveh (i.e. the tribe/nation/race/religion whom my tribe/nation/race/religion happens to hate).
The brilliance of Barth’s response is that, in one swift move, he quit asking the nonsense question, which no sane person would’ve asked the Bible to answer prior to the last couple centuries, and which actually has very little ongoing importance today: Did some crazy stuff actually happen a long time ago, which doesn’t normally happen today? Instead, he started asking the kind of question that should have life-altering importance to everyone still today: What are the real motivations that drive us beneath what we tell ourselves? Why do we always want more than what’s rightfully ours? What do the beginnings of self-deception look like? Why is it not enough for us to receive and share like a human? Why do we always seek to control and possess like a god?
Come to think of it, if someone could actually do it right for once, without turning it into a wooden fundamentalist argument, the subject matter of the Bible is really better suited for an HBO series than a YouTube debate.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community. Checkout this blog weekly for reflections and updates or subscribe to our newsletter so that you never miss a thing.
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