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This is True

February 7, 2011

In light of the Genesis series I’ve been working on, I’ve been reevaluating what it means for a text to be true. Is a text true because its message is true? Because every incidental detail is true? Because it makes no explicitly false statements? I commonly run across people who assume that it could easily be all of those at once. In fact, they say, the Bible is so true that it is all of those at once, a super-special level of true.

This sounds good but it’s far too simple. Take, for example, a recent conversation I had with some friends. One friend was talking about the use of the phrase “worship experience” rather than just “worship”. Another friend commented that if you want a good worship experience he’s got some ideas and listed several methods. I chimed in with several more. What would it mean for these statements to be true? Well, presumably it would mean that the methods we suggested would provide a good worship experience.

Let’s add a complication. All the methods we listed were actually standard methods that cults use to brainwash people. They were thing like “get people tired, put them in a dark room, use repetitive chants”. The last suggestion was actually the use of psychoactive drugs. What would it mean for these statements to be true? Well, again, we could claim that it would mean that brainwashing can produce a good worship experience. Hopefully, though, that makes you feel very strange. It should. By suggesting that the best way to produce a worship experience was to engage in serious emotional manipulation we were attacking the very idea that worship is something one experiences rather than something one does. After all, if worship is an emotional experience but some unpleasant person can recreate that emotional experience through decidedly twisted means then worship is a pretty ridiculous idea. Therefore worship must not be the emotional experience. What would it mean for the statements to be true now? Well, it would mean that worship is something other than experience. Had someone been present who was not familiar with cult brainwashing techniques and missed the joke, I would have summarized the exchange as, “Experience can be recreated by all sorts of means. Experience, then, can’t be the core of worship.” Those words of summary, though, have no relation to the specific words used in the actual conversation.

Frankly, it’s impossible for this kind of complex interplay to be true on all levels. It’s a reductio ad absurdum – you’re supposed to realize that the only way to avoid the conclusion that pastors should brainwash their congregations is to switch models entirely. You can’t affirm that the worship experience model is broken and that brainwashing someone will produce a good worship experience since you’ve already identified the experience as not worship! In certain sorts of complex language, like this example, the various levels contradict. This isn’t the fault of speakers – it’s just the way language works. Since the Bible is most definitely written in human languages nothing about its inspiration can make an end-run around this.

Perhaps, though, the Bible never uses complex language. Perhaps the Bible is written like “See Spot Run”. I would like to point out, first, that if the Bible is written in this manner the Bible also has nothing deep to say. Deep things cannot be expressed without recourse to some kind of complex language. Even apparently simple statements like, “I and the Father are one,” are not straightforward statements of clearly-delineated facts. Trinitarian formulas are the nightmare of technical language that they are exactly because Jesus is clearly separable from the Father even as he asserts their oneness.

As crippling as this problem is, this isn’t the only problem with the idea that the Bible might avoid complex language. There’s also simple evidence. For instance, Judges 9 is a story about Gideon’s son Abimelech. In the middle of this story a man named Jotham tells a story about plants anointing a king. There are multiple problems with reading this passage as true on all levels. It involves talking plants. Talking plants with a system of government. However, the story is true. There are at least three levels on which the story could be true: it could be true that the plants elected the bramble as king. It could be true that Jotham told this story. Or it could be true that the point of the story is true. The first requires inventing spurious miracles to salvage a particular view of inspiration. The second is beyond empirical testing. The third, though, is very much true. Jotham tells the story because the plants, having elected the bramble, must choose between sheltering in its shade (presumably not a pleasant experience – it’s a thorn bush) or dying by fire. Similarly, the elders of Shechem, having conspired with Abimelech to kill Abimelech’s brothers and make Abimelech sole ruler must live with Abimelech’s rule or die as his enemies. The most important part of the story, the point, is most definitely true. The elders of Shechem have made a terrible bargain because Abimelech is a terrible man.

Ignoring this complexity is what causes a lot of problems with Biblical readings. Some time ago I addressed the seemingly contradictory statements of Mark 9:40 and Matthew 12:30. These statements, though, make sense in their contexts. They are not composed in simple language but language that is bound to a context that alters their meaning. The heedless extraction of isolated verses to proof-text is, ultimately, nonsensical. What a verse means may depend strongly on these verses next to it. The Bible cannot be true “all the way down” because it’s a linguistic impossibility. If not we’d have to accept such ridiculous claims as “The Bible says there is no God” since the Bible does, indeed, include the phrase “There is no god”. The speaker, however, is identified as “the fool”. In reality even people who think the Bible is true in isolated verses stop somewhere. If I picked isolated words from the Bible I could construct a sentence with them. For instance, I could say, “You are a sandal because you once ate a house.” Those are all words from the Bible. No one would accept the sentence as a valid Biblical statement, or even as something that remotely makes any sense. Where, then, is the point at which we can say, “That’s a statement in the Bible”? I suggest that this is something we’re already fully capable of doing. We both read and hear many thoughts expressed at length and have a sense for when context is important. We get annoyed when people misquote those we like by cropping important context – we know that the full thought wasn’t expressed. These same basic language skills need to be applied to the Bible.

None of this, though, answers the question “is this true?”. There’s a good reason for that – to know if something is true we need to know what it is saying. אנה ברכב is a statement but only those of you who know some Aramaic and recognize the second word as a name have any idea whether or not it is a true statement. The Bible is no different. Language with levels isn’t true at all levels. I suggest that to answer the question “is this true?” we first need to ask “what is this saying, really?” This question, not the determination of truth value, is often the difficult part.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Stewart Thomas permalink
    February 7, 2011 11:47 am

    Are you suggesting that everyone alter their email signatures from quoting a single verse out of context to quoting an entire chapter to contain and provide the context? Ugh. Thanks, that’s all we need!

  2. Eric permalink
    February 7, 2011 12:21 pm

    No, I think a hyperlink to the chapter would do.

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