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Reading the Bible like it’s Science Fiction

June 25, 2012
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I spend a lot of time thinking about how people read the Bible. It’s one of my favorite topics to write about. So, it is with some pleasure that I announce that I have found one of the big problems with modern Bible reading is that people do not read the Bible much like science fiction. I could mean an awful lot of things by that but I think it best to leave you confused for a minute. First, let me exonerate science fiction.

Growing up I loved to read science fiction. I also loved to have overly-intellectual conversations with people and so it didn’t take long for me to realize that for many people science fiction is barely writing. Now, if you’re a science fiction buff you know this already. If not try this: find a group of people who are discussing literature. When one of them finishes their discourse on their current reading, perhaps Melville (“the knot imagery in Moby Dick is truly evocative”), and asks what you are reading say, “Oh, I like a lot of science fiction.” Now, I’ll admit that there is some real crap out there going under the name of science fiction. However, there’s crap in a lot of genres and good science fiction makes you practice advanced language skills. That’s right, I am actually claiming that good science fiction makes you smarter.

Most fiction writing deals with familiar things perhaps placed in unfamiliar settings. Science fiction inherently deals with things that don’t currently exist, that are even less familiar in many ways than even the unfamiliar things you might run into in other fiction. Because of this, most science fiction has to find a way to tell you about an entire world (or worlds) of new things. World-building in science fiction is a serious task. In fact, one of the easiest ways to mess up science fiction is to ignore world-building. If you don’t pay careful attention to creating a world with rules that the reader is then taught, then you simply can’t build tension. Items that nobody understands all function as deus ex machina from a plot perspective. If you don’t explain the new things that you introduce, then your story becomes incomprehensible.

Back in high school I wrote short science fiction stories. They were short because I didn’t have the attention span to write longer ones and I won’t claim they were any good but one consistent challenge was describing the world in which I set my stories to the reader. Take, for instance, aliens. I wrote extensive notes on what my aliens looked like, ate, wore, how they spoke, what their social structures were, and so on. This was necessary to build them into realistic characters (although I probably lacked every other skill required to do this). Now, the reader needs to know some of this information. (The reader does not need to know a lot of it, although the author needs to know it so that the author can write a story with consistency because readers do notice that at least subliminally.) There are two ways to go about this. The first is to introduce a large block of text in which you simply tell the reader what you want them to know. You can sometimes get away with this under the right circumstances and most readers of science fiction are familiar with the dialog that exists solely so that an informed character can explain some important aspect of the fictional world an ignorant character and, really, to the reader. However, you can’t do this too often or it becomes terrible writing. Nobody really wants to read things like, “Tom took the alien’s hand in his and shook it. The alien was eight feet tall, had two arms, and was covered in blue fur.”

The second way to insert this information is to weave it into the text. I’ll return to my misspent youth for a moment and write you a short scene in which I attempt to do this for an alien:

Ambassador Ch’vmordath twisted a thin tentacle around the proffered choffee flower. His song-mouths crooned a soft tune of anticipation and delight. “Yes…..yes…” he whispered, pausing for the translator in his air filter to finish speaking. “I think we have a deal.”

I don’t claim to have done this well, but I’ve written three sentences each of which advances the plot of our hypothetical story. In the process you’ve learned that the alien Ambassador Ch’vmordath has tentacles, at least some of which are thin, that he has more than one mouth and one group of mouth sings his emotional state, that he likes choffee flowers (whatever those are), that he needs an automatic translator (which may be related to how awful his name is to pronounce – perhaps his species can’t make some of the sounds humans use), and that he may be unable to breathe the air in the room. If we knew that this was a room humans could live in without breathing apparatus then we would suspect that Ch’vmordath couldn’t breathe a normal Earth atmosphere safely. However, none of this information was just handed to us. Take this version:

Ambassador Ch’vmordath took the proffered choffee flower. Ch’vmordath’s species has tentacles, which is how he grasped the flower. The anticipation filled him with delight. You can tell because his species has several mouths called “song-mouths” that sing in various tones to indicate emotional states. “Yes….yes,” he whispered through the air filter his species needs to breathe, which also has a translator because it is almost impossible for them to replicate human speech sounds. “I think we have a deal.”

It’s awful. It’s also a lot easier to get information from this version. When you read the first one you have to read the sentence and understand what is happening by using your information about the characters, but also take what is happening and use that to know more about the characters. It’s a reading loop of sorts. In fact, I didn’t even bother to tell you what a choffee flower was in any of that. Perhaps chapters later I’d reveal that it’s a powerful narcotic to Ambassador Ch’vmordath’s species and you (being a good reader) would update your mental file on choffee flowers from, “Thing Ambassador Ch’vmordath likes, got him to accept the deal,” to, “Drug Ambassador Ch’vmordath is either using or selling, probably using because he sure liked it a lot, got him to accept the deal.” However, if you’d dropped the mental file because you don’t know what a choffee flower is you’d miss a big reveal in the story. Science fiction requires you to use half-formed concepts to comprehend sentences and then use your comprehension of the sentences to form the concepts more fully.

This sort of thing doesn’t end with the bizarre, like an alien species which you’ve never heard of. Science fiction is full of concepts that get re-used in slightly different forms again and again. Sentences like, “He was cut off by the whining pop of a laser discharge,” or, “The blue corona of hyperspace enveloped the ship,” are commonplace because even though laser weapons and hyperspace are old standards of a certain breed of science fiction, no two authors agree on the way they look, sound, or work. So even when the reader of science fiction runs across a familiar word (“Ah, ‘spaceship’, I recognize that term!”) they must be prepared to change what they think the term means based on what it does in the text.

And, suddenly, without warning, we’re back to the Bible. Many people read the Bible like it’s set in their country right around their current time in history. They read long Pauline discourses like Paul was speaking in modern English vernacular, or rather modern English Christianese since he uses words like “righteousness” and “salvation”. They read stories in the Old Testament like everyone has read the New Testament and was in church last Sunday to hear the pastor’s take on it. But the Bible takes place in an alien world. The Bible uses words we don’t automatically understand. In some sense the Bible is infinitely more alien than science fiction because God is not a human and if we believe that God has inspired the Bible then there are non-human ideas in there.

We could learn from reading science fiction. If we read the Bible in the manner I’ve described for science fiction then we could read the Bible better. If we read a passage where something is described as “faith” even when we don’t think it is then we could update our idea of what “faith” means in the Bible. If, instead, we hold on to our current idea we’ll get nowhere. If you’ve decided that all spaceships are the space shuttle Stars Wars is going to be pretty confusing. If you’ve settled on a strange idea of what God is then the Bible will be pretty weird, too. (This brings us back to Christianese, which frequently offers relatively poor definitions for common Biblical words.)

In fact, if we read like this we could uncover the riches of the individual books. Does John use “light” in a funny way? Heck yes he does. Does Matthew invoke Israel imagery in a different way than the other gospels? Yes. But we can’t recognize any of this unless our definitions of words, the concepts that stand behind the marks on the page, can flex to meet the different usages of each author.

Without the mental flexibility to redefine words as we read, the alien concepts of the Bible will pass us by. And, unfortunately, it is the alien concepts (including the alien concepts we think we understand) and not the ones we already understand quite well that we need most.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    June 25, 2012 12:40 pm

    Hey Eric, very nice! One of your best! I particularly like this line:

    Science fiction requires you to use half-formed concepts to comprehend sentences and then use your comprehension of the sentences to form the concepts more fully.

    Nicely articulated throughout. More thoughts later, perhaps.

  2. November 1, 2012 7:58 pm

    I think that you have struck on one of the most important problems in biblical interpretation – namely, how do we know what the words of Scripture mean? There are really two problems here. The first is the problem of translation – the problem of how should we should render a particular word of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek into English. The second is the problem of interpretation – given that we can be reasonably confident about the translation of a particular word, how do we know what the word means as it occurs in the text? It should be obvious that settling the translation problem does not automatically settle the interpretation problem. For example, it may be that “justification” is a suitable translation of the Greek “diakiosis”, and that “burnt offering” is a suitable translation of the Hebrew “‘ola”; but, even if these translations are in fact good ones (and there is some question about this), it is still hard to know exactly what these terms mean as they occur in Romans and Leviticus. (Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, one can sometimes settle the interpretation problem at least to some degree without settling the translation problem. There are a number of sacrifices in Leviticus whose functions are partly understood but whose Hebrew terms cannot be rendered into English except in an arbitrary way.)

    This raises a number of difficult questions. Here are a few. First, if we suppose – as seems reasonable – that it is very hard to know exactly (or sometimes even roughly) what important terms in the Bible mean, what lessons, if any, should we draw from this about the nature of biblical inspiration and authority? Are we really prepared to say that the Spirit left us a text that we can’t understand, or that we can only understand with a tremendous amount of scholarly effort? And do we really want to say that the average Christian can’t make heads or tails of some of the more important theological questions in Scripture, like the nature of justification? I don’t think that evangelicals will be alone in wanting to answer “no” to these questions, but can this really be avoided? Second, what, if anything, should pastors do to help educate their congregations in the light of these difficulties? Third (and relatedly), what should pastors say about these passages in sermons? And what should Christian scholars write about these passages in popular commentaries?

    Frankly, I’m convinced that scholars cannot answer many important questions about the nature of the sacrificial and purity systems in Leviticus, and that most of what is said about these issues will always be conjectural at best. But should pastors really tell their congregations this? And should Christian scholars admit this in popular commentaries? One might think that pastors and Christian scholars should be honest about these limits, but is that really the best policy? I’m not sure.

    Anyway, I think that you’re right about the problem of assuming English words have the same meanings they do in modern English translations of the Bible as they do in ordinary conversation. But what should the church do about this problem? That is unclear to me.

  3. January 17, 2013 12:14 pm

    I have always considered the Bible a work of science fiction of sorts. The crazy thing about it is that the people appeared to believe what they were writing…making it all the more intriguing. What’s more, similar phenomenon as found in the Bible (angels, demons and other otherworldly visitors) are also found in texts and artwork thousands of miles away from where the Bible was written. They say science fiction imitates life…

    • Eric permalink
      January 20, 2013 11:47 pm

      It looks like you are primarily commenting on the content of the Bible whereas I am making a point about how one reads. I would certainly not expect the revelation of any deity worth his almighty salt to fall within the parameters of our everyday lives and so I wouldn’t expect normal content from divine revelation. The question that interests me here is how one best reads about unfamiliar ideas.

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