Sunday, October 9, 2011
Stranger than Fiction, and Deeper Too
I hold the bible in my hand, and slowly let it fall open. The pages settle on the Gospel of Matthew, and Jesus’ parable (story) of the Lost Sheep, a beautiful tale that compares a shepherd’s commitment to find a stray sheep to God’s love and commitment to find even the most wayward of us humans.
Two thousand years ago in Judea, storytelling was an important way to teach and impart truth. It still is. Think about it: When was the last time you went to a theatre to watch a documentary as opposed to a fictional movie? And the movies we love most are those that tell us something about our human condition. We seek truth everywhere and always, even in our stories. Jesus knew that.
Certain concepts defy the precision of human language. They can be understood, but most easily through the lens of a good story. It’s much like stargazing. The constellation of the Seven Sisters lies like a blur across the night sky when we gaze at it directly. But when our eyes shift to the side, all seven stars emerge perfectly shaped in our peripheral vision.
I mention all this, because within Christianity we take different approaches to the bible. There are those that argue that every story in Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) must be understood as fact, and then there are those that argue that to understand a story as fiction does not belittle the truths it professes. So for example, some Christians take the story of Adam and Eve literally, but many others accept the theory of evolution while at the same time also fully accepting the deeper truths of God’s love and humanity’s failings found in that story. Both sides value truth.
Sadly, the different branches of Christianity sometimes struggle to talk about their differences, let alone accept them. And yet, reading the bible always reminds me of how inclusive God calls us to be.
The decision over which books to include in the New Testament was arrived at through consensus over a period of years, with information, letters and books shared between different worshiping communities. Early Church leaders decided to follow the example of Hebrew Scripture. Just as the Old Testament contains several retellings of the same stories, with differences, so the New Testament should contain several different reliable perspectives on Jesus’ life. This is why there are four Gospels, each from a different community. One would not be enough.
Eighteen parables would be lost if the Gospel of Luke had been eliminated. Eleven would be lost without Matthew. And of those that they have in common, the slightly different tellings enlighten us to deeper truths.
The Bible invites us to conversation. The stories within its pages call us to speak to the truths that resonate in our souls. Rather than rejecting different understandings, we should seek the truths that may be hidden there. We will not always agree, but together we will grow. We are unique individuals within particular communities, and we are called together to be a people of inclusion, wisdom, faith and love.