Jesus was not a sheep

Thoughts on how we read scripture

It was both saddening and shameful to see the editor of The Banner (the official publication of the Christian Reformed Church), Rev. Robert DeMoor, publically castigated on the floor of Synod for printing two slightly controversial articles (see crcna.org “Synod laments Banner articles”). The troubling conclusion that I can’t help but draw is that many people within the denomination feel threatened – perhaps even terrified – by ideas that seem to contradict their own beliefs, however slightly and peripherally. (Also, when did we come to see Banner articles as the Reformed equivalent of a papal bull?) 

In light of this latest controversy, I’ve been thinking about the divisions that continue to trouble the denomination. The theory I’ve come to is that the contentious issues we can’t seem to get much traction on – women in office, the age of the earth, the place of LGBT folks in church communities, etc. – are actually symptomatic of a larger misalignment over how we understand the coexistence of literal and figurative truth within scripture.

I was teaching “Introduction to Fiction” at Redeemer University College a few years back, when a lecture on morality in The Picture of Dorian Gray took an interesting turn: one of my students claimed to be a strict literalist in his reading of the Bible. Somewhat surprised, I asked if anyone else shared this view, and approximately 25 percent of the class raised their hands. Sensing a teachable moment, I asked these students if they thought Jesus was a sheep.

Because the Gospel of John describes Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” anyone who takes a strict literalist position should necessarily believe that the historical Jesus was a quadrupedal ruminant mammal with wool and hooves. And yet none of my students were willing to commit to this belief, at least not publically. The point I was trying to make, of course, is that reading the Bible in a strictly literal sense is to ignore the ways in which the Bible functions figuratively as well. God’s word makes use of a great many literary devices, both elemental and technical. (Side question: if Jesus is compared to a lamb, why do some of us behave more like Rottweilers during congregational meetings?)

Impoverished reading
I don’t blame my students for losing sight of the Bible’s literary aspects, since I’m often guilty of this myself. In fact, I think the default mode for many of us when consuming scripture is to lapse into an instinctive literalism. This way of reading can be dangerous because it leads toward profound oversimplifications when we contemplate the application of particular texts to contentious issues, but also because it impoverishes our experience of scripture. Failure to move beyond surface-level literalism to a more subtle and substantive appreciation of literary richness puts us at risk of reducing God’s word to a series of rote banalities; as Martin Amis memorably put it, good literature invariably participates in the “war against cliché.” It should be noted, for the record, that such a reading of scripture by no means calls into question the Bible’s inerrancy or ultimate truth.

Take, for example, the names of Naomi’s sons Mahlon and Killian in the book of Ruth. My pastor recently mentioned in a sermon on the topic that these names translate as “death” and “pestilence,” which of course foreshadows the fate of these characters in Moab. What he didn’t mention, explicitly at least, is that this detail probably also signals that we’re dealing with a fictional story here rather than a factual re-telling of real events. After all, who names their kids Death and Pestilence?

If the possibility that Ruth is fictional rather than historical bothers you, ask yourself again whether this actually matters. Would this contingency in any way diminish the book’s profound thematic message of love, faithfulness and devotion? Jesus himself often used stories to teach in exactly this way.

Molecules reknit?
What keeps many people from entertaining such literary readings of the Bible, I think, is the slippery slope conundrum they present in regards to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Everything depends on the fact that the Word literally was made flesh, actually died for our sins and bodily rose again. As John Updike puts it in “Seven Stanzas at Easter,”

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse,
the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

So how do we sort this out? What is figurative and what is literal in scripture and how do these two modes of understanding align to deliver God’s truth? Probably the best way to answer these questions in earnest is to make such figurative readings of the Bible an active priority in our churches – part of the every-Sunday explication that our pastors undertake in their sermons. Because of cultural differences, ancient generic conventions that are lost on contemporary readers, translation issues, lack of literary training and potentially a host of other complications, many of us aren’t positioned very well to recognize the Bible’s more opaque figurative and literary elements. We need to be taught, and it is our pastors who have the training and pulpit (literally) from which to do this.

There are probably a number of reasons why this isn’t happening to a far greater extent than it is, but I will focus on one. I have been told the reason we don’t get more of this sort of teaching from CRC pulpits is that aspiring pastors at Calvin Seminary are instructed not to preach on the textual history of the Bible because this subject has the potential to destroy people’s faith. If you accept this premise, the same could surely be said of figurative approaches toward scripture. To me, however, this seems rather short-sighted. If it is possible for someone to believe that an omniscient and immortal member of the Godhead became human and died to remit for all eternity their personal culpability for sin, surely it isn’t a stretch to believe that this all-powerful and beneficent God might sometimes speak in poetry.

And so, again, I would challenge pastors to make a point of preaching and teaching in ways that regularly incorporate the Bible’s literary and figurative aspects. Thinking this way about scripture may lead us, denominationally speaking, to an increased engagement with new ideas and interpretations, some of which may challenge what we think we know and some of which, in my opinion, should continue to be published in The Banner.

  • Michael is a CC Contributing Editor. He has a desk job in technology and product development, but loves to get outside.

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