About a week ago, I blogged about an article my friend asked me to read about a "progressive" approach to reading scripture. The author talked about a "canon within the canon" approach. And about not taking the Bible literally. All of which make me think and made me squirm . . . because I find myself too often conceding minor points to such people but unable to swallow their arguments as a whole.
Let me tell you about the Book of Job.
The Book of Job, from the Old Testament, was the first piece of literature my students studied in Freshman English this fall. Most Christians (and many non-Christians) are familiar with the basic story. Satan essentially makes a bet with God that devout Job would curse God if his many blessings were taken away, and Job proves Satan wrong.
I bring up the book to address this question of taking the Bible literally. Because if one were to ask me if I take the Bible literally, I would generally answer yes. But that requires some explanation in some instances, like the Book of Job.
For example, I do believe that there was a historical man named Job who seems to have lived around the time of Abraham, and who was very rich and blessed, lost it all, and was known for his continued faith in God through all his suffering. There are other passages in scripture that refer to Job as an actual historical figure and not as a character in a narrative. (As the author of that article said, we need to use scripture to interpret scripture.) So, I believe Job existed.
However, I don't believe that Job and three of his friends sat together on a pile of ashes and pontificated to each other in metrical verse for thirty-seven chapters worth of material. The Book of Job is a narrative poem, and it seems clear to me that the author took the raw material of the story and put it in the form of that genre for artistic effect.
I'm also not sure that Job actually had three specific friends named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (although there's evidence such people may have existed) who sat with him during this time and made these specific arguments to him. It's certainly possible, but their arguments seems to center around specific humanistic themes in a way that looks to be molded by the author. (As the creationists are wont to say, evidence of design implies the presence of a designer.)
I'm not uncomfortable with saying that I look at the Book of Job as possibly being like what we would currently call historical fiction -- based on a true story with liberties taken by the author to shape the details into a good narrative. In that sense, I guess you could argue that I don't take everything in the book literally.
On the other hand, I absolutely believe the book to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that every truth communicated in there is Truth. I don't take the Good Samaritan story or the rest of Christ's parables "literally", but they are inspired Truth nonetheless.
It is also important to note, as I emphasized to my students, that while the Book of Job contains God's Truth, what it contains is incomplete truth. There is almost no mention at all in the book of the love of God for his people -- one of the most important things we need to know about God. One cannot build an accurate theology around the Book of Job alone (or around any small part of the Bible); it must be informed by the whole of scripture.
All this to say, the progressives do make a point about considering the genre of the section of the Bible you are reading, and reading it intelligently in light of that genre. And they make valid suggestions that there are other passages of scripture that fundamentalists interpret "literally" that might be written in a genre that doesn't allow for that.
I don't have time to address all of those here. I'll just close with two points:
1) Fundamentalists need to be less arrogantly dismissive of such arguments made by the progressives, because they make valid points and we only denigrate our case by being unwilling to seriously consider the opposing view.
2) In my serious consideration of opposing views about such passages of scripture, I have yet to be convinced to jump on board with a progressive interpretation. So when, for example, friends ask me to read the creation story in Genesis 1 as a poetic account of the beginning of time, with spiritual truth to be gleaned from it but without literal facts at its base, I recognize this as a valid idea to consider -- but when I have considered it, I cannot yet buy the argument.
And I may have to take another post sometime to further explain why that is.