Monday, March 28, 2011

Is the Bible Just a Book of Parables?


The pun-meister Bill Maher says some amazing things. “The Bible was not meant to be history; it was not meant to be literal,” he opines. “They were parables; people read it back then and read into it something that was not literal; we’re the dummies who read it literally.” Well, is he right? Is the Bible merely parabolic? Is it true that the Bible was not meant as history?

Interestingly enough, the answer is found in the word genre. Grasping genre or form is crucial in understanding what a text means by what the text says. In other words, to interpret the Bible as literature, it is always crucial to consider the kind of literature that you are interpreting. Where visionary imagery is the governing genre, it’s foolhardy to interpret it literally. On the other hand, where historical narrative is preeminent, it is imperative not to over-spiritualize. Bill Maher is right to associate parables with the Bible, but to do so exclusively is absurd.

No one, of course, applied the power of parable with greater effect than Jesus. Luke 16 chronicles the parable of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus who was covered in sores and longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. In time both died. Their roles immediately reversed. The beggar found himself comforted in Abraham’s bosom. The rich man experienced the foretaste of eternal torment…

Too late…he paid attention to the beggar lying by his gate

Too late…he postponed repentance

Too late…he heeded the testimony of the Law and the Prophets

Too late…too late…too late…

Like a heat-seeking missile, the parable of Jesus Christ always hits its mark. Hopefully the heart of a pun-meister will be next.

The point here is to acknowledge that the Bible is replete with parables, but that is hardly the extent of the matter. Scripture is a treasure chest that abounds in literary genres, ranging from poetry to psalms to historical narratives, didactic epistles, and apocalyptic revelations. We must see the Bible once again as a treasure chest.

Tragically, our postmodern culture does not appreciate literature the way our ancestors did. We do science well, but we don’t do literature well. We know how to read Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, but seem ill-equipped to read William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri.

One must remember that the language of Scripture is a heavenly condescension so that we might apprehend both the nature and purposes of an infinite God. Failure to consider genre leads to a host of unintended consequences. This is particularly so when it comes to apocalyptic portions of the Bible. When Jesus says that the stars are going to fall from the sky, He hardly intends to be taken literally. A single star, of course, would obliterate the earth, let alone a hundred billion stars. Instead, the Heir to the linguistic riches of the Old Testament prophets and a Greater Prophet than them all used the symbolism of stars to pronounce judgment within His own generation. Failure to consider genre might lead to laughs in a comedy routine, but from an eternal perspective the effect is not nearly as funny. We have to look at life, of course, with eternity in mind. If we do, the consequences are life with a Savior. If we don’t, the consequences are condemnation, as the rich man found out. There are only two kinds of people in the world, those who follow Christ and those who deny Christ— those who are Christians and those who are anti-Christians. Which one are you? If you are a Christian, are you committed to making your life count for time and eternity?

4 comments:

William B said...

Humility is quite an important thing for one to seek to find in his life, if he does profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ. The humility to respond to criticism in a manner which honors the Lord Jesus Christ and not jump quickly to the defense of oneself or ones ideas. I preface my comment with this because I find a stark irony in the post to which this is attached.

First irony is that you would fail to recognize that what Bill Maher is doing is simply what sinful people given over to deeper degrees of sinfulness or depravity will do - sin turns to greater sin to mockery and beyond. Yet from what you have said regarding he and many others it appears that you would expect them to be able to gain understanding without first being indwelt by the Spirit of God, i.e. being Born Again from the Natural Man to the Spirit-filled Man.

Secondly you talk about genre's of the Bible being properly understood yet you seem to ascribe Hebrew Poetry to the Genesis account of Creation which has you seemingly incapable of coming to a final understanding of the Biblical fact that Creation was a 6 Literal Day event, cf Ex. 20 and elsewhere as well as the "evening came, morning followed" of the text to define the timeframe. But woefully Hank you have taken to introduce the necessity of looking to the "Book of Nature" to understand the Creation account, implying that the word of God is insufficient for such a thing, seemingly ignoring the Creation Science movement which has scientifically supported the Young Earth timeline. In light of that one must be compelled to ask and have answered by you, which "Book of Nature" do you refer to? The one of 1940? 1950? 1960? 1970? 1990? 2010? The fact is Hank it is ever changing and forever questioned by skeptics and "scientists" and the unregenerate in efforts to justify themselves and seemingly escape God's governance over them. For the "Bible Answer Man" to claim we need to look to the "Book of Nature" for answers seems incredibly ironic to the point of absurdity. But I digress...

You might reconsider some of your commentary and the quickness with which you say people are "unable to read the Bible for all its worth". Such a self-description does not lend oneself to humility, self-examination or rebuke or reproof to the word of God but sets oneself apart from reproof, apart from a needful examination in light of Scripture, apart from a return to sound Scriptural theological positions.

You stated on one show that you were not yet resolved in your view of the Creation timeline because there were things you were still wrestling with, might I suggest you allow the word of God to speak for itself and let "God be true and every man a liar" who would question the clarity and authority of the word of God?

If there is any error in what I have said, please let me know biblically where I have erred and I will reconsider in light of that approach. I pray that you wouldn't take this as merely someone taking shots at you, but as a Brother in Christ calling another to examine himself and be a Berean.

In Christ,
William B

Judah Gabriel Himango said...

Thanks for this post, Mr. Hanegraaf. Bill Maher regularly mocks religion, Christianity in particular; it's good to see a response to some of his stuff.

I've linked to this post from my blog: Weekly Bracha 54.

James said...

Whew. OK, I can live with that. For a second, I was afraid you were going to say that the Bible was 100% literal and that anyone who said otherwise was going to roast for all eternity.

Since we're choosing metaphors, I tend to think of the Bible as a pool of water with an unknown depth. Without diving in, we can only see the surface. I'm concerned that most folks are content to sit on the shore, looking at the waves without realizing what exists beneath them.

To blend our metaphors, there's hidden treasure at the bottom.

Boris said...

Historical narratives have never included word for word dialog - conversations with people speaking in complete sentences. Only fictive narratives contain dialog. This is how the average fifth grader knows the Bible is fiction.