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Do we need the Bible to be true so long as it is real?

Do we need the Bible to be true so long as it is real?

Tom Bissell, who most recently authored Apostle, writes a stirring defense of storytelling and faith, noting that atheists and fundamentalists often end up on the same side of debates on Biblical veracity.

From the essay:

Recently I sat for an interview about my new book, “Apostle,” which details my years-long journeys to the supposed tombs of Jesus’s original followers. My interviewer wanted to know one thing: whether I thought the stories in the Bible were true or false. But I don’t think this is the best question to ask. I tried to explain that all stories are true and false — that the act of imposing a narrative upon real events necessarily distorts those events.

The far-ranging piece also brings up Shakespeare, and the influence his stories have on our modern political discussions and the way we relate to the world around us.

Consider that Shakespeare knew nothing of developmental psychology, modern political theory, economics, or the genome, and the faith we nonetheless have in him to make sense of our own times. Storytelling has and always will have a corrective power less fragile than that of faith — less fragile because it is not vulnerable to mere fact. This is why anyone who derives meaning from art has no business claiming not to understand meaning derived from religion, and vice-versa: What are stories but part-time religions? What are readers but temporary fundamentalists?

What about you? Do you need the Bible to be literally true in all respects, or does the weight and the power of millennia of storytelling hold your faith?

If you’d like to buy Bissell’s book, it is available online and at booksellers.


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Rod Gillis

Well the sun is up and here I am surveying new comments, including the back forth regarding Bill Paul’s opinion. I don’t quite get why Bill is apparently so negative on the article. I’d actually never heard of Tom Bissell until I read the article here on the Café ( should I get out more?); but his book looks very interesting. So, thank you. I think it is the kind of thing many folks in the pews will find meaningful.

Bill’s earlier comment re Rowan Williams caught my eye. In a recent interview Williams reflected on studying theology back in the day remarking that Roman Catholic theologians were not often on the reading list. It is an interesting observation from several points of view from a guy in the know. Flogging Roman Catholic theologians is a hobby of mine. They write profoundly while dismantling the myth that the R.C. church is a monolith. What happens in Rome inevitably finds it way into Anglican circles.

Perhaps I should cough up a mea culpa of my own for contributing to “pedantry”; but I can’t resist the opportunity here to debate with folks like Dr. Chris up there at Wycliffe. I have no doubt he is very good in his field of Hebrew Bible/First Covenant studies. But what is most interesting about his posts, and indeed many of the other posts here, are the clues they offer up as to where one fits on the political spectrum of American culture wars. It is fascinating really.
Don’t ever change Café!

Michael Reilly

Marcus Borg–an Episcopalian, I believe–wrote about metaphoric truths in the Bible. That is, there are things that are true even if they never happened. Adam and Eve? Noah’s Ark? Virgin births? Even if these things never actually occurred, there are truths embedded in those stories that speak to what is most human in all of us. The stories of the Bible, literally true or not, are filled with wisdom, ethical truths, and insights into the human condition, as well as guidance for living a moral life, a source of joyful traditions for families and societies, as well as a serving as a literary cultural universal for Western (and many non-Western) peoples.

In other words, I don’t care if Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish, or if there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden. Those stories, those myths, are important to my life. They shine light on the path before me. They connect me to my past, and guide me toward the future. That’s good enough for me.

Rod Gillis

I meant to add to an earlier post that folks interested in the issues generated by the Tom Bissell book may also be interested in, Foundational Theology: A New approach to Catholic Foundational Theology by Neil Ormerod and Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer (Fortress Press, 2015. The authors (Australians) are both Bernard Lonergan scholars. I have found Lonergan’s work on method and cognitional theory very user friendly with regard to the scripture-tradition-reason paradigm.

William (Bill) Paul III

The question(s) as framed in the post cited and at the end of the post (What about you? Do you need the Bible to be literally true in all respects, or does the weight and the power of millennia of storytelling hold your faith?) are so carelessly framed, that is gets the discussion off to an awful start. This is true of many blogs…and for that matter of many table-discussion groups, clergy conferences, and sermons. We have a crudely framed either-or, and even worse is the introductory “do you *need*?! Ugh. And we haven’t gotten to talk about the word literal here, confused as it is with historical reliability, or reality-depicting, or who knows what.

Time is not taken to pose with some specificity, and so thinking is frustrated, not enabled or elicited at the start.

Is the New Testament historically reliable? Is the New Testament reality-depicting? How so? What is the efficacy of the Risen Christ? These and legions of other questions like them deserve slow, careful posing and discussion. Such discussion and the fruits of those who labor to order our thinking and living in the light of the gospel are available ….if one looks around.

C Seitz has named some, referred to others as a group on the continent, who have serious things to offer. He has also reminded us that exegesis, dogmatics/theology, and ethics/practical theology have been, lamentably, divided for way too long. And we are the worse for it.

Rowan Williams once pointed out that a well-known ECUSA bishop seemed to have no knowledge of the deep and sustained thinking, done by many down through the ages, on so-called ‘modern questions.’ It may not be all pulled together by one systematician, but there is so much that has been done. that those entrusted with the teaching office of the church–bishops and clergy creating and commenting on blogs, for instance–might school themselves in the best that’s been thought and said, and not conspire with the sloganeering, impatient, sound-bite culture that is making its assault on all of us.

Jerald Liko

I thought it was a good post, David. There’s an unfortunate tendency in these discussions for the best-educated to (1) talk over the heads of the casual Episcopalian, and (2) turn the discussion into a urination contest over credentials. I’ve read some interesting viewpoints and added some fellow named Lonergan to my reading wish list, and that’s what I’m looking for in these posts. Thanks for provoking a discussion!

Susan Moritz

One of the most valuable things about Episcopal Café is that it tolerates a considerable range of comments, from the most pedantic to the least (as illustrated in this thread). It isn’t an academic blog, and Apostle isn’t an academic book. To ask how readers feel about questions suggested by the book is hardly getting the discussion “off to an awful start.”

William (Bill) Paul

The questions I drew attention to, stand, unfortunately, for themselves. My criticism has nothing to do with pedantry. Presbyters ordained to be teachers, educated lay persons called to “give an account” of the faith, and all Christians commanded to love God with the mind, should seek clarity and thoughtfulness at every level (from Sunday School and up), whether it’s serious academic expression or something aimed at popular consumption. The Cafe, in this case, was promoting or recommending not an “apostle” but a book; and the Cafe was engaging some issues with those final, IMHO muddled or untutored, questions.


I once heard a rabbi, Catholic priest & baptist theology professor all agree that in order for the bible to be 100% literally factual that G-d would have had to write, translate, edit, type & print it himself (no gender assumption here) – because imperfect humans could not create a perfect record.

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