Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Faith and Belief 

I have been thinking some recently about the issues of faith and belief, particularly in relation to a quote I ran across in my Anglican Worship class (I think it was that class). The quote, which I cannot seem to find right now, was by Edward Pusey, a prominent figure of the Oxford Movement. He said something to the effect of 'in order to be catholic, you have to believe the whale spit Jonah out.'

So, I'm thinking, well, now, honestly E.B., that's a pretty fantastic story! I mean, really, a big fish eats a guy, holds him down there for some days, and then spits him back out again and he's fine (aside from still being disgruntled with God)? Pretty far-fetched. But then I thought about it from this angle: a religious zealot who teaches like no one else teaches gets executed by the authorities for stirring up too much trouble. Only, three days later that zealot is Resurrected, visits a few folks, and the Ascends to Heaven, thereby effecting the redemption of the world! Ok, that's a pretty far fetched story, too! But, I believe it. So, what grounds then, from the perspective of faith, do I have to say I disbelieve the Jonah and the Big Fish story? I'm not sure I have any. What do you think?



I can't remember where I read this, but someone important said once that Christian belief is less a matter of intellectually believing in the details, and more a matter of "giving your heart to" something. In which case, I do believe, I give my heart to the story of Jonah and the whale (and even more importantly, the story of Jonah and the plant, which is all too real). That kind of belief encourages a posture towards God and the kind of right action I hope to live into.

Hope that makes some sense.

By Blogger Emily, at 8:41 AM  

How about a form critical approach, that is a question about genre?

For example: Jesus begins a story with, "A sower went out to sow...etc." Now, suppose you found out for certain that there was no such sower. Jesus made the story up. Does that make it an untrue story? Does it make Jesus a liar? Does it produce in you a crisis of faith?

Probably not, because you know that Jesus' story is in the genre of "parable." Its truth is not dependent upon its historical veracity.

Why, then, can the story of Jonah not be a parable of sorts, or of some other genre whose truth is likewise not dependent upon historical accuracy? How about David and Goliath? How about Genesis 1?

I don't think the form-critical approach solves all problems of biblical historicity, but in the case of Jonah, there are many textual indicators of non-historiographic genre that a Pusey might attend to.

By Blogger G. Brooke, at 2:25 PM  


This very well might be true, which is why I limited my inquiry to reasons based on faith. Now, the parables of Jesus are clearly presented as such, but the story of Jonah is not. He is presented, as far as I know, as a real prophet who had a real mission from God and he really ran away from that mission. Now, if Jonah was a parable, what of the Ninevites? Did God, in actuality, not give a divine hoot about them? Following that line of thinking, what do we say about the Ninevites of modern day cultures? Or, if Jonah is a parable, do we view the moral and didactic points of it as being acceptable to God because it ended up in Holy Writ?

The story of Job, as you well know, is widely though to be in such a genre as parable. Am I right in thinking there seems to be no evidence of a place called Ur, and that nowhere else is there a recorded tale about this unfortunate man?

As to David and Goliath, why should one not believe the story? Is there historical evidence that corroborates it? Likely not. But, likewise, is there historical evidence that refutes it? Again, likely not. Thus, enter faith. A lot of the Bible is made up of unbelievable stories. Some, like Genesis 1 which you mentioned, can be attributed to long histories or oral mythologies that one day got codified. Others cannot be. So, by what criteria do we say "Job was a parable, Jonah was a parable, and David likely never fought a giant named Goliath, (in fact, there may not have ever been one character called David who did all those things); but, Jesus was real and really was resurrected and ascended, Paul was really struck blind by Jesus on the road to Damascus and turned his whole life and mission around, and somebody named John really and truly had a tripped out vision while in prison of the end times"?

What I'm trying to get at here is an issue of faith. If we spend all our time trying to corroborate all the stories of the Bible and try to decided which ones are actually true, what room does that leave for faith? I've just been having a hard time lately saying I believe story 'A' is real but story 'B' is false, when to my mind, they both sound equally far-fetched. (Note: this is different that to say, I believe this story to be true, but I disagree with what it seems to be teaching.)

Emily, in her above comment, has found out that the story of Jonah and the plant is all too real in her life and ministry. So, who am I to say, that's fine Emily, but just remember, there really is no withered plant above your head.

Also, what then do we do with that bit from the end of the Gospel of John 20:31 - "But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name."

...so that you may come to believe...

Am I making sense?


By Blogger Ryan, at 3:42 PM  

Brooke -

That's an interesting supposition. I've heard arguments like that in the past, but never with such a strong sense of academic legitimacy. It's always been more along the lines of "Yeah, well even if it's just a story I'm going to believe it no matter what" - not exactly a strong argument. I know you're rather well acquainted with Biblical Hebrew - I'd be curious to know whether these genre indicators are language specific or not. In other words - is it possible that we, as English speakers, might be imposing our own mental and literary frameworks on texts several thousand years removed from the present?

And, on a more germane note - I suppose that my litmus test for matters of belief is loosely based on evidence. Over the years, I've seen my life play out in such a way as to convince me that God is, at the very least, a helpful idea - and often much more. I don't know whether that qualifies as "faith" or not, but that's where I sit right now.

ZAX out,

By Blogger BrotherBeal, at 3:43 PM  

I want to be careful that I don't hijack Ryan's post, and that I try to stay in the topic as Ryan lays it out. So I'm writing a too-long comment and he can let me know if I don't manage it.

Ryan writes in his original post:
So, what grounds then, from the perspective of faith, do I have to say I disbelieve...

I like the way Ryan narrows the issue down to "the perspective of faith," and I guess what I was trying to get at with a form-critical approach was the question, "faith in what?" On my mind is a distinction between "faith in claims made about the Bible by a given reading tradition," and "faith in claims the Bible appears to make about itself."

That's what brought me to form-criticism. If the parable of the sower is identified in the text as a parable (and it is), then we feel free to abandon any expectations of historiography. In Jonah, some would say that many elements of humor and exaggeration in the tale suggest a kind of devout play on the prophetic writings (Jonah runs away opposite Ninevah; Jonah is comically vomited up; his "prophecy" is so passive-aggressively minimal as to betray his hope that it be ineffective; and so forth). That it concerns Ninevah and ends with a question may suggest a narrative riff on the book of Nahum.

I don't insist that Jonah must be read this way. I only wished to suggest that form-critical indicators of non-historiographic intent can be more subtle than, "he spoke to them in a parable." So when Ryan says, "from a perspective of faith" (which, again, I think is a great way to focus his question), I mean to be poking around into the question of, "faith in what?" In the Bible, or in a set of extrabiblical claims about biblical historiography?

By Blogger G. Brooke, at 4:39 PM  

Hi Ryan,

Actually, if you look on my patio, there are a few withered plants out there (grin).

I digress.

By Blogger Emily, at 6:19 PM  

Ryan I think that most of the Bible especially the OT is really myth. And that is a very strange subject. NPR recently did a long interview with a lady who is rather like the New Joseph Campbell....for me most religios myth is stuff that IF IT DID NOT HAPPEN IN AN HISTORICAL SENSE, IT SHOULD HAVE! The proof or lack of it is superficial. Tom

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:47 PM  

Seriously, if you start saying you have to believe the details, what do you do with the synoptic gospels that report on the same events, but that happen in different settings, with different people, etc? Once you admit to that, you have to admit that discernment between things is part of the reading of Scripture.

By Blogger Emily, at 10:53 PM  

The transcripts of the Scopes Monkey Trial on this subject are priceless Americana, and also theologically interesting in a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern kind of way.


By Anonymous Taylor, at 12:45 AM  

There's a slight error in Taylor's link: you have to remove the "1" at the end. Here is a corrected link:

excerpt from scopes transcript

By Blogger G. Brooke, at 7:08 AM  

Thank you all for thinking through some of this with me. Your comments and challenges have been immensely helpful, particulary the remarks about "faith in what?" and in thinking about the relative importance of details (kerygma vs. adiaphora). I do not have answers to these questions, but they certainly have given me plenty to think about. Most of all, thanks for taking me seriously in this posting and not just calling me a crackpot.


By Blogger Ryan, at 12:06 PM  

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