In nearly three decades of teaching mathematics I found that the very best and the very worst students tended to ask the same question: When are we ever going to use this? From the best students this was an honest inquiry, a seeking to make connections with prior learning, to anticipate extensions to future learning, and to seek applications of principles and techniques. It was a joy to answer their question. From the worst students this was less an honest question and more a challenge: Why are you wasting our time with this totally useless nonsense? There was no joy in answering their challenge, nor was it really possible to do. It wasn’t a question and they weren’t looking for an answer. My default response was, I’m afraid, as unsatisfactory as their challenge: you probably won’t, but you never can tell.
Recently, on an Anglican Facebook page, a commenter posted this meme:
QUESTIONS FOR BIBLE BELIEVERS
If an omniscient, omnipotent, perfect being is the mastermind behind the Bible, then why does the book reflect only the culture, science, history, literature, technology, morals, and values of the era in which it was written? And why are there so many versions of it? And why does it have so many inaccuracies and inconsistencies? And why is it open to so many different interpretations? And why does it include stoning, torture, murder, burning, slavery, homophobia, bigotry, and chauvinism? And why would anyone have to ask so many questions about the Bible if it’s supposed to be the go-to source for truth and the ultimate instruction book for morality? Anyone?
These are not questions; they are challenges. They are not intended to promote discussion or to seek reasonable answers; they are intended to mock and disrupt. I know this because I rather foolishly attempted to engage in discussion with the person who posted the meme. It was to no avail. I suspected it probably wouldn’t be, but you never can tell.
Still, behind some of those challenges lurk real and legitimate questions — questions that many honest searchers have and, if they will admit it, questions that trouble many faithful Christians. I would like to try to formulate some answers — not final ones, but steps pointing in the right direction which others may fruitfully explore further.
But, there is a preliminary matter to address. Every teacher has experienced this: a good student asks a genuine question, but one which is so confused as to be unanswerable. “Given that this square has a circular radius of 4, what color will next Tuesday be?” The presuppositions behind the question are so confused and the question is so poorly formulated that no answer is possible. Good teachers help students clarify their questions: “What you really mean to ask is…”. So, before attempting to answer some of the challenges in the meme, I will need to re-formulate them as clear, legitimate questions. Shall we begin?
CHALLENGE 1: If an omniscient, omnipotent, perfect being is the mastermind behind the Bible, then why does the book reflect only the culture, science, history, literature, technology, morals, and values of the era in which it was written?
I propose that the heart of this challenge lies in the following question. In other words, What you really mean to ask…
QUESTION 1: Why is the Bible so particular to a people and its culture?
All human writers and all human readers are inescapably situated within a particular culture. There is no tale without a teller and no context for the tale without a culture. This is true even when science fiction authors create new worlds and new cultures. There must be sufficient intersection between our culture and the alien culture for us to identify, in at least some limited sense, with it. Otherwise the story lacks coherence and meaning. All communication is inescapably culturally conditioned; that cultural embeddedness is, indeed, essential to communication. There simply is no possible context-free, culturally unmoored way to communicate.
You may object that the Author of Scripture, not being human, is not so culturally bound. True enough, but we the readers are. So, for the sake of meaningful communication, the Author has condescended to communicate with us in a culturally specific manner that we can understand. So, it is perfectly reasonable that the Bible would reflect the culture of its human authors and its human readers; it simply could not be otherwise. Interestingly, NASA scientists confronted this same issue when they launched Voyager 1 and 2 satellites into interstellar space. The satellites carried golden records intended to communicate essentials of our world and species to whomever might encounter the probes in the future. The contents of those records are culturally particular, and the scientists are depending on there existing sufficient cultural overlap for “alien” cultures to make sense of the contents (see https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/golden-record/). There simply is no escaping the cultural nature of communication.
Culture provides a necessary context for communication, but that cultural context is not necessarily the content of the communication. Do we find “primitive” science and technology in the Bible? Yes. But that should concern us only if the Author’s purpose in the Bible were to teach science and technology. And that is simply not the case. These cultural matters form the context for the communication, but not the content of it. We understand this and accept it without question or concern in other great literature. Shakespeare presumes a certain scientific and technological worldview that differs from ours. And yet the meaning of his plays is not found there nor is it hampered by the presence of the cultural elements. Shakespeare is culturally particular in form, but his meaning transcends cultural boundaries to speak to the deepest part of the human spirit. All great literature does this; in fact, that is the definition of great literature. The Bible does this, as well. In speaking of the bronze sea, a large round basin in the temple where priests cleansed themselves for the sacrificial rituals, the Bible provides dimensions that approximate pi as 3. Well, we know today that pi is an irrational transcendental number and not an integer. “Ah, error in the Bible!” the skeptics cry. Well, not so unless God was trying to teach mathematics in the text. Yes, the first temple Jews thought pi was around 3. How does that impact the true meaning of the text — the necessity for symbolic spiritual cleansing before approaching a holy God? God was not giving us a mathematics lesson in the text. Good readers distinguish between context and content.
Let’s push this even a bit farther than did the original challenge. What about the creation story in Genesis? Isn’t it just a retelling of other ancient near eastern (ANE) creation myths. Hasn’t it been thoroughly debunked by Science? I capitalized Science because those who use it as a bludgeon against the Bible most often deify and worship it. So, as a matter or respect….
Yes, the Biblical creation story shares much in common with other ANE creation myths. Why would we think that strange or disqualifying? If I wish to communicate the meaning of creation to a people familiar with other creation stories, it seems to make sense to use a cultural form which they will immediately recognize. What is important is not the similarities of Genesis with other ANE creation myths but the differences. YHWH speaks creation into existence; it does not emerge spontaneously as the result of a cosmic battle. Biblical creation is ex nihilo; it comes from nothing but the will and word of God and not from the blood and carcass of a defeated god. God creates man from love and to love, not from a need for creatures to serve and feed him. So, yes, the Author of Scripture used and subverted a mythical form familiar to the readers to communicate these, and other, great and new truths.
What I say next will be controversial to many, but I do not shy from it, and, in fact, I insist on it. The creation account in Genesis makes no scientific claims. A scientific claim is one that can be repeatedly tested and verified/refuted using the scientific method, a method which developed only some four hundred years ago. To impose science on Genesis is destructively anachronistic. The purpose of Genesis is not to present or explicate a scientific understanding of God’s process of creation, but rather God’s purpose in creation. The Bible is a theological story, not a science text. There is a particular structure to the Biblical creation accounts that presents creation as the construction of a cosmic temple in which God would dwell with his people, a people who would be priests in the temple as well as prophets to and kings over creation. That is not science. That is a meaning and purpose which science cannot supply and cannot refute.
The original challenge found fault that the Bible presented only the morals and values of the culture from which it came. I can only surmise my interlocutor has never read the Bible or compared it with other ANE cultures. The Bible continually challenges the morals and values of the surrounding cultures by providing God’s people a blueprint for holiness, for being set apart by their worship and laws. Anyone who doesn’t recognize the superiority of the Mosaic Law over other ANE moral/ethical systems has failed to read ANE cultural history.
Lastly, the Bible is so culturally particular because it is the record of a particular people called and created by God to be his instrument through whom he would make himself known to the nations and ultimately redeem the world. The Bible is more than but not less than the story of a particular people and their experience with the God who called them into being and revealed Himself to them in a covenant relationship. God was not absent from other peoples and cultures, but he made himself particularly present to and known by the Jews. So, of course, the Bible would be specific to that culture while ultimately transcending it with a message for all peoples.
The fact that the Bible perdures, that its truth and influence have transcended its original culture to permeate many cultures, makes me think its Author chose wisely to present it in its particular cultural context.
This is not a complete answer to the challenge by any means. But, I hope it will show that one may indeed meet the challenge; there is no need to shrink from it. And I hope it will encourage you to take this farther than I have, to think it through more clearly than I have. I will address other challenges in future posts.
Thank you. I’m going to share this with my husband, who often asks similar questions, though usually phrased more politely.