Chapter 3: History and Metaphor

I was in grade four, my dad and I were returning home from the swimming pool on a cold but sunny Winnipeg morning. Freezing, waiting for the bus my dad turned to me and asked, “Does the sign on the bus read Portage or Portage Polo Park?” I honestly told him I couldn’t even see the bus never mind read the sign. That week I was off to the optometrist and destined to wear lenses for the rest of my life.

Marcus Borg’s third chapter on Reading Lenses: History and Metaphor retrieved my early eyesight experience. There was a time when questions about whether the Bible was to be read as history or metaphor never crossed my mind. I was virtually blind to the perspective. My reading was lensless so to speak. I was a pre-critical natural literalist Borg would say.

My first awareness that there were lenses that could correct or distort my biblical vision came while in first year Bible college. In a course Introduction to the Bible we heard of a German fellow called Julius Wellhausen who saw the five books of Moses as being carved up into three distinct traditions, under the rubric of JEPD. These traditions represented various editors and redactors influenced by their views of God or their occupations.

I was intrigued but before even exploring how the system worked I was told that the lens was entirely wrong, unhealthy and would lead to spiritual apostasy. I am glad that my physical experience of obtaining lenses didn’t start with such a suspicion. If that were the case I would have been much slower to exchange my natural but distorted sight with a set of corrective lenses. Biblically, Wellhausen’s theory would not bring me up to 20-20 eyesight but at least it made me aware that we do see the Bible through a lens, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

Borg’s treatment of approaching Scripture assumes that, at first, we are all shortsighted. We see Scripture primarily as addressing the world as we experience it rather than with the long view of history in mind. That long view assumes that the Bible is a historical stranger to us. The context it was written in and the concerns it deals with are foreign. We need an orientation to grasp what the authors and their readers understood. Borg introduces us to historical criticism but clarifies that criticism is not of the skeptical or unbelieving nature but rather merely a form of discernment. My early Bible teacher didn’t quite grasp that view when he jumped to the conclusion that historical criticism would inevitably lead to spiritual disaster. Of course without the corrective of other sets of lenses this historical perspective can lead to flattening the message of the Bible, resulting in reductionism.

Historical lenses can lead to an enlivened imagination about the meaning of the text and bring us closer to those first readers. It can also help anchor our interpretation helping us not to become too fantastical in our speculation. Used with care these lenses help and can open up an access to a range of narrative tools including archetypal or even allegorical insights into the Bible. The point is that they provide options of interpretation that require spiritual discernment.

I have come to believe that such an array of methods deepens my dependence on the Spirit as the internal guide to interpretation. It nudges me to remain relatively humble about my own interpretation and open to other perspectives. Again, the phrase from Reinhold Niebuhr - to take the Bible seriously but not necessarily literally - comes to mind.

Learning to discern the degree of history or metaphor in a text places us in a vulnerable position but one that requires us to listen to one another (in the community of discipleship and scholarship) and the Spirit more attentively than merely applying a rationalist set of principles upon the Bible.

Borg’s insight that truth and factuality are not synonymous is a corrective to literalism or to reductionism. Ironically both schools of interpretation can be understood as participating in a cult of facts that emerges from the Enlightenment. Just because the creation accounts can be understood as myth doesn’t mean they are automatically untrue. These stories are truer than mere facts about the natural world; they are as true today as when they were first told. What could be truer than the reality that we are at one and the same time trustees of creation and vulnerable creatures prone to radical self-interest? Is not the relationship between God and humanity of more importance than whether or not an axe can float or the sun stand still for a day?

Once the lenses are understood and used in a natural way Borg tells us we return to a post-critical naiveté, an believing attitude of trust in the Bible that doesn’t require setting aside our reason but asks the deeper spiritual questions.

I am so glad that I trusted my dad when he told me I needed to get my eyes checked. I am also glad that I have learned to trust those who have told me I need lenses to get a perspective on the Scripture. Even more important than the particular lenses I use, I am grateful for the Word that transcends my sight beckoning me to trust God beyond even my ability to understand.