I would like to call your attention to this recent article by Karl Giberson, Ph.D., scholar of science & religion, and the former President of the BioLogos Foundation. His conclusion is that we need not dismiss all of the Bible, just because some of it is not accurate.
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But how do we decide which parts of the Bible should be read literally? This question is often posed with an "Aha! I have got you" exclamation, as though the inquisitor is certain it cannot be answered. Jerry Coyne, in his endless quest to discredit all things religious, put it like this in a recent blog:
"Sophisticated" theologians who urge a non-literal reading of the Bible always put themselves in a bind. And it is this: if the Bible is not to be read as a literal account of the truth, then how do we know which parts really are true, and which parts are fiction or metaphor? Nobody has ever found a convincing way to winnow the true from the metaphorical, and so it becomes an exercise in cherry-picking.
Less triumphalist versions of this same question were posed to me by a radio listener this morning and a former student yesterday on my Facebook wall. And I think the answer is straightforward, even simple:
The Bible is not a book. It is a library -- dozens of very different books bound together. The assumption that identifying one part as fiction undermines the factual character of another part is ludicrous. It would be like going into an actual physical library and saying "Well, if all these books about Harry Potter are fictional, then how do I know these other books about Abraham Lincoln are factual? How can Lincoln be real if Potter is not?" And then "Aha! I have got you! So much for your library."
Acknowledging that the Bible is a library doesn't do all the hard work for us, of course. But recognizing this at least lets us avoid the so-called slippery slope where a non-literal approach in one place somehow compromises a literal approach in another.
Jerry Coyne, quoted above by Giberson, has been kind enough to respond:
As you see, this is a complete non-response. The question I asked is this: which parts of the bible are Harry Potter and which parts are Abraham Lincoln? And how can you tell? Admitting that some parts of the Bible are literal truth and others fiction does not enable us to tell them apart! What are the criteria we should use? We have, of course, empirical ways of knowing that Harry Potter isn’t real but Abraham Lincoln was. We can’t apply those criteria to the divinity or resurrection of Jesus, and many scholars aren’t even certain that Jesus existed.
Giberson’s real answer, of course, would probably be something this: “I just know that the stuff about Jesus is real. Therefore I needn’t use external or historical criteria to distinguish Biblical fact from fiction. I know the answer by revelation—by what the church tells me and by what I feel in my heart.”
As always, interpreting the Bible rests on a combination of wishful thinking and making stuff up.