Are Ancient Bible Stories Still Relevant?

One day a biology professor at my university emailed me to ask if I was familiar with Genesis. “That’s odd,” I thought. I replied that I was, and I’d be happy to talk about it with him.

I remember our first meeting vividly. We chatted over coffee about what gave rise to his interest in Genesis. He explained that each year he has Christian students who challenge him with their understanding of Genesis (what’s often called “young earth creationism”). He explained that he’d never read Genesis, and as an atheist he was reluctant to do so. But, he told me, he didn’t feel he could engage in those discussions because of his lack of personal engagement with Genesis.

I gave him a Bible and told him we could read it together and discuss it if he wanted. He read Genesis 1—for the first time in his life—and when he finished there were tears streaming down his face. “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read,” he said.

Can we still read the oldest stories in the Bible today? Of course we can! But we need to read them as they were intended to be read. The oldest stories in the Bible were not written from a scientific perspective, and when we force them to operate that way they become dull, flat, and simplistic. But if we read them as ancient wisdom that probes the deepest metaphysical questions of existence, they come alive with dynamic and imaginative power that opens up all kinds of conversations.

Since the dawn of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, Christians have mistakenly felt that the only way to retain the authority of Scripture is to make Scripture fit into a scientific paradigm of what counts as truth. But in my experience of bearing witness to the gospel on a public university campus, contemporary people (atheists, agnostics, and theists/believers) are profoundly interested in these ancient biblical stories even if we don’t share the same view of Scripture’s authority or inspiration.

Especially so with the most ancient stories, the Bible invites us into a (pre-scientific) world that is multilayered, richly textured, and existentially impactful. When we allow Scripture to dig deep into our imaginations, it can reveal things about ourselves, about our world, and about life that we would never encounter by more didactic or rational means.

The more secular voices in North American society today seem to be under the impression that the Bible is on its way to obscurity in the modern world. It’s almost as if some believe that the Bible is outdated and superstitious, while science gives us a more solid way of thinking.

But one of the greatest cultural phenomena over the past couple of years has been a relatively unknown Canadian university professor reflecting on the psychological significance of the ancient biblical stories. Those videos have been viewed many millions of times and have sparked a general interest in the persistent relevance of the Bible for life today.

The reason for the surprisingly high level of curiosity among unbelievers is the same as that of the biology professor who emailed me out of the blue one day. That email turned into a yearlong series of weekly meetings of reading and discussing together the opening 11 chapters of Genesis—words he’d never read before.

When we finished with Genesis, we moved on to Mark’s gospel. In the end, it was the oldest stories in the Bible that opened the door to this biology professor’s conversion to faith in Jesus.

About the Author

Mike Wagenman is the Christian Reformed campus minister and professor of theology at Western University in London, Ont., and part-time New Testament instructor at Redeemer University College. He attends Forest City Community Church.

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Comments

       Thank you, Mike, for helping your readers understand the spiritual nature of the mythical or legendary stories of the Bible. It’s difficult to know where to draw the lines between story and fact, as to most of these fantastic stories of the Bible. I think you may be suggesting that although these stories may not be historically factual, there is still spiritual value to them. As your title suggests, not factual but relevant.

       Was there really a first Adam and Eve? Was there an anti-hero, Satan, who appeared to Adam and Eve and who tempted them to sin with the result that all of humanity now comes into the world with sinful and fallen natures? Did Christ, the second person of the Godhead, really come to earth as a human baby, and when grown, perform the many miracles recorded in the New Testament? After his crucifixion, did Jesus really ascend into heaven where he presently rules over the church and the world? Are you suggesting that such accounts are more story than fact, but on a spiritual level they are still meaningful, although not factual?

       Christians (as do most people) discount other religions because they defy or contradict objective reality and scientific fact. For instance, the Mormon religion contends that the lost tribes of Israel migrated to the Americas around 600 BC. Such a claim is shown to be false, along with the Book of Mormon, because DNA testing has shown that Native Americans have no genetic or DNA connection to the Hebrew race. But that doesn’t stop Mormons from believing because the Mormon church does not rest on scientific evidence but on spiritual and mystical experiences. In fact, the Mormon church has come to fresh interpretations of the Mormon Scriptures that reconcile the DNA evidence with their historic writings. And Mormons continue to believe the many miracles that defy reality, as recorded in the book of Mormon. And their church continues to grow.

      I hear you doing the same gymnastics with the Bible’s miracles and stories that completely defy objective reality and scientific fact. Maybe that is what we have to do to make the Bible believable. So are the stories recorded in the book of Mormon true, at least on a spiritual level? And what of the stories of every other religion? Are there many paths that lead us to our final destiny? Thanks Mike.

Roger, I find it not only uncharitable but, frankly, offensive that you would dismissively characterize what I have written as "gymnastics" after making so many baseless assumptions about me. I simply don't recognize anything of what I wrote in your reply. It may be related to your shockingly limited "story"-versus-"fact" hermeneutical method. I don't believe this is the way to have a constructive theological dialogue - and especially about such a critically important issue. We need to do better than this. Blessings to you!

       Thanks, Mike, for your reply to my comment. I apologize that I offended you by my remarks. It wasn’t meant as a personal offense, but perhaps as a criticism of what you seemed to be suggesting, at least as I understood it. My(baseless?) assumptions were not meant to be personal. And certainly it would take more than a “comments” section to a short article such as this, to have a meaningful theological conversation.

       I struggled some to understand your example of the college level biology professor. I can’t imagine that such a professor would abandon his scientific background and research in favor of the Biblical narrative. But likely, he saw a spiritual rather than a factual or historical significance to the creation story. But then comes the question of where do you draw the lines as to fact or story when it comes to the Bible’s narrative? The most significant events of the Bible are very bazar by anyone’s account. Do you treat the other events of the Bible as you do the creation account, as less than objective fact? Over the centuries, and until the recent past, Christians (even our Christian colleges and denomination) have understood the creation account as historical fact. But in more recent years, with the understanding of science, the creation account is understood as less than factual. The big question is, especially for those outside of Christianity, what do we make of the other bazar stories in the Bible, such as a second person of God coming to earth as a baby human? Fact or fiction, story or legend? What say our biology professor?

       When Christians consider other religions, even the major religions of the world, they find it very easy to discount the bazar stories these religions recount in their own Scriptures. These are stories and events that such adherents understand as true and factual. Hence, the story of Jewish migration to the Americas in the Book of Mormon. But Christians dismiss their essential events very offhandedly, as well as their religions. Well, I imagine that those outside of Christian circles do the same with the Christian religion. As easily as, and for the same reasons that Christians dismiss other religions, so the world dismisses Christianity, and increasingly so in this post Christian Western culture. Is that unreasonable?

       I hope, Mike, this comment is less offensive to you than my last comment. Wishing you well.

Roger, after admitting that this is a larger issue than can be resolved here, I'm surprised that you continue to engage it at quite some length. I also don't understand how you can claim that you didn't intend your comments as personal when you aimed them directly at me. Finally, I'm someone who believes that "all truth is God's truth" - which means that I don't approach the "science versus faith" issue with an "either-or" posture as you have clearly shown that you do. There is no need for a scientist to give up the truth of the universe discovered through science when turning to the truth of Jesus and the scriptural witness to him in both the Old and the New Testaments. Again, this isn't a "fact versus story" problem as you characterise it. I believe that viewing things in this way contributes to a misunderstanding of both the Bible and the scientific method and their complementarity.

Thanks, once again, Mike for your clarification.  I’m still confused by your example of the college biology professor.  You would think his answer to these young earth creationists would have been quite simple.  The Christian perspective on origins and creation is only one of many religious views on creation that stands in sharp contrast to the findings of science.  It’s not the role of science to corroborate or invalidate the many non scientific viewpoints of origins.  You would think such inquiries in a biology class room would be quickly dismissed or referred to the religion department of the university where it would fit into a class of comparative religions.  As far as science is concerned, one religious view isn’t any more credible than another.  They all consider the origin of the universe, earth, and life under the realm of the supernatural, which carries no weight in the study of science.  Perhaps this biology professor would have been wise to take such a class himself if his interest was in the religious explanations for the universe, rather than limit himself to just one religious explanation.  Thanks, Mike, for your input.

What is the name of the Canadian professor who makes the videos that you are referring to?

Jordan B Peterson

Professor of Clinical Psychology 

University of Toronto

Author of Twelve Rules for Life: and Antidote to Chaos

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