A recent press account tells us that the Ark Encounter project in Kentucky in the US is in trouble. The Ark Encounter allows visitors to walk round a huge replica of Noah’s vessel which has been built according to the measurements recorded in the Bible (Genesis 6). Believing the literal veracity of the Biblical account, the Encounter tries to imagine the scenario of how thousands of animals were housed and fed by Noah and his family. The founder of the project, Ken Ham, has produced for the people of Kentucky what, for this writer, is a huge monument for the absurdity of literalistic readings of the Bible. Ken Ham, like millions of Christians around the world, has bought into the idea that one of the ways in which the Bible is true is that every apparent historical or scientific statement is to be understood literally. This must always be preferred over any modern interpretations. As I pointed out in one of my earliest blog pieces, there are in fact in Genesis two separate accounts of the building of the Ark. In the first in Genesis 6 one pair of every kind of animal is taken aboard. In the second account in the first verses of Genesis 7 there are seven pairs of the available animals placed in the Ark. Only in the case of the ’unclean’ species is a single pair allowed on board.
Returning to Ken Ham’s project, we find that people are just not turning up in sufficient numbers to help pay for the $100 million project. Perhaps it is also because the vast swathe of the Christian population in Kentucky fails to feel Ham’s enthusiasm for ‘proving’ a Biblical narrative as being literal history. If anything, the Ark replica helps to make the story in the Bible even less believable as literal fact. How could one man, assisted by his three sons build anything as massive as the vessel recorded in Genesis? That is before we think about the gathering together of the necessary materials for the project.
The Ark Encounter project is a vivid reminder that many Christians on both sides of the Atlantic want us to believe every narrative or story in Scripture is historical fact. Conservative interpreters seem to be wedded to the idea that it is essential to read the stories of Noah, Job and Jonah as accurate history. There is the belief that because God is the supposed author of all Scripture, there is no other way to understand these narratives.
Although we today are used to making a sharp distinction between fiction and history whether in the Bible or elsewhere, this way of thinking simply did not exist before the 18th-century. The birth of the scientific method and historical analysis allowed scholars to distinguish between fact and probable fiction. Most historical works of the earlier period were an amalgam of legend, myth and fact. It is only today that we have the tools to separate them out. Even to use the expression ‘literal truth’ made no sense in a pre-Enlightenment age. It is noteworthy that today many Christians are so reluctant to use these modern critical tools of analysis on the text of Scripture. While they are prepared to apply the modern (and post-modern) tools of analysis in every other area of life, when it comes to Scripture, Christian leaders insist that we think and interpret in a pre-modern way. In the case of the Noah story, that involves us pretending that six verses of Genesis 7 do not exist.
Behind this insistence on reading every narrative passage as literally true is a method called ‘common sense philosophy’. This takes the view that every individual of reasonable intelligence can interpret language and determine its meaning by the application of common sense. Thus, one does not have to possess a sophisticated education to penetrate the meaning of the Bible. It is laid open to the understanding of all, including the common man. There is a second principle at work in this understanding of Scripture. This is known as propositional theology. This builds on the idea that the chosen method of God to reveal himself is through the words of Scripture. So, the Biblical text is all that is necessary for salvation. By applying ‘common sense’ the individual Christian can through diligent reading of the Bible text discover what God wants him to do with his life and his faith.
These two philosophical undergirding principles are, as we might expect, fraught with problems. The first problem is that the Bible does not in fact easily surrender its meanings to a casual reader. In practice, it requires the help of a Christian teacher to reveal its meaning to the ordinary Christian disciple who attends church. We do of course find a massive number of interpretations which vary according to the personality and training of each individual minister. The second problem is perhaps more serious. If God’s will and purpose are contained in written words and ideas, this will suggest that each Christian engages with God primarily through the use of his or her intellect. The part of us that deals with the content of words and concepts is the thinking mind. Is this really the only part of us that God wishes to engage with? Surely God meets us through all our senses, our emotions, feelings and longings.
It is instructive to compare the apparent compulsion to take all the stories of the Old Testament as being literal history (and never as story!) with the way Jesus extensively used stories in his teaching. When I hear a story, I respond to the emotion, the humour and the possible message within it. Something rather different is happening when I listen to a narrative which is supposed to be accurate history. I will also be puzzled and possibly even irritated when I am expected to overlook any inconsistencies or contradictions. If I were ever to visit the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, I know that I would feel completely overwhelmed by a sense of distaste and even anger at the stupidity of the project. $100 million has been spent on a building which tries to convince visitor that the words of Genesis 6 are literally true. Such a pretence has been maintained by ignoring the obvious discrepancies in the story revealed in the first verses of Genesis 7.
A reading of Scripture which insists that any narrative or story has to be read as straight history is sometimes a massive betrayal of proper interpretation. The God that I meet in the Old and the New Testaments speaks to me through story, poetry as well as through myths and history. I had the privilege of studying the Bible for itself and never had to use the lens of a conservative ‘pre-modern’ Bible teacher. I hope I can read it with a clearer vision. No one placed on me the burden of the doctrine that says only in the Bible do we discern the will of God. My use of the Bible is thus outside any dogmatic straitjacket and I am freed to use all the sources of history and tradition that are given to us. I am also fortunate to have some knowledge of the original Biblical languages. The Bible is I believe a far richer document when it is read against this background of the culture, the history and the experience of the people who met God in so many different ways. It is their words to describe that encounter that we have today. The uncovering of their experience is a never-ending project.