When Truth is Odd

While waiting for the son to drift off to sleep late last night I turned to reading back trough part of Chesteron’s Orthodoxy. There really are some wonderful things in chapter six, “Christianity and Paradox”. The paradoxes and mysteries of Christianity are difficult to describe, but G.K. really presents some brilliant illustrations here.

THE real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean. Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong. It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything. It seems a sort of secret treason in the universe.

Now, actual insight or inspiration is best tested by whether it guesses these hidden malformations or surprises. If our mathematician from the moon saw the two arms and the two ears, he might deduce the two shoulder-blades and the two halves of the brain. But if he guessed that the man’s heart was in the right place, then I should call him something more than a mathematician. Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth. It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected. It is simple about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth. It will admit that a man has two hands, it will not admit (though all the Modernists wail to it) the obvious deduction that he has two hearts. It is my only purpose in this chapter to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.

If he were to discern where the heart was, he would be less a mathematician and more like a god. We are in the creator’s image, but we are not him. Our world is a place we can ponder to great end, but yet only so far. The God who revealed himself years ago to the Hebrews, the God who stepped down in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the God whose spirit works invisible this hour, he alone fills in all of the odd truths and gets them all right, even when we don’t understand how it could be possible. He alone gives us free will and yet doesn’t lay down his sovereignty to do it. He alone can hold grace in one hand and vengeance in the other in a way that actually amplifies the glory of both, instead of canceling them out.

The Bible as Literature

In our local university, there is a course called “The Bible as Literature”. I’ve always been told the very idea was the height of sacrilege. Of course, this particular course is taught from an atheistic point of view where it’s not even an option for anything (other than some of the historical references) to actually be true. I’ve always viewed the Bible as a special book that is so different from any kind of other literature as to be off in a special category all by itself. Lately though, I am beginning to realize that this can give us an incomplete understanding of the passage. The holy spirit gives us understanding regardless of how much we understand, but let us strive to understand more.

The Bible is true and divine, but it also IS literature. Each book was written down by a human being and directed, not to just generic Jews or Christians, but intended for a specific audience. It has clear genres. Some of it is straight up history, as reported by a royal chronicler. Job is NOT history literature (regardless of whether or not it describes actual events). Psalms and Song of Songs are poetry. Philemon was a letter written to one recipient. Corinthians was written to a whole group of Greek people, not Jews. Now, all of this seems pretty obvious, so why mention it?

It’s because if you throw these things out (which happens more often than I ever realized), then you can come up with all kinds of goofy ideas. Grabbing a verse from Song of Songs to back up a particular point of doctrine from Romans might not actually work. Really! Revelations is full of metaphors and imagery. When you take something from it and stick it next to some verses from Mark, it may sound more “literal”, but that is only confusion. This is beyond just the idea of context, but stretches to the authors original intention for each particular section of the Bible.

A recent commenter at the Boar’s Head Tavern pointed out an excellent example of this:

Let’s say you are studying Deuteronomy, and right at the beginning of the study, one of your students says the following:

“I’ve been reading this book for years and it clearly teaches that, if you obey and worship God, he will financially and materially bless you. It’s plain and clear. Anyone can read it in chapter after chapter. Obey, worship and God will bring you prosperity and wealth.”

What would be your response? (No seminary level answers allowed. These are regular laypersons.)

I would tell him to be aware of who God’s talking to. The Bible is not God’s personal letter to you, and in this case, he really DID promise Israel prosperity if they as a nation continued in his commandments and his worship. He made no similar promise to any other nation.

Posted by: Josh S

The Bible is not God’s personal letter to me? I’ve been told so many times that it’s his personal LOVE letter to me. Actually, I still think this is true (in some sense), but if you just stop to think, you’ll realize that in many other ways, it never has been. Above is a great example. Can you find an image of God’s love for you in the types and liturgical instruction in Deuteronomy? Yes, I believe you can. But it actually was written for some old guys with beards living in tents in the desert 3500 years ago. The author (God, through a human writer) wasn’t EXACTLY writing it for you sitting on your couch listening to your iPod. That’s fine, but that must be taken in to account!

I hope to explore the different genres of the Bible in the next while and maybe blog some about how that has helped me to understand (and appreciate) it better.

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