Thursday, March 11, 2021

Magination Run Wild

Ah, liberal Christians.

How they do let their Maginations run wild sometimes.

You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

First, a little history ...

Lining Things Up

The Maginot Line was a massive French fortification that ran 943 miles between the Alps and the English Channel. The brainchild of Minister of War AndrĂ© Maginot, it was designed to repel attacks from Germany. The horrors of the trench warfare in the first “War to End All Wars” had persuaded the French of the need for better national defenses. The Maginot Line had everything going for it: super thick concrete, steel-wedge gun turrets that were impervious to bombardment, large, air-conditioned living areas for troops, supply storehouses, its own railway …

Unfortunately, the French overlooked something. Because of a number of factors — swampy ground, expenses, the French alliance with “buffer state” Belgium — it was also a bit thin around the Ardennes Forest. When the German attack came, it was a simple end-run around the entire fortification, and France fell to Hitler’s blitzkrieg.

This famous failure has become a modern idiom. To say that someone’s idea is a “Maginot Line” is to say that it’s impressive but useless, or that it’s just not the kind of idea in which one can safely trust, no matter how ostentatious it may be. It’s a strategy that will inspire a false sense of security, but which will also fail when the chips are down.

The Idea as Idiom

You might say that we’ve got a lot of “Maginot Lines” today. The levees in New Orleans were that. So was the power grid in Canada when the ice storm of 1998 hit. The European Central Bank’s inflation control policy has been called an “economic Maginot Line” by its critics. And American homeland security was definitely shown to be a “Maginot Line” when the Twin Towers fell in New York …

So it’s more than a literal event in history. It’s also a powerful metaphor for a lot of things we trust too much in modern life. It’s probably not an idiom that’s going away any time soon.

Liberal Maginations

Now, what’s all this got to do with Christian liberals today?

The modern era has also seen a popular liberal defense raised up against the encroaching forces of secular criticism of the Bible. The strategy has been this: to downplay literalism in favor of metaphor.

This idea comes from a variety of places. In the Christian world, it’s from the Social Gospel Movement, and from scholars like Bultmann and Tillich. In the secular world, it’s been Carl Jung or Mircea Eliade. And today, it’s being repopularized by people like Jordan Peterson — whom in some ways I really like, but not in this particular way.

In a sense, they’re all “defenders” of the value of the scriptures, of Christian moral teaching, and to some extent, even of truth. But they’re all just a little too far out in their Maginations.

I shall explain.

The Bible as Myth

Their strategy works this way. Take anything controversial — say, the virgin birth. The secular skeptics scoff, “That’s impossible. Ignorant, first-century people might believe such a thing could happen, but we modern, scientific folks cannot be brought to believe in such things; you Christians are credulous, unscientific and embarrassing.”

In response, fundamentalists have tended to confront, and then sometimes to simply retreat to their own communities of belief. But liberals, modernists and sympathetic secular scholars have often gone another way. “Let’s not worry about the literalities,” they say. “The important thing is that the incidents described in the Bible are mythically-resonant.” That is, they teach us important moral or symbolic lessons, whether or not we take them to be true. “So,” they say, “let’s leave aside the question of historical truth, not argue over trivialities, and focus on the figurative treasures we can mine out of the stories. The crass, literal level can simply be ignored, and the problem will go away.”

Creation? Well, maybe it’s a kind of symbolic account of evolution. Cain and Abel? Maybe that’s just about jealousy. The fall of Jericho? A metaphor for overcoming bad habits. Jonah? That’s about depression. The resurrection? A symbol of hope. And heaven? Really, that’s a metaphor for the ideal state to which we all aspire on earth …

You see how it works. The liberal interpreters insist that this is a good thing; we can stop fighting with secularists over inconsequential issues like Are miracles possible? and Did these things really happen? and get on with speaking about how they resonate with common human experience. We’ll still get the juice of meaning from the orange; let’s not cry about throwing away the rind of historical truthfulness.

The Payoff

The payoff is significant. If successful, this strategy would allow the biblical narrative to speak back into secular intellectual life. It would enable conversation between liberal Christians and secularists to take for granted that the scriptures actually do still have something to say today. And this might empower a further kind of moral and literary learning, in which Christians would no longer be in permanent conflict with the skeptical academics or the ordinary cynic on the streets, but all would be engaged in the common project of unpacking the metaphorical value of the Western tradition’s greatest narrative.

Some of the most sanguine of these folks think it might even lead to a new opening for the gospel. If being a Christian doesn’t have to mean having to buy into everything the Bible actually says, then maybe this will remove the last impediment standing between modern doubters and salvation … or at least it will give them some openness to hearing the message.

The Problem

Now, maybe some fundamentalists will instantly bridle at the very suggestion that anything in the Bible isn’t literal. But really, I haven’t met any such people, and I know a lot of Christians. I hear that they exist: but the people who tell me they do, it seems, are always the secular skeptics who have an incentive to “straw man” conservative Christians and dismiss them en masse.

I think it’s fair to say that no sensible Christian believes that it’s necessary for an actual prodigal son to have existed, or for a particular sower to have gone out to sow. These are clearly marked as parables, not literal histories; and nobody sensible has any trouble detecting the difference. Whether Elisha’s ax head floated, or the sun went backward on the steps of Ahaz are more controversial, maybe; but doubts about their literality are not particularly well positioned by evidence, just as confirmation is awaiting.

But then there are incidents in which the literal, historical truth is the whole basis of the value of the narrative. Take, for example, the deliverance from Egypt. Now, in that case, the essential value of the literality of the events is affirmed very strongly by both the Old and New Testaments. Imagine trying to unpack the meaning of Israel if we decide God did not choose them as his people, did not deliver them from Egypt, did not take them through the Red Sea, did not give them the Law, did not lead them to the promised land, and so on. Is there any way we could then speak of Israel has having a “metaphorical” significance?

Breaking It Down

In point of fact, there are:
  1. Literal events that have no metaphorical or mythical significance.
  2. Mythical stories that have no metaphorical meaning.
  3. Mythical stories that also have a real-life message, and
  4. Literal events that have not just historical factuality but also a metaphorical value.
Type 1 is probably a good category into which to place most of human history. I don’t know what any “message” was from the Napoleonic Wars or the most recent sitting of the House of Commons or a trip to the dentist last week. These are just events, and any great meaning we draw out of them is probably arbitrary. If there is one, we don’t know what it is.

Type 2 are frivolous stories. Maybe there’s a meaning to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, but I’ve never been clever enough to understand it. I’m glad “The Cat in the Hat Came Back”, but I don’t think it’s going to change my life.

Type 3 is more interesting, and it’s where the liberal perspective has a point. There are some stories that are verifiably mythical, but still have something quite important to teach us. Aesop’s fables are famously like this. Newton’s legendary apple tree may not have ever happened; but boy, what a powerful metaphor it’s become for scientific discovery. Even a fluffy story like “The Three Little Pigs” can teach us something about being industrious and wise. And plays of Shakespeare or the fantasy stories of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are loaded with very powerful life lessons, everyone would agree.

Type 4 is where we get to things like the Maginot Line. It actually happened. So did Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Paul Revere’s ride, the sinking of the Titanic, and so on. All these things have passed from history into our stock of secular legend. And nothing about their having been literally true detracts one iota from the power of their mythic resonance.

In fact, it only adds to it.

The Necessity of Literalism

Imagine the Titanic story if no ship went down. Imagine Caesar’s Rubicon if there had actually been no decision for him to make. Imagine Israel slavishly keeping a Sabbath that God had not actually commanded, and living in a promised land for which he never brought them out of Egypt. Imagine an American independence for which nobody rode or fought, or a Maginot Line that did not fail because it never actually existed.

The liberals and secularists are right in this: an event described in scripture can have a powerful metaphorical or mythical message. But they’re mistaken in turning that into a sort of either-or proposition, as in “Either we take the Bible to be giving us history or we take it as a metaphor.” It’s not an either-or. It’s a both-and. Scripture can be both literally true and metaphorically important.

It’s not smarter, more modern or more sophisticated to dismiss the historical records of scripture in favor of some mythological readings. There is no automatic need to choose one over the other: we do not have to give up one drop of mythic resonance if we also say we are reading history. In fact, sometimes we get much more mythical impact if we also realized the events described actually happened — and sometimes none at all if they did not.

A Failing Defense

No creation, no God to whom we owe worship. No fall of man, no sin and no salvation. No resurrection, no justification for us before God. In fact, no Christianity at all … we are, says the apostle, “of all men most to be pitied … our faith is vain … we are still in our sins. No literal Judge, and no literal judgment, no justice for the world, ever. Literalism is woven deep into the fabric of scripture. You can take it or leave it, but you cannot do without it.

That’s why the liberal apologetic, the “defense” of mythologizing all of scripture, simply won’t work. Sure, it seems to retain some insights and it may, for a time, seem to offer a muting of the interpretive struggles between liberal Christians and secular skeptics. It may even gain us a wider hearing in the secular world — at least for a time. I fully expect it will, especially with a spokesman as influential as a Jordan Peterson plugging for it now.

But in the crucial moment, it will fail, and fail in the most disastrous kinds of ways.

A little bit like the Maginot Line, actually.

So don’t get behind it.


  1. I loved this. A really helpful breakdown of the different types of narrative and a healthy warning about the danger of liberal Christianity. I think one of the greatest motivations for holding to the historicity of Scripture is that Jesus did. He spoke about Jonah and the whale (Matt 12:40), Sodom & Gomorrah (Matt 12:40) and a global flood (Luke 17:27) like they really happened. Was He mistaken? Too primitive in His thinking? Was He merely deceiving His listeners or holding a line that was popular in that day? Clearly not. Wasn't his style! It would be hard (impossible?) to claim to follow Him as Lord with intellectual integrity and deny the truth that He believed, knew and taught.

    Regarding Jordan Peterson, I'm assuming you're referring to his series on the psychological significance of Bible Stories. I agree that his viewpoint is bound to fail him eventually if he continues as he is, but there's something about hearing him discover the beauty and power of Scripture that gives me a small hope that this journey may end in his salvation. There's times that I've thought, "how can anyone say that and not be a Christian?" I am praying for his soul. The Lord doesn't need the wise and strong to defend Him, but I would be glad to have Professor Peterson for a brother.

  2. Came across this essay by Jonathan Rogers (a writer from Nashville) brought my mind back to this article. He emphasizes the importance of the resurrection as fact. The poem at the end is a beautiful summation:

    As a writer, I am interested in how metaphor works. I am also interested in metaphor because I am a Christian. People of faith have to get comfortable with figurative language: Christians speak of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but we also know that Jesus was a man, not a lamb. And some of the fiercest debates among Christians orbit around questions of metaphor. When Jesus broke the bread and said "This is my body," to what extent was He speaking metaphorically? To what extent is the priest or the pastor speaking metaphorically when he holds up the Host or the bread and says "This is the body of Christ, broken for you?" (The Latin Hoc est corpus meum, by the way, is the origin of the phrase hocus pocus).

    I'm writing this on Easter weekend, and I've been listening to my friend Andrew Peterson's newly released record, Resurrection Letters, Volume 1 (a record a commend to you as enthusiastically as I know how to commend anything). Andrew's poetry and music have gotten me thinking about metaphor. The first track on the record, "His Heart Beats," is about the moment when Jesus came back to life in His tomb (indeed, all the tracks on the record are about the Resurrection, both His and ours). The song contains these lines that I can't stop thinking about:

    His heart beats.
    Now everything has changed.
    Because the blood that bought us peace with God
    Is racing through His veins.
    Here's the thing: for all my interest in metaphor, both as a writer and a Christian, the central truths of the Christian faith are truths that cannot be metaphorical. Christ was dead. Christ was risen. Christ will come again. Those are either literal truths or they aren't truths at all.

    In the end, metaphorical language isn't much use to us unless it points to a truth that isn't metaphorical, a reality that goes beyond language.

    I will leave you with "Seven Stanzas for Easter," a poem from John Updike that I return to every Easter weekend:
    Make no mistake: if he rose at all
    It was as His body;
    If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
    The amino acids rekindle,
    The Church will fall.

    It was not as the flowers,
    Each soft spring recurrent;
    It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the Eleven apostles;
    It was as His flesh; ours.

    The same hinged thumbs and toes
    The same valved heart
    That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
    Out of enduring Might
    New strength to enclose.

    Let us not mock God with metaphor,
    Analogy, sidestepping transcendence,
    Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
    Credulity of earlier ages:
    Let us walk through the door.

    The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
    Not a stone in a story,
    But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of Time will eclipse for each of us
    The wide light of day.

    And if we have an angel at the tomb,
    Make it a real angel,
    Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
    The dawn light, robed in real linen
    Spun on a definite loom.

    Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
    For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
    Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
    By the miracle,
    And crushed by remonstrance.
    Happy Easter.

    1. Thanks, Anon. That's a powerful and memorable bit of poetry, and I thank you for sharing it with us.

      Right on.

  3. Wow, anon.

    Maybe you were the one who should have written my post for today. You've caught the spirit of the thing with admirable poetics and eloquence. I can add nothing, nor would I want to.

    Thank you for that.

    1. My pleasure. To be clear, that post is an essay by Jonathan Rogers (not me) wherein he quotes a poem by John Updike (also not me). I agree though - it is a beautiful and eloquent entry along the same vein as your own. Thanks to you, as well.

    2. Indeed, I recognize that you attributed it to Jonathan Rogers. However, you recognized the value in it, and were kind enough to share it with us (I was completely unaware of that quotation and poem) so we have reason to thank you for that.

  4. You mentioned Jordan Peterson. I came across this clip this morning, which you may not have seen yet. Very interesting, as is the host's analysis after.