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If It Didn’t Happen, Why Is It in My Holy Book?

A Challenge for Progressive Christian Religious Education

“Unless biblical literalism is challenged overtly in the Christian Church itself, it will, in my opinion, kill the Christian faith. It is not just a benign nuisance that afflicts Christianity at its edges, it is a mentality that renders the Christian faith unbelievable to an increasing number of the citizens of our world.” – John Shelby Spong

Bishop John Shelby Spong did an invaluable service to the advancement of a progressive Christian movement by demonstrating, in numerous popular books, that a literal interpretation of the Bible is not tenable. When he states that a literal interpretation will kill faith, he also implies that the essence of a vital and dynamic Christianity lies in a more lively and incisive understanding of the more meaningful aspects of biblical text. Sexism, homophobia and violence have to be immediately rejected by contemporary readers as products of a specific time, culture and agenda. But Spong points to the fact that there is something remarkable and amazing contained in the Gospels that redeems the Bible as a learning tool and sets the stage for the possibility of a transformed life and society.

I want to suggest a direction in Christian education based on Bishop Spong’s observations on literalism. That direction is inherent in a question that was shouted over and over again in a religious education classroom where I once taught: “If it didn’t happen, why is it in the Bible!?”

One student, and then many, began shouting this question at another student who dared to assert that nothing in the Bible could have really happened. The stories defied her sense of reason, the science she was learning and plain common sense. Indeed, two prominent archeologists, Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein, wrote The Bible Unearthed, which demonstrates that archaeology cannot even support, and often confutes, the “historical” stories in the Bible.

If all of these Bible stories never happened, why would they be created and made the core of a major religion? To my students, this seemed like the most unlikely act of fraud and deception that could possibly have been committed. If it was in the Bible, it had to be true, because why would anybody make any of this stuff up? The student being challenged had no ready answer, but if we are to meaningfully open the Bible up to students, this becomes THE central question to be answered. Indeed, answering this question can allow students to move beyond stale literalism to exciting and challenging messages that can provide meaning and direction to their lives.

Although Marcus Borg stated in the early 2000s that a major de-literalization of the Bible seemed underway among adults in the USA, religious education for young people in mainline religions still seems backward. It leaves students confused as to which of two messages they should accept – one centered around science and scholarship or one centered around unquestioning faith. American young people are still receiving knowledge which most Biblical experts realize is nonsense and which is refuted by science and scholarship.

What seems to leave religious education in the hands of fundamentalists is the inability of progressive educators to agree on the interpretations of symbols and allegories and come up with a consensus on what the big messages in the Bible might really be. But this should not be a hindrance as we do not want to “tell” anyone what the Bible means anyway. One path in a new de-literalized Christian education can be a greater focus on what stories and symbols can mean and a challenge to understand them. These symbolic stories, anecdotes and allegories form the core of the Christian teaching.

Spong was right when he said literalism will kill the Christian faith. Noted feminist theologian Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza wrote that when her Christian college students were finally exposed to serious discrepancies between the Gospels concerning central aspects of the story of Jesus, “…their reaction was not so much to condemn the Bible as to condemn their parochial religious education for never mentioning the problem.” (1984, 30) If religious educators are looking for a way to alienate young people, providing them with material that they will ultimately find to be inaccurate is a certain way to do it. Two obstacles to deriving greater meaning from the Bible are orthodox literalism (Everything in the Bible is true!) and stale secularism (The Bible is nonsense and means nothing!). Religious education is at a crossroads and the next decisive step should be confidently taken to sail past this Scylla and Charybdis and see that both of these attitudes comprising our religious culture war are wrong.

Yet, there is a dearth of works facilitating interpretations of Biblical stories and symbols because there is, ultimately, no way to prove that any interpretation is right along with no consensus as to the interpretative methodology to be employed to investigate the stories. Perhaps this is what ultimately leaves a lot of religious education in the hands of the fundamentalists. Debunking literalism without being able to provide students with something meaningful to replace their lost literalist faith is like filling stone containers with water which never turn to wine. To debunk without further challenging a student to move toward something fulfilling is to invite an empty type of secularism.

A religious educator could argue that God expects us to use our intellectual gifts to dig deeper into each story, find deeper truths and learn how these truths can help us to become more humane. The big caveat was expressed by Borg: “The primary limitation of a metaphorical approach is the danger that the imagination will roam too freely, producing uncontrolled, fanciful interpretations that have little or nothing to do with the actual text.” (2001, 43) But criteria can be established so that religious education can move from Bible thumping to Bible interpreting and analyzing as a basis of encouraging each other to higher forms of behavior.

Language, when it developed, articulated or controlled events in the outer or perceived world, for our attempts to speak about our inner world are always metaphorical at best. In other words, we always employ symbols from the outer world to explain processes or relationships in our inner world. Looking inward, in the hope of changing for the better, seems to be the common denominator of religions. Religious symbolism allows this to be done. Indeed, religious symbolism seems to provide a language for the examined life, the way mathematics is a language for understanding aspects of the outer world. Bible stories are often so outrageously goofy because the author of the story seems to be playing with symbolism to attempt to convey complex inner secrets about ourselves.

Our educational system is meant to make us effective economic and not moral actors. We are encouraged very little to look inward to challenge ourselves to become more empathetic, more humane, more moral and more capable of going into the world and confronting and changing what we can see to be wrong and changing it in a non-violent way. How does a person reach the level of being where he/she finds a response that is better than what we usually feel like doing because what we are predisposed to do is counterproductive to a higher law or purpose? The process involved in developing this greater level of humanity may be the subject of this “secret” language.

The criteria for a good interpretation will be parsimony (explaining the most with the least), coherence (making sure all the symbols involved add up to something meaningful) and relevance (can I use what the interpretation is saying?). To look at the interpretative process, we can take a look at an obvious Bible symbol: the number 40. In the Bible, the flood covered the Earth for 40 days, Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, the Israelites wandered 40 years before finding Canaan, Jesus fasted for 40 days before passing Satan’s temptations and beginning his ministry. Looking at the uses of the number 40, in the Bible and other traditions, it seems that the number may represent a period of transition, when a people or person endures some period of time before a significant change occurs. We might call this an incubation period.   

As an experiment in non-literal Bible reading I examined the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert “Satan as Trickster in the Desert”. : Satan as Trickster in the Desert: An Experiment in Non-literal Interpretation Here we have a number of symbols: 40, the desert, fasting, social isolation and Satan. The story becomes an allegory about positive inner change brought about through a process divorced from the human will. The temptations become a test which shows that a transition has indeed occurred and made Jesus invulnerable to the promptings of what Satan represents. It is a story about a type of meaningful waiting that brings about inner change through a non-forced manner different from an act of human moral will.

We can also look at the story of changing water into wine at Cana to understand how interpretation can be added to a progressive curriculum. Let’s take a look at some symbols involved. There is a wedding, the number 6, stone containers, water and wine.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus does not fast in a desert but turns water into wine before beginning his teachings and ministry, but the message seems to be the same. Here is an examination of what turning water into wine might mean: : What IS a Theologoumenon and What DOES Changing Water into Wine Mean?

In Genesis it took 6 days to create the world before God rested, there are 6 steps leading to the throne of Solomon, there were six years of servitude in various stories of the Tanach (Old Testament) before freedom. Perhaps the number 6 represents a time of preparation before rest. Stone, in various types of allegorical literature, seems to be some type of truth or belief one imposes on oneself, something outside of oneself that one wishes to adhere to or follow. Water would seem to represent a cleansing. For six stone containers to be filled with water seems to mean an almost Piagetian leap from one stage to another is going to take place, and this sudden, unplanned for, leap is approximated by the paradoxical change of water into wine. 

A wedding is where the masculine and feminine are united. In allegorical literature the masculine often represents a type of desire while the feminine represents a type of fulfilment (in the ancient world men were “active” and women were “passive”). Wine is the embodiment of a new type of being – when one drinks wine in moderation, one is usually changed for the better. One becomes more joyous, forgiving, pro-social. The mother in the story seems to be a catalytic factor in this process. All of this happens on the third day of a wedding, the number 3 representing a completion of a process (Jonah spent 3 days in a whale’s belly, Jesus spent 3 days in hell.) We therefore seem to have another symbolic story asserting the possibility of inner change and that before Jesus could enter the world and minister to others, a significant change happened which can be represented by filling six stone containers with water and allowing them to change to wine.

Now, I do not expect anyone to blindly accept my interpretations. I want, however, to offer that interpretations are not only possible but necessary if we want to save the Christian religion from the Bible-thumpers and literalists. I am aware that some groups of progressive Christians have developed curricula and I wish to suggest the need for interpretation in those curricula. Clearly the stuff in the Bible did not happen. We can misinterpret the Bible (literalism) or we can throw it away (secularism) or we can try to understand the message being conveyed in symbolic language (the only language possible to convey those truths).

The message offered is one of hope. Change is possible but it has to be done the right way. We do not have to wallow in anger, hatred, resentment, bitterness or desire for retaliation. We do not have to be satisfied with what we were born or molded to be through circumstances. We can all rise to a higher and more compassionate level of being. A key concept of the Second Testament seems to be rebirth. A process exists whereby new, pro-social behavior can emerge from the mess we usually live with. This allows us to establish greater expectations for ourselves and others. This also demands greater patience with and tolerance for each other in each of our life journeys, as change becomes a gift to be received and not a choice to be made. 

So, is the Bible just literature? Yes and no. It is a supercharged literature to facilitate inner change, a sacred literature with the highest purpose which says we have to challenge ourselves and each other to rise higher and that there is a way to do this through a type of introspection and meaningful patience.


Daniel Gauss is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University. He has been published on numerous platforms dealing with art and culture and has been working in the field of education for over 20 years. He currently teaches in Shenzhen, China.




Borg, M. 2001. Reading the Bible again for the first time. San Francisco, CA: Harper

Duquesne, J. 1997. Jesus, an unconventional biography. Liguori, MO: Triumph Books

Fiorenza, E.S. 1984. Bread not stone. Boston, MA: Beacon Press

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