Friday, January 22, 2010

The Liberation of Story Truth: Form Criticism When Applied to Genesis 1-11

in a recent conversation, i realized that many readers out there never understand what i mean when i say "truth does not depend on fact. truth and fact are separate things." nor have they heard of Form Criticism and thus they make the mistake of thinking that all Christians read the bible literally. here is a paper on Form Criticism written in my first year of seminary, enjoy!

My favorite nonfiction book of all time never factually happened. The Things They Carried is a book about the Vietnam War written by Tim O’Brien who served as a foot soldier from 1969 to 1970. He states that all the stories are true, even if they are not entirely factual. O’Brien intentionally labels the book as “fiction” for that reason despite the book being about his experiences (O’Brien preface). O’Brien explains this in the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story.” He suggests a second meaning be applied to the readers and listeners of stories: that readers and listeners can discern stories that hold a truth, regardless of whether the events of the story actually occurred. The common denominator for O’Brien is “a gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (O’Brien 84-91).This gut instinct is true of every story, not just war stories, as all stories have grains of truth. Humans are a story driven species. We spend ridiculous amounts of money and time on books, movies, and other story media. We yearn for good stories to laugh, cry, and ponder over because above all we want to learn from them.
Story truth is powerful, and one does not need facts to teach it. This argument is front and center in The Things They Carried. The book is not factual but shows the truth of the frailty of humanity. In fact, the greatest teachers of human history all taught through non-factual stories. Socrates, Plato, Buddha, The Brothers Grimm, Jesus and many others all used the power of stories to teach truths. Does the parable of the Good Samaritan have to be factual to show that we should show mercy to all those in need? Do Buddhist or Native American stories with talking animals have to be factual to convey those messages of mindfulness? Do we need people in a cave looking at shadows to discern Plato’s meaning? If this is true of all stories, then why can’t it be true of the Bible?
Just a factual reading of the Bible misses the story truth. The best method to discover and analyze these truths is through form criticism. Frank Frick defines the goal of form criticism as seeking to clarify the form, function, and social setting of small units of the Bible that make up the larger stories (31). Thus, form criticism is a means of analyzing the typical features of texts, especially their conventional forms or structures, in order to relate them to their sociological context. Detecting the literary types or genres used in a particular story and relating them to the “when and where” of the audience will help us find the clearest truth of the story.
The best example of the benefits of form criticism is seen in the controversial stories of the first 11 chapters of Genesis. This is the main battleground in the religion versus science debate. This debate has two extremist points of view. On one side, creationists, who read these chapters literally, argue against science by claiming that all we need is the factual truth of Genesis and nothing more (Abramson). The other group, I will call “science” although this is not the most accurate term as there are many religious scientists. By calling it “science” I am using the vocabulary of creationists to define the group they are fighting against. These “scientists” state that there is no God, and creation is here through a random process of natural selection. Therefore, the Bible is nonsense (Dawkins 1, Gassien 4). Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, cites Genesis as his main reason for not believing in the rest of the Bible (31).
I use the extremes of these two groups to prove the point that neither group’s reading of Genesis does any justice to the story truth. This debate is unnecessary and would not exist if these stories were read using form criticism and not literally. I am not saying that the use of form criticism would wipe out atheism or the tension between science and religion; I am claiming that the first 11 chapters of Genesis would not be the primary battleground if form criticism were used.
The story truths of the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Babel dispersion are truths for religious traditions because they prove that God created the world and has an active role in reality. The truths of these stories would have been significant to the early audience who had no modern scientific means to answer some very important questions. The first 11 chapters of Genesis deal with universals (Frick 139). These stories are simply about everyone and how the world came to be as it is. This general idea is then focused through the rest of Genesis down to the creation of the nation of Israel. By recognizing these stories as myth, we are able to recognize the unique spirit of Israel at work (Gunkel 45). Through form criticism, we are able to see these myths in other cultures that were Israel’s neighbors and how they impacted the Israelites. The Babylonian flood story and traces of other cultures’ myths have made their way into the Torah. The Israelites, influenced by the other cultures, made these myths their own mainly by putting them into a monotheistic context (Gunkel 44). Gunkel claims “that precisely these stories, with their unique combination of sophistication and child-like simplicity, have had the greatest impact among all the stories of the Bible on all biblical peoples” (45). These stories, so vital to the Israeli community, still serve us today.
 The Creation myth, for example, shows that God is behind the creation of the cosmos and that humans are created in the image of God. This is important in explaining the difference between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom. Science can explain the creation of the cosmos in terms of chemistry, carbon dating, and various other methods. It does not attempt to explain the mystery of what or who first brought the raw materials into existence. The Bible holds the truth, but not the facts, while science holds the facts, but not the truth.  Science can explain humanity and our evolution to our current state, but it cannot explain how and why we think and act the way we do. Religion fills in the science’s holes and vice versa. Religion adds the story truth to science and gives a glimpse of the identity of humanity and its purpose. Form criticism melds these two concepts together and shows there is actually no debate when Genesis is read as a myth as it allows us the freedom of getting at the story truth. Frick states, “If we try to extract factual historical information from these chapters, we will be very disappointed (unless we read into them)” (Frick 116). Form criticism can derive the story truth through exegesis and answer the questions of causation and structure that a literal reading simply cannot do.
Form criticism is an excellent tool to help meld science and religion. Form criticism helps humanity as a whole get what Erhard S. Gerstenberger described as “the frame of reference from established genres” to help our communal interaction (99). Form criticism calls us to consider both story truths and factual truths to help us read the world as a whole. I can understand why creationists want to hold onto these stories, as they are powerful and show us the nature of God and humanity. I can also understand why science so easily dismisses these stories as they are not in anyway factual if read literally. The debate between science and religion reminds me of my grandma and grandpa arguing about what they had for dinner the night before. After a few minutes of arguing, my grandpa would say, “The point is we had dinner, let’s not let the facts get in the way.” This sums up what form criticism accomplishes when applied to Genesis 1-11.

Works Cited

Abramson, Paul. "A Defense of Creationism." 1998. 18 Oct 2007 .

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion . 1st ed. London: Bantam Books, 2006: 1-31.

Frick, Frank. A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures. 2nd ed.. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003.

Gassien, Blair."Reasons for Atheism."The Atheist Agenda in Blog 25, MAY 2005, 18 OCT 2007 .

Gerstenberger, Erhard S. “Social Sciences and Form-Criticism: Towards the Generative Force of Life-Settings” Relating to the Text. Ed. Timothy J. Sandoval and Carleen Mandolfo. New York, T&T Clark International; 1st ed. 2003: 99.

Gunkel, Hermann. "The Literature Of Ancient Israel." Relating to the Text. Ed. Timothy J. Sandoval and Carleen Mandolfo. Trans. Armin Siedlecki. New York, T&T Clark International; 1st ed. 2003: 44-45.

 O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990: preface,84-91.


Boz said...

would it be fair to substitute the phrase 'story truth' with 'lesson'?

Do they have very similar meanings?

Boz said...

op said: "The story truths of the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Babel dispersion are truths for religious traditions because they prove that God created the world and has an active role in reality."

Can you explain this further? How do (these particular) non-factual, lesson-teaching myths prove anything about reality?

op said: "It [science] does not attempt to explain the mystery of what or who first brought the raw materials into existence"

The field of cosmogony studies the big bang.

Yael said...

Just a couple comments...

I would disagree with the same statement Boz questions. I see Torah assuming God but never proving God; these stories teaching us about God as perceived in Biblical times rather than proving anything specific about God.

Otherwise I liked your post. Interesting how I've never heard this spoken of in terms of form criticism. That sounds so scholarly for something we've been doing for thousands of years without really even thinking about it I suppose. Not that we don't have our literalists as well..but even they allow for many levels of meaning.

The same ones who think Christians must read the bible literally think I must read the bible (Christian version only of course) literally as well and allow for no other POV. So nice such broadmindedness.

Luke said...

Boz, Lesson works well. as for explaining further, i have my interpretations but the main question would be what lessons can you get from such stories? what other interpretations and lessons are out there? what do rabbi's and preachers have to say about these? you'll find a ton! my take is mine, what matters is for you to find yours. there's a sense of play i feel that we here in the West miss with stories. we tend to get frustrated and what to deal in binaries. i don't think the world is just black and white and neither should our stories deal in just those terms either.

Cosmogony can only go so far in explaining the mystery of how things came to be and whether there was nothing and what brought it into existence. science has its limits and this is one i don't think we'll ever get over. thus i must re-phrase that sentence to say "science cannot explain the mystery of what or who first brought the raw materials into existence."

like the old Zen phrase "picture nothing." i love it as it can't be done. in picturing nothing i picture something.

Yael, i think you're right on about stories "assume God but don't prove God." rookie seminarian mistake ;-)

what i mean to say was that the 'lesson' gleaned about the nature of God was never meant to be learned through a literal lens nor to be taken as science. Form helps place stories that were never supposed to be read literally like Genesis or Jonah or the parables, and helps readers not miss the whole narrative and thus the points these stories are making. the truth is in the META aspect not the 'nugget' of scientifically verifiable data we can get. Rabbis have known this for a long while yet didn't have a name for what they were doing.

Yael said...

Great comment to Boz. One of my favorite stories is about God giving Adam and Eve clothes made of snake skin. Hey, it has the symmetry so often found in Torah and certainly contains a bit of humor along with quite a profound lesson about emulation, IMO of course. (Genesis 3:21 doesn't specify what kind of skin, we only assume.)

Can't get away with the rookie excuse for much longer now so I'll let you slide this time. My 'scholarly' quip comes from a favorite pastime of mine, poking fun at Rabbi about stuffy scholars...Can't resist. Yetzer hara and all that.

Boz said...

Thanks for the reply, Luke.

I'm wary of statements like:

"science cannot [ever] explain the mystery of what or who first brought the raw materials into existence"

Because they can never be shown to be true - we would need to wait forever (literally forever) to be assured that this claim is true. Yet it can be falsified at any moment.


A related article about metaphorical truth/story truth , from an atheist perspective:

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Luke

The link given by Boz (duplicated here) on yesterday's article by Jesse Galef on Metaphorical vs. Literal Truth is superb (I just read it). He writes well on an objection I have seen forming in my mind as I have read more and more of the writings of people who embrace Narrative Hermeneutics.

If you have time, I love it if you could do another post responding to Galef's essay. Seriously, it is clear and direct about what I feel is an important issue.

(Thanx Boz)

Luke said...


I too am usually weary of such statements, but if you listen closely, we're making them all the time. for example, in science Darwin and the majority of science up until recently had stated that "Genes are fixed and can never be changed by the individual. Only through generations of adaptation and mutation can genetics change in a species." then along comes Epigenetics and blows that whole idea right out of the water. we're finding, thanks to scientists in the upper reaches of Sweden, that genes can be effected by our actions and effect our offspring in THE VERY NEXT generation.

facts will only take us so far. our view of them is limited and we often miss the wider picture and the complex, interconnectedness of reality that i believe only story can really get at. so even our closely held "facts" can be falsified at any minute when we make or find a new epiphany/evidence/connection. stories however, last much longer and are much more powerful than the straight facts.


I will work on a rebuttal but my first thought is "so?" there are things story gets at that facts can't. Facts aren't emotional and only tell one part of the story. take for example two ways of telling a "true" story:

Fact: Last Thursday, I was walking Eve and my dog Sonny around the park around 4 p.m. when I spotted two red-tailed hawks eating something. They were approximately 2 feet tall and were about 25 yards away. One flew up into the tree as we approached.

Story: I was feeling at peace walking my daughter and dog around the park as I usually do at dusk. Imagine my surprise to see a male and female red tailed hawks in the park, so close i could almost touch them! One spread it's wings and flew up in fright as we approached. The other seemed to stare us down, almost daring us to make a move on his meal. The hawk was the size of Sonny and i wasn't about to mess with it! All I could do was stand in awe and think of how lucky i was that my little family got to see this. Even Eve took notice.

notice the difference. which story would you remember? stories get at the emotion that facts can't(even though this isn't the best example). a shorter one would be:

Fact: Caught a fish 23" long after reeling it in for 1 minute and 35 seconds.

Story: I caught a WHALE the other day after battling it for about half the day! I'm the best fisherman in the world!

poetry, Sabio, teaches things that facts can't. you can't really verify emotion... and in this case, even if either of these stories happened or not. gotta take it on faith ;-)

Luke said...

Another seminarian posted a similar post, so check out his post... i like Post cereal... wow.. lots of posts around here....

Anglican Gurl said...

I keep thinking about objections to Narrative Hermeneutics, some of which the Friendly Atheist points out. The key is not to rely just on Narrative Hermeneutics but on reason, experience, tradition, science, and the modern critical methods. All of these point to a larger truth. To use the image Luke likes to use often: "These methods are like the finger pointing to the moon but we best not confuse the two."

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Luke

I humbly submit that you may be misunderstanding the article. I will write a short post recommending the article and try to pre-empt some of the misunderstandings I am wondering if you will have.

Concerning the Hawk story.
Both are true in this case -- no metaphorically true is claimed.

Concerning fist story.
The emotion is that you caught a big fish. But you DID catch a fish, the rest was hyperbole.

Your examples did NOT address the main point of the essay. You need to address the essay and not how wonderful stories can be. IMHO

As you know, I write stories too and capitalize on imagery and style. I have not problem with these. So you should know that when I recommend this article, I am recommending it for another reason.

@ Anglican Girl -- I could not understand your comment.

Sabio Lantz said...

PS - I checked out that other seminarian post on myth. I think he misunderstands an important part of the issue too. It all revolves around what you want to call True -- how much you want to strip the word "true" of any significant meaning.

Sabio Lantz said...

I wrote a post addressing this issue, if you have time or are interested:

Luke said...

Well there are elements, i could have gone more supernatural.. i guess i'm more western than i want to realize ;-)

take for example: "a male and female red tailed hawks" and "Even Eve took notice." neither of these are verifiable. same with "But you DID catch a fish." i don't fish ;-)

i guess what i'm after is placing value on the subjective. telling tall tales is something inherent in humanity. look at "bar tales" that I hear anytime i sit down to enjoy a frosty brew. there are elements of truth in stories. and even if a story is completely fabricated, like Huckleberry Finn or War and Peace, these stories tell us something of the subjective human experience.

is there a difference between empirical truth and story truth? absolutely! i think that is what AG was saying there.. we can't lose sight of the difference between the messenger (science, story, whatever) and what it points to (truth? Truth?).