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.
Abramson, Paul. "A Defense of Creationism." Creationism.org. 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.