So What’s the Point?
In the summer of 2004, I dated a guy (whom I will call Chris) for a hot minute. He volunteered with a Christian organization in Camden, and although we were clearly not going to work out, he asked if I wanted to join him on a field trip of sorts he was leading with a summer program of a handful of kids to a photography exhibit being held at a coffee house in Center City. The speaker showed slide after slide of his work documenting the impact the military’s operations in the Middle East post-9/11 were having on the people, showing raw images of the devastation, the impact of our military presence.
There were few “happy” images.
To process the experience, we all gathered back at the Church-affiliated building, and I, along with a few adults who also attended, lead a conversation about what we all saw and heard. Each person spoke, including the kids, who had passionate (and often upsetting) responses.
I mentioned how I couldn’t help being reminded of how relative the truth is, and that just because an image is captured and you’re hearing a person narrate a series of events doesn’t mean that any one person has captured the essence of any one moment. How can you, when events are products of a series of ideas, all packed tight with circumstances often reliant on how a person or organization understood things to be? The images we saw didn’t mean that the US didn’t have a right to be there and engaging in the war we were, just as the endless images of damage didn’t mean every person over there was a blameless victim. There’s a reason the old expression that war is hell exists, but the expression didn’t mean war is necessary either.
When I encounter an emotionally-charged experience—like a talk and exhibit of this kind, I have to remind myself that I need to step back in order to get a handle on the ideas conveyed. Too often, it’s so easy to react immediately. I imagine that when devout believers interact with Helms’ ideas, they are dismissive—any person who suggests that the Bible’s content is not 100% accurate is being disrespectful and speaking from a place of ignorance, and therefore, not worth paying much mind.
As someone who does not count himself among the devout, I don’t know what I really expected to think or understand by the time I reached the end of Helms’ book but I do know that I have more questions now that I did before. I do know that I expected some deep revelations about the people behind the writing of the Gospels but I don’t think I encountered any—or perhaps what counts for a deep revelation for me is different than in the circles of people who are well versed in this area. Still, I’m not sure how this book impacts my thoughts on the Gospels specifically or the Bible in general.
One of my blog readers sent me a note about my choice of investigating Helms. He suggested, among other things, that Helms possesses a bias, in part because he sees the Gospels as works of “fiction.” Having read Helms’ book, I can’t say I agree with that take. True, he does argue that liberties with religious texts have been taken and original ideas inserted. But by labeling something fiction, I think of something completely fabricated; Helms shows how the Gospels have their roots in other religious texts. Given this, I don’t think he feels that the Gospels are fiction—which I would assume to be a dismissive label (in this context).
But what if the gospels are fiction? What if only part of the gospels are fiction?
I remember when the James Frey scandal exploded. His book A Million Little Pieces, labeled and sold as non-fiction, told the story of a man who overcame a lot of adversity—including, but not limited to drug addiction and jail time—and managed to regain solid footing in his life. When the Smoking Gun website blew the whistle on the fabricated content (you can read more about that here: http://goo.gl/E1s7), people were incensed. One of those people was Oprah.
Initially, as she called in her support for the author as he sat for Larry King, she believed that if some of the material was fiction, she didn’t care: to her, the powerful message in the book is what mattered. People turned their life around by reading this book, and to her, this is what was important. (You can read more about that here: http://goo.gl/ttkX2A)
Although she changed her tune when she learned the extent of the fictionalized material, her initial reaction is significant. At the end of the day, if people read the Bible and are better family members, spouses, community members, etc., who cares if some or all of it is fiction? The problem only arises if you legislate (in the broadest sense) using the Bible as justification.
At the end of the day, the truth is relative—it also depends on how you use it. If what you understand to be true makes you a better person, who cares if the information can be “verified”? The problem arises when you use your version of the truth to tell people what they should believe—especially when it conflicts with their version of the truth.