From a young age kids are faced with the difficult task of identifying the difference between fact and fiction in stories. Cinderella? Fiction. Abraham Lincoln? Fact. Pecos Bill? Fiction. Knowing the difference between fact and fiction in writing is one of the early reading skills that one acquires. Usually there are clues in the writing or in the context of our reading that help us to identify if the story we are reading is authentic or fantastic in nature. For example, a story that begins, “Once upon a time…” This is a clue that kids can read and note that this is a genre of fairy tale. While it might be a great story and might actually help to teach them important lessons they know that Hansel and Gretel were not real kids sitting in a witch’s oven. On the other hand a story that begins, “On this date in 1976…” is probably written as a factual retelling of the events of a specific day in history. Unless other clues trump the dating, we read this as factual from the perspective of the author.
When kids (and adults) start reading the Bible they might wonder what parts of the Bible are real factual events and which are just fables used to teach lessons. In the end, does it really matter if Jonah was really in the belly of the whale or not? And, how can we know which biblical stories are factual descriptions of real, live, historic events?
Part of the challenge comes from our terminology, specifically with the use of the word “story.” We teach “Bible stories” to kids. Are these stories real or not? The word story can be used in a couple of different ways. On the one hand a story can be a made up experience in the mind of the author to teach or entertain. On the other hand you might read a news story about the events of September 11, 2001. One is fiction, the other is fact. When we talk about “Bible stories,” we’re using the term in the second way. As in a historic accounting of a real event that took place years ago. In other words, the story of Peter walking on water is an account of a factual event.
Take the Bible for what it says unless there is a clue to read it otherwise. For example, if the writing is a different type of literature. Poetry is often more figurative and takes some effort to figure out what pieces are fact and what is figurative or metaphoric language. Psalm 23 is an example of poetic language. David writes about being comforted by His relationship with God because God protects and provides for him as a shepherd cares so uniquely for his sheep. David is not and sheep and doesn’t see God with a literal rod or staff walking alongside his path. Instead David uses the image of a gentle and caring shepherd who is also hardened and brave enough to fight off the wolves.
Another example: Jesus tells a parable…a specific kind of storytelling to teach a point, rooted in real life, but not based on any one specific real live event. Jesus uses three parables in Luke 15 to talk about being lost and found and God’s desire for each of us to be His. The point isn’t that a woman lost her coin, or a shepherd lost his sheep, or a father welcomed back his prodigal son. There is a deeper meaning that God is a God who seeks to find His own lost children, won’t stop until He finds them, and celebrates each individual as His own.
Another example: Hyperbole, or using exaggeration as a method to prove a point. Jesus does this when he suggests a person gouge out their eye or cut off their hand to keep them from sinning. The point is not to literally disfigure your body, but that sin is extremely dangerous: watch out!
While there are some examples of fiction used to teach lessons in the Bible most of it is actually written to be taken literally. The book of Exodus is a book that reads like a historical narrative. It’s meant to be taken at face value. For the most part you don’t have to look for a hidden deeper meaning, but can appreciate how God lead His people out of slavery in Egypt and into a new covenantal relationship with Him. It really happened, and its historicity adds to my appreciation.
Why is this important at all? Because I need a real God to help me with my real life and all of my very real issues. I don’t have figurative problems, but real flesh and blood problems. I need a God who can handle real flesh and blood problems, and save me from them. I need a God who can hear my prayers. I need a God who can feed me when I have no resources to get food. I need a God who can lead me and direct my decisions. I need a God who promises to keep His part of the bargain even when I don’t. I need a real God who has done real things like raise Jesus from the dead so that I can be certain that my death won’t be the end of my story. That’s story as in…history. Real. True. Facts.