I came across a YouTube video where Penn Jillette, the famous comedian/magician and notorious atheist, starred on a YouTube channel called Big Think where he made a comment that made me ponder. The video can be summed up in one question, “What made you become an atheist?” He responded, “I read the Bible.”
He went on to explain how when reading it, everything sounded impossible or just seemed like a fairy tale. It got to the point where he had apparently been kicked out in his youth group at a Protestant church because he was making everyone an atheist with all his questions he was asking.
The thing is, I actually agree with him, in a way.
Let me explain. You can’t just go into reading something like the Bible thinking, “I’ll just read the Bible today,” because then you aren’t going to get the fullness of Truth out of it. The reason is because, as Fr. Robert Barron says, “The Bible is not so much a book as it is a Library.” What does he means by this?
Let’s say on my bookshelf I have Divine Comedy, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, and Everybody Poops. I am not going to read each of the books the same because they are all different genres. If I call Chasing Lincoln’s Killer a terrible book because it is a terrible love story, then that is not fair to the book. I am obviously not getting what I am supposed to out of it.
This is similar to when people try to draw science from Genesis. The book of Genesis, like most of Scripture, requires context. Meaning, look at the time it was written and what was it trying to accomplish. Genesis was written in a time where people had made a god out of everything like animals, trees, etc. Then, here comes the stories of Genesis claiming there is one true God that has dominion over all the things people turn into gods.
Even the way God speaks in Genesis is similar to that of an Israelite King with dominion over what He rules. When you don’t take it in this context, then instead you get the Earth was made in 6 days, snakes can talk, and it becomes just another creation story of that time.
So what exactly are the “genres” of the bible then?
In a quick description, the genres would be basically into 3 categories: Literal History, Non-Literal History, and Poetry. Literal History would be books like The Gospels, Acts, and 1-2 Kings. Non Literal History is something like the first 3 chapters of Genesis where it shows a deeper meaning than if it was taking literally. And Poetry would be something like Sirach, Psalms, and the parables where it is not describing anything historical but instead giving wisdom to the reader about a topic.
This is why I agree with Jenn. If you are just going to go in and read The Bible (even if it’s cover to cover like he said he did) and not look at any Church commentaries or Doctor’s writings like Thomas Aquinas or Augustine, then of course you are going to get nothing out of it if you continually leave it to your own authority on what it says.
This is why we can’t always take the Bible literally. It just doesn’t make sense to do so. Fr. Barron again even says, “That is like if someone asked you do you take the library literally?” It’s just a question that doesn’t make sense. This is why I urge especially my fellow Catholics to really look at theologian commentary as they read the Bible and even memorize scripture.
The true beauty of our Catholic faith is that we will not have to read the Bible and have to debate what it means by that, but instead we have 2,000 years of tradition and teaching to keep us united and follow what exactly was meant by the writers of the Bible. Scripture is very important in our faith but we must know what it truly is saying and when we know that, you can help others know God.