I have struggled a lot with my reformed Christian identity, a transition from certainty to an openness to doubt and questions. One of the hardest parts of this transition has been engaging with the biblical text. After two decades of being taught that the Bible is an infallible textbook, a major faith crisis blew all those assumptions out the window. After that, it was hard for me to pick up the Bible I had lovingly and consistently read for guidance. It didn’t have anything “real” anymore, so how could any of it be “true” to me?
So, instead of pursuing the Bible, I’ve been engrossed in books, movies, and TV shows. I know that these stories I love aren’t always based on real events. I also know that I can learn as much, if not more, from a work of fiction as I can from a textbook. Because I don’t worry about whether or not these stories really happened, I focus on their messages.
I witnessed an alien’s adventures through time and space, the love he felt for his companions, and his heartbreak over their later losses. I read the stories of a man traveling cross-country with gods and of a child meeting the cosmic beings who lived in the farm down the lane. I saw a family travel across a war-torn galaxy to be reunited.
In these stories, I listened to these fictitious characters explain real-world experiences: life involves love and loss, pain and joy; we are capable of tearing each other apart and bringing each other together; people will go to great lengths for their loved ones to know love and safety.
I didn’t know if I’d ever find stories like this in the Bible. After viewing the Bible as a textbook for so long, I didn’t believe I was allowed to see it any other way.
And then, unexpectedly at worship one Sunday, I finally heard such a story.
It was a story about the people of Israel crossing the Jordan River. The priests walked before them with the ark of the covenant, and in a parallel to Moses crossing the Red Sea, the waters of the Jordan parted so that everyone walked across dry land. Then, 12 men, one from each of the tribes of Israel, took a stone from the dried up river bed. When they reached the other side, they formed the stones into a makeshift monument. This would remind them of how they came to the Promised Land, given to them by God. It would be a story passed down to their children, and their children’s children, as a testament to the God of Israel’s provision for the people. It would be a story to give them hope in their most difficult times.
Normally, I struggle with miraculous stories like this. I’ve seen them used and abused by proclaimers of the Prosperity Gospel, and their use in this way has caused me and others to stumble. Because of this abuse, I find them hard to believe, and as a result, I tend to immediately discredit them. But this one Sunday, I wasn’t concerned with the seemingly impossible physics behind parting an entire river. This Sunday, I heard and listened to the story differently, because I didn’t worry about whether or not this story actually happened, whether or not it was “real.” Instead, I thought about how true this story was to the people of Israel.
All I could think about was what the stones in this story meant to the Israelites, who would endure falls from grace, exile, and persecution throughout their history. I thought about the truth this story told these people, and what it would continue to tell them time and time again.
They were not alone. They were chosen and beloved by the Creator of the Universe. They would always be known. The Name would always have a plan for them, so that maybe the world would remember their Creator.
And I think I was able to accept this idea of a story being true, but not real, because of all of the “non-biblical” stories I’ve been absorbing. I think because of the Doctor, Neil Gaiman, A Wrinkle in Time, my comic book heroes and anti-heroes, and so many more, I’ve learned that something doesn’t have to be an accurate account to carry a true message.
Could these stories have truly happened? Could it be that the power of God physically parted the Red Sea and the Jordan River? Yes. What keeps me going, though, isn’t the certainty that this literally happened.
What keeps me going are the stones by the river, that remind me and all God’s people of the Lord’s provision. What keeps me going is the meaning of the name Emmanuel, God with us, which reminds me to be God’s presence in a broken world. The truth of God’s love, mercy, and guidance that I find in these stories and many others are what keep me going when nothing else seems certain. These truths, not their “realness,” are what matter the most to me.
We don’t need more certainty. We need more faith that the stories are true.