In 1865 Lewis Carroll wrote a novel about a seven-year old English girl named Alice who, bored with a book her sister was reading, chased a large white rabbit with pink eyes down a rabbit hole “into a subterranean fantasy world populated by peculiar anthropomorphic creatures. It is considered one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre.”1 The literary nonsense genre “is a broad categorization of literature that balances elements that make sense with some that do not with the effect of subverting language conventions or logical reasoning.”2 It strikes me that the definition of literary nonsense literature in many ways is an apt description of the biblical world when compared to the world in the 21st century. Nonsense literature “has a kind of internal lunatic logic of its own, and often comprises enigmatic variations on the absurd.”3 The absurd in contemporary literature and literary criticism is a term reflecting “[e]xtreme forms of illogic, inconsistency, and nightmarish fantasy.”4
The Earth and the cosmos, as we currently learn about them in public schools and the universities of Western culture, are quite different from the worlds reflected in nonsense literature. The world today operates on the basis of the observations and principles of modern science. This includes the physiological and psychological make up of human beings, and the animal and plant kingdoms, which evolve on the basis of natural selection.
Reading the Bible, entering its world, is much like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. One finds in its pages a world that operates with a logic all its own yet illogically from the perspective of modern science. In the Bible one finds talking snakes (Gen 3:1-13) and donkeys (Num 22:5); that the laws of physics can be suspended so that the earth can be paused in its journey around the sun (Josh 10:6-14); that a Judean Holy man can feed 5000 people from five loaves of bread and two fish (Mark 6:32-44); that the dead can walk after an earthquake opens their graves (Matt 27:52-54); that magic cloth has the “magical” capability to heal disease (Acts 19:11-12); that ax-heads can float (2 Kgs 6:1-7); and that the bones of a dead holy man, like a talisman, possess the power to raise the dead (2 Kgs 13:20-21).5 The “logic” that enables these fantasies to work is the presence in the universe of invisible spirit forces.
The biblical world is the scene of a great cosmic struggle between the invisible forces of Good and Evil (Eph 6:10-12). Demonic forces cause sickness (Luke 11:14), insanity (Mark 5:1-20), epilepsy (Matt 17:14-21), paralysis and other diseases (Matt 4:24). They can demonize the human body (Matt 12:43-45) and cause deafness and muteness (Mark 9:25). On the other hand, there are emissaries (Matt 25:41) of an invisible power stronger than the demons but this power sometimes helps (Acts 12:11) or sometimes harms (Acts 12:23) people.6
Many continue to view the cosmos from this religious and superstitious perspective. Nevertheless, in the modern Western world, the strength of the biblical worldview has been rendered ineffective because of the advances of modern medicine. In the ancient world what was attributed to unseen invisible forces has been successfully explained by science as due to natural causes. For example, organisms (germs and viruses), unseen by the naked eye but visible under magnification, cause disease; evil spirits do not. Medical practitioners have virtually replaced the religious shaman as the first to consult in the case of illness. The physician’s advice and treatment, rather than prayer or exorcism, is now sought first to combat what in the ancient past were understood to be disease-causing spirits.
The texts that comprise the Bible are flawed by their antiquity and hence the collection is only marginally reliable as a basis for contemporary life. Those anti-intellectual institutions that continue to measure the world and human life by the Bible’s flawed views will only succeed in marginalizing themselves further from the mainstream in the 21st century. Figuring out what century one lives in is a primary responsibility of living in the present.
Here is the main point of this mini-essay: The Bible does not depict a world that actually was but rather a world as it was perceived to be.
Missouri State University
3J. A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (revised by C.E. Preston; 4th ed.; London: Basil Blackwell, 1999), 551.
4C. H. Holman and W. Harmon, A Handbook to Literature (6th ed.; New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2.
5Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 1-12.
6Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 20-22.