— Charles Schulz
— Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet
Did you know that God has a nose? And when he gets mad it turns red?
“Wrath” is a euphemism, of sorts. The Hebrew word is ‘aph, “nose.” In many places in the Bible, God’s nose burns hot.
I’ve been thinking about God’s nose quite a bit lately. God, in the early parts of the Old Testament, is a much more human figure. He has a nose and hands and he appears wearing robes. What did God’s nose look like? An upturned nose? A hook nose? A long Roman nose? The question seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? “Paint a picture of God” is a request that is likely to either elicit blank stares or to cause someone to go and meditate to try to channel some abstract mystical sensation. To draw God would be to limit him.
One of the things that has set me on this train of thought is the recent uproar over the depiction of Muhammad in an anti-Islam Youtube video. This has brought the issue of the depiction of Muhammad to the fore again. Most Muslims believe that prophets should not be visually depicted because it can lead to idolatry. Christians, of course, take the opposite approach when it comes to their prophet with images of Jesus on everything from Facebook pages to barn roofs to bumper stickers.
The interesting thing about all these images of Jesus is that they do not really look like him. When a team of forensic anthropologists were asked to create an image of what the historical Jesus might have looked like, this is what they produced:
Does it really matter?
A lot of the most beautiful moments in the arts do come at the breaking point of the medium. Sometimes the most moving moment when someone is speaking or singing is when their voice cracks with emotion or they can’t go on.
When someone reaches the limit of the power of the medium, that’s when they start to signify this thing that exceeds the medium. It’s a way of making us feel what’s not sayable, what’s inexpressible. That’s how you say what can’t be said."
— author Ben Lerner, quoted in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio
There was recently an episode of the television series House in which an ailing novitiate comes in to the hospital for a diagnosis. One of the doctors on House’s team came to medicine after dropping out of the seminary. He tries to test the faith of the aspiring nun by asking her questions about the Bible. He quizzes her on stories that are told differently in different books of the Bible. For example, “How many times did the cock crow before Peter denied Jesus?”
It seems unlikely that someone who attended seminary would have such a superficial understanding of faith that the whole thing could be unraveled by one extra crow.
It got me to thinking about this whole idea of “debunking” the Bible. The idea that the Bible is something that can be “debunked” by showing factual inconsistencies assumes that the book is a certain type of thing. You can debunk junk science. You can debunk false journalism. You can debunk bad history. But the Bible is not science or a history text book or journalism. It is art.
You can’t “debunk” Picasso by saying human noses don’t really go there.
Nor would you debunk Shakespeare, even though he wrote plays based on history. You might point out that the real Henry V did not give the marvelous St. Cispan’s speech before the battle of Agincourt, but that hardly “debunks” the play.
Shakespeare was capturing the essence of how the English people felt about this episode. He was illustrating (not reporting on) the drama of the nation’s cultural history.
That is the same type of story telling that occurs in the Bible. It illustrates and dramatizes the moments that shaped the culture of the Jewish people and their religion and later of the proto-Christian people and their culture. Much of what is written is based on history, but it is not told in the voice of the historical scholar.
Debunking the Bible because it is bad science or history and reading the Bible as though it were literal historical scholarship and science are two sides of the same coin.
The purpose of religion is to inspire, to invite wonder and contemplation, to give people a sense of common community and to teach us how to ethically relate to one another in the here and now.
If the Bible was a perfectly factual, scholarly report on historical events it would fail as scripture.
When you read the page on the Battle of Agincourt in your British history class (if you had one) did you want to cheer, or were you doodling on the back of a note pad and waiting for the class bell to ring?
Henry V may not have said “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” but he should have. It took a poet to capture the dramatic truth. That is the type of truth that one can find in the Bible.