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This cartoon is a great illustration for what I’ve been talking about for the past week or so. People who claim that a metaphorical reading of the Bible yields a true, loving, and morally good religion have a tough row to hoe. You see, interpreting moral allegories is not arbitrary. That is, we don’t just read a story and then randomly select whatever moral message we want. We apply our real human moral value system to a story and assign symbolic roles to characters, actions, and circumstances.
A couple of weeks ago, I pointed out that the moral allegory of the Fall of Man is analogous to that in the horror movie, My Bloody Valentine. What’s shocking is that the character in Valentine analogous to God in the Fall of Man is the villain.
I’m sorry if it feels like I’m taking you back to 9th Grade Literature class, but this is a really important concept. While it’s true that all allegories are not crystal clear, and many can be interpreted in different ways, it’s not true that they can be interpreted any way at all. (That’s why the teacher can assign grades in literature classes. Some interpretations are really better than others, and some are complete rubbish.)
Here’s a contemporary example. Through no fault of my own, I’ve seen the first two movies in the Twilight Series. While there’s no doubt that there are elements of moral allegory in the stories, there can definitely be different opinions on what they mean. For instance, I’m convinced that the whole thing represents the value of abstinence. All the heavy breathing, longing to be together, sighing deeply and gazing into each others’ souls is meant to show us that the thrills and emotion associated with abstinence are so valuable in themselves that it’s worth it to wait until marriage. Someone else might disagree and say that it’s a representation of the human struggle against the demons we all have to keep at bay within ourselves. It’s a declaration that even the worst of people can subdue the monster within and be loving to their fellow man.
However, nobody’s going to say that it’s a representation of the futility of it all, and a call to indulge in frivolous, meaningless sex with as many people as possible, and orgiastic destruction of all that is good and holy in the world. Or at least, if anyone suggests such a thing, he’ll be properly labeled a dunderhead with no grasp of literary interpretation whatsoever.
Characters and actions have symbolic meaning. Literary discussions often revolve around archetypes, or “models.” For instance, Gandalf is an archetype of a sage advisor and magician, similar to Merlin. Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle are archetypes that are also seen in Pretty Woman.
So when we read the Bible, we are also reading stories with archetypes. In the Fall of Man, God is the character with power over Adam and Eve. He punishes their descendants for Eve’s sin. In My Bloody Valentine, Harry Warden is the character with power over the residents of Valentine Bluff. He punishes the “descendants” of the people who hurt him many years ago. The two characters are analogous archetypes, at least in this respect.
So what can we say of someone who claims that God is the hero of The Fall of Man while Harry is the villain in Bloody Valentine? It’s tempting to say they’re a dunderhead with no grasp of literary interpretation, but that might be premature. Even though one aspect of the two stories is comparable, it might be that other elements change our evaluation of God. But to be honest, I’m at a loss. God looks like the villain to me. In every other story I can find with a similar plot line, the guy who punishes future generations for the crimes in this generation is the villain. Punishing innocents for the crimes of others is a pretty straightforward matter. It’s something villains do.
Undoubtedly, apologists will point out that the Bible is a long series of stories, and only by considering them in total can we see the true picture of the God character. And that’s a fine objection to make. The Bible is quite long, and there are lots and lots of stories about God. But the thing is, I’ve read all of them. And in nearly every one, God occupies the archetype generally reserved for the villain in other stories.
So the challenge for “metaphorical Christians” is to paint me a picture and put it in a frame. I’m bright enough to be able to place archetypes and recognize the role they occupy in a story. Somebody analyze the stories from front to back and show me how God’s otherwise petulant, despicable, misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, and downright immoral behavior is actually part of a broader scheme to portray him as the morally good hero. Because from where I sit, there are plenty of ways in which the Bible can be interpreted, but claiming God as the protagonist or hero is about as looney as calling Harry Warden the good guy, or saying that Twilight is a clear call for universal polygamy. It just doesn’t follow from the story. It just doesn’t follow.