In the book of Daniel, Chapter 3, three men are thrown into a giant furnace, but are not burned up. They are thrown into the furnace because they would not bow down to a giant statue of a king…a king who had a fiery temper. This fiery king threw them into the fiery furnace, but an angel protected them, and they did not burn.
I remember hearing this story as a child in Sunday School, even singing a song about it at VBS one summer. As a young adult now looking back, burning people alive doesn’t really seem like appropriate subject matter for children. In fact many of the Bible miracles and stories that are told to children are fairly inappropriate–ten plagues sent from heaven, the last of which kills the first born of every Egyptian child–an army marches around a city for seven days, shouts, and then the walls fall down crushing the city’s inhabitants–a man arrested for being a rabble rouser, who also claims he is God, is brutally executed and displayed violently on a cross. Unfortunately, because of the way the story is often told, the sheer offensive violence of the stories are usually lost on children. They become songs sung at Christian summer camps after playing dodge ball in the gym. And for good reason. The violence in these stories wouldn’t make sense to kids. They would be an affront to their worldview.
But now we have grown up. We can read the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and make sense of the terrible violence of being burned alive (a fate which befell one of the guards who threw the men into the fire). We can comprehend the wrath of the king, or the just wrath of God on Egypt, or the collateral damage of Joshua’s invasion of the promised land, or even the gruesome, violent death that ended the revolutionary God/man we now claim to serve. This violence is no longer inconsistent with our intellect because we have lived long enough, had enough education, seen enough of the violence in our own lives and world to know that none of it is surprising. It is not shocking that the Bible is full of brutal murders and mass genocides and gruesome executions. Our world is full of them.
When I was a kid, I learned the Bible through songs and smiling characters on felt boards. The stories were summarized and told in ways that were palatable for us. We heard the stories, sang the songs, and had no idea that the Bible was full of characters and actions irreconcilable with our perspective.
Now that we are older, we read the Bible and think that, because we can comprehend the violence, the story is no longer absurd—the Bible in all of its history can now fit into our safe pious viewpoint. But the story in Daniel 3 isn’t appalling because a king got angry and commanded the dissenters to be burned alive in a furnace, it is shocking because once they were thrown into the fire, they don’t burn up.
It has always struck me that we can read through Bible story after Bible story, and not be up in arms with each one. Are we forgetting something? These things can’t actually happen! What makes the Bible so scandalous is not the sex and the violence and the bloodshed and the doom, it is that almost all of the central stories of the Bible are actually impossible. By all human reasoning, science, and experience, it is impossible for three men to be thrown into a fire and not get burned, it is impossible for a sea to split in half or for a man to be fully God and fully man. Two fulls don’t make a full, they make something that is absurd and silly by our standards of reasoning.
We should lose sleep over what we hear and read at Church! The Bible should affect us the same way witnessing violence affects a child! But it doesn’t.
Children for centuries have been protected from the harsh realities of life through song and simple story telling. The song and game “Ring around the rosey” is actually a reference to the horrible plague that killed off over two fifths of the population of Europe. In the same way, the paradigm of our age is trying to protect us from the “impossible” reality that miracles actually have and do happen. It has neutered this dangerous truth with its own campfire song. That song is called “myth”.
As human history progressed into our modern society, science and rational thought took the foreground, forcing all stories that didn’t add up to be labeled myth or fiction. Although, the good Christian claims these stories are believed to be true through faith, the evidence suggests something different. The reactions to the Biblical stories of parting seas and lion’s dens are the same as the reactions to stories of Icarus flying into the sun and the love affair of Cupid and Psyche. We hear the story, discuss what the story tells us about the time in which it occurred, and how the moral of the story should teach us how to live right now. Reason has turned miraculous events that should completely shatter the way we understand the world into mere myths we hear about at church. We tell ourselves the point of the story is to teach us to trust God for everything and then return to our science led, reason filled lives.
Do we really believe these stories are true? Do we really believe that we could get thrown into a fiery furnace and not get burned?
I have lived most of my life accepting these stories on “faith”, claiming outwardly that I believe these stories happened. The truth is though, I’m not sure I can honestly say I can look at all the crazy, impossible stories of the Bible and believe they actually happened. I really want to. I want to let the God who doesn’t care about our silly science to offend and overwhelm me. I want to believe in a God unbound by our theology, untethered by our scientific method, unswerved even by our post-modern relativism (which is just a highly nuanced and sexy way to turn everything we don’t completely understand ((which is everything)) into myths).
I really want to believe that our generation will be the generation that crawls out from behind our fearful intellectualism and fall head over heels for our absurd and unpredictable God, but I’m not sure I believe it yet. But…as I said before…I really want to.