November 2013

Is It Always Truth vs. Fiction?

A Costco in the US recently suffered some heat because they labelled the Christian Bible as fiction (you can also check out the hilarious Fox News opinion piece here). A pastor by the name Caleb Kaltenbach saw this as he was shopping for a copy of the Good Book and tweeted a photo of the book to his congregation with the label “14.99 FICTION” clearly visible. Costco later apologized and agreed to relabel it.

But is the Bible really fiction? Are all holy texts fiction? Fiction is defined as: “literature…that describes imaginary events and people.” Under this definition, all holy canons are indeed fiction–even if they are based on historical events that might have actually happened. Make no mistake, my personal religious beliefs will forever remain shrouded by the protective veil of the internet, for my goal is not to convert (either to religion or away from it) but to get people to think about common ideas in different ways.

With that said, sure the Bible may be fiction–but that doesn’t necessary mean it’s untrue. Just because something is fiction does not mean it is false. What do I mean by this? Reza Aslan, a prominent Middle Eastern scholar, once said in an interview that the way ancient Middle Easterners recorded history was very much different from our own. They were not concerned about recording mere facts–they were concerned with recording truth. But here I argue that this notion of history was not confined to that specific region, but rather to all ancient peoples.

An example of this is my favourite Greek myth, the myth of Prometheus. Descending from Mt. Olympus, the Titan Prometheus, whose name literally means Forethought, teaches humankind how to make fire, which enables them to make progress and create grand civilizations. However, as a result, he is chained by Zeus to a rock, where each day an eagle, the emblem of Zeus, is sent to feed on his liver, which would then grow back the next day only to be repeatedly devoured.

Unlike the Bible, there is no debate over whether the Prometheus narrative is fact or fiction–but does that mean it is necessarily false? Could we not compare this myth to that of Babel, for which no archaeological evidence has been found to prove its existence, or to the Leviathan, a giant sea monster which was said to have had no equal in power and size but has never turned up in the archaeological record? If taken literally, yes.

But Prometheus, I would argue, is true, for it displays something eternal and unchanging about humanity. Prometheus is man’s Forethought, for reason developed in us as one trait that raises the proto-man up from the dirt into the realm of higher cognition and separates us from the animal. Not only does our so-called Forethought allow us to create fire (something which only humans do in a sophisticated manner), but also to construct the grand civilizations that reflect our unbound conscience. But, as a consequence of being aware of ourselves and this higher thinking, in the same way that Zeus’ eagle tears out Prometheus’ liver (which was the seat of emotions in Greek thought), so too are our hearts gnawed on all day long by the fear of death, poverty, heartbreak, or other ill affliction. So too are we, like Prometheus, eternally bound to this fate that we cannot escape from, that at times we wish we could live in blissful ignorance like the animal, whose hand Prometheus has not touched.

So thank you, Costco, for labelling the Bible as fiction, for it allowed me to realize something deeper. It is that we are all Prometheus. Everyone of us is the Adam of the Garden of Eden; everyone of us are each of those builders who, in an act humanistic pride, attempted to build the great Tower of Babel whose peak would reach into heaven itself and proclaim to the world the power of humanity united. All of these texts, despite their divine characters, are not about some “other world” or how a pantheon of supernatural beings wreak havoc on their mortal pawns–they are about us.

That’s ultimately why these texts are truth as well as fiction. They are true because we are those texts.

Magical Truth

Apologies for the tardy blog post–it won’t happen again.

Anyways, I felt rather confused about Alejo Carpentier’s book The Kingdom of This World. In fact, I feel similar to how I felt after reading the Master and Margarita. Confused, unsure of what to do next… novels like these just seem to go way over my head. I much prefer straightforward texts like Rousseau and Kant.

While I mull over those thoughts in my head, I have been thinking about magical realism. I remember listening to an interview of Reza Aslan for one of his new books where he talked about the significance of ancient Middle Eastern parables/stories, stories like Genesis and such. He said that history as we see it today did not exist as a concept in the ancient Semitic mind. If you were to go up to an ancient Judaean, say, and ask “What actually happened?”, you’d be met with a blank stare.That’s because the goal of “history”, to them, it not to present fact, but to present truth.

For instance, if I said along those lines, “Joe is so kind he’d give up his jacket to the homeless”, I’m not actually saying he would do that, but rather I’m trying to demonstrate the truth that he is extremely kind and unselfish.

I think this might be a good way of analyzing the events in not only this book but the Master and Margarita as well. For instance, if Macandal did not actually transform into all those animals, then what truth does this indicate about him? If Behemoth isn’t actually a demon at all, then what does he mean? What does all this so-called “magic” actually say about reality? Quite a bit, probably. But unfortunately, I haven’t been able to figure it out yet.



In A Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau seems to be arguing that which is a double-edged sword: humanity’s limitless capacity to understand and reason allows us to think all of these wonderful “thoughts”–but on the other hand, it allows us to manufacture desires that we are incapable of fully quenching, and which therefore is the cause of violence and strife between humans. I kept thinking to myself that I’ve heard of something similar elsewhere.

Thanks to Asian Studies 100, it was then that it occurred to me: Rousseau, although differing of course in many ways, seems to be arguing what Laozi, the so-called founder of Daoism, said many centuries ago. Daoism rejects the social constructs that humanity has made for itself and argues that we should abandon it because it is not natural, for nature does not rank beings in hierarchies as humans do. “Naturalness”, they claim, involves freeing oneself from selfishness, desire, and appreciating simplicity (characteristics which I can easily see Rousseau’s nascent man exemplifying). A metaphor for naturalness is pu–meaning an uncarved block of wood–which represent’s man’s original nature, before the imprint of culture.

However, I feel that although Rousseau explains in depth of what he believes, he does not offer much in terms of how one should return to this state. Chinese philosophy, and Daoism is no exception, is generally much more practical in this sense, providing guidelines on how to live a good life. Laozi says that one must live life in a way that almost mirrors living in a state of what Rousseau might have called “artificial” nature: one is to live away from the big cities, not venture far from his hometown, live a humble life (“he who knows he has enough is rich..” ch. 13 Daodejing), etc.. With his desires softened, he will live a happier life, says Rousseau. But, would he still be human? Rousseau says no; Laozi offers no comment, since he does not quite explain what it means to be human.

In other words, Rousseau could lay the basis of what a “happy” life could look life, while Laozi offers a way of how to actually live it.

Yeah, that title was pretty bad.