Is the Bible a work of fiction or nonfiction?
The question spawns genuine confusion.
One thing is certain: Calling the Bible a work of fiction is a sure-fire way to rile up believers, particularly as we head into the “war on Christmas” season, when conservative Christians are on the lookout for anything that smacks of religious disrespect.
Last week in Simi Valley, a social-media savvy pastor, Caleb Kaltenbach of Discovery Church, was in Costco, looking for a gift for his wife. He happened to notice, he told Fox News, that Costco had labeled its Bibles “fiction.” On Nov. 15, he tweeted a photo of the label, writing “Costco had Bibles for sale under the genre of FICTION. Hmmm.”
The tweet caught fire, and soon Costco had apologized, blaming one of its distributors for what it called an "error." Reporters attributed all sorts of emotions to Kaltenbach, who corrected the record in another tweet: "Just so everyone knows: I'm not outraged, angry or stunned. I thought the label at Costco was interesting."
“You’ve had some people who are ultra-fundamentalist Christian who just say we should boycott Costco, and I don’t think that’s the answer," he said. "Then you have some people who are offended — ‘That’s my faith right there, that’s not fiction.’ But then you have other people who are passionately against the Bible, and they say, ‘You know what, it is fiction, so good for Costco.'”
Meanwhile, earlier this fall at Margarita Middle School, a public school in Temecula, a teacher got into hot water after telling a student that his Bible was not a work of nonfiction. The teacher, who has not been identified, had asked students to read a nonfiction book for homework, then bring the book to class.
According to the Christian News Network, when the teacher saw that Jet Romans, a seventh-grader, had brought a Bible, he said, “That’s not a nonfiction book.” Jet said he believed it was, and the teacher (who spoke in a “sharp tone” according to Bob Tyler, the Christian civil rights attorney contacted by Jet’s parents) replied, “Well, I’ll get back to you.”
The teacher then polled other students. In a “demeaning tone,” according to Tyler of the Murrieta nonprofit, Advocates for Faith & Freedom, the teacher asked the class how many thought the Bible was nonfiction. All but two students raised their hands, Tyler said, giving the teacher a dose of his own medicine.
In a meeting with Jet’s parents, said Tyler, the teacher and the school principal were “very apologetic.” Still, Tyler said Jet felt humiliated, has accused the teacher of “bullying” and has asked the Temecula Valley Unified School District to amend its anti-bullying policy to include teachers. (The district has not yet responded, Tyler told me Friday.)
“We are not saying that a teacher cannot have an opinion about whether the Bible is fiction or nonfiction,” Tyler told me. “But it’s inappropriate for a teacher to tell students that the Bible is nonfiction when governmental agents are required to remain neutral toward religion.”
For guidance about whether the Bible is fiction or nonfiction, I turned to a literature expert, retired Cal State Northridge English professor Marvin Klotz, who once taught a popular course called “The Bible As Literature.”
“Yikes!” he replied. “An exceedingly complicated question. I recommend not going there.”
He explained that the Bible, which includes the Old and New Testaments, has many authors whose contributions spanned centuries. Some parts of the Bible are narrative tales, some parts contain historically verifiable events, some parts are poetry and some are legal codes.
Whether the Bible is fiction or nonfiction, strictly speaking, is probably unanswerable, and ultimately a matter of belief.
As Pastor Kaltenbach told Fox News: “When it comes down to the Bible, you either believe that it’s true or not true. There are no shades of gray.”