Literal Problems, Literally

Literal Problems, Literally

I found Should we read the Bible literally via Facebook, and want to commend it to my readers. I can’t tell for sure, but I suspect the writer is perhaps more conservative than I am, yet he makes many points I frequently try to make. I think he may be a bit too optimistic on the hope of recovering the word “literal” from popular abuse.

I’ve often said that if I could take one saying away from Christian conservatives it would be, “The Bible plainly teaches …” Our frequent disagreements as Christians seem to challenge that idea. It’s always possible that the teaching is plain and we just want to work around it, but who has the right view and who’s working around? It would be better to just bring forth the arguments in favor and let someone else decide how plain it is.

On the other hand, the phrase (regarding the Bible) that I’d most like to take from liberals is “We don’t take that literally.” The problem is, how do you take it? The meaning of the word “literally” is “literally” not that settled. Biblical scholars and theologians use it differently than the general population. So whether you’re telling someone to take it literally or not, the odds are they’re going to understand it differently.

For example, I regard Genesis 1 as never having been written with the intention of developing a sequential, historical, scientific view of origins. Rather, it speaks in the context of its current cosmology and gives God’s role in creation. Contemporary readers would likely have perceived it in those senses, but there’s no necessity that one do so, and the elements the stories are trying to convey are not harmed by changing chronology or method of creation. (In my view, at least!) I do not doubt the reality of God’s action. Is that literal or not? It’s a bit more difficult to answer that question than the example of calming the sea in the referenced article. But that’s why I suggest that “not literal” is also not helpful.

What we have to do is specify how we do read the text. For example, I read Genesis 1:1-2:4a as liturgy and the rest of Genesis 2-3 as myth, in the best sense of that word. “Myth” frequently becomes a synonym for “not true” when, in terms of literature, it speaks to the foundational function of a story in a society. A myth might not be a true story, in the sense of narrative history (we often use “literal” here), but it also might be. Historical events do become myths in functional terms.

Ian Paul makes that point in the referenced article with regard to the story of calming the sea. There is extended meaning. One can take the sea and the boat allegorically, but the allegorical meaning is built, for many at least, on the idea that the underlying story really happened. I would disagree that one can’t get allegorical meaning if one doesn’t take the story as historically real, but there would be a difference in that meaning.

All of which simply leads back to the first point. We need to be careful with our use of language. I think that too many Bible students use their own definition of literal, by which I mean the one understood by most Bible scholars, and tell people they should interpret the Bible literally. People in turn believe they are being told to make the Bible concretely applicable no matter what. Which problem is not helped when someone like Tim LaHaye says to take the Bible literally if at all possible, and then applies it by making all the symbols of Revelation apply in a concrete sense to future physical events. Some of the words in Revelation do refer to such things. Others refer to spiritual things. There is a variety of usage. It’s a vision; expect some variety in the author’s (and Vision-givers) intent.

Most importantly, try to be aware of how you are taking a passage. Literal/figurative is not adequate. What type of figure is it? What time of reality does it reference?

In answering those questions, you may well discover why I so dislike hearing that “the Bible plainly teaches.”

3 thoughts on “Literal Problems, Literally

  1. The problem with insisting on a “literal” interpretation of a biblical text is that none of its promoters is able to consistently apply it. The problem with allegorical interpretation is that it can be made to mean anything the interpreter wishes it to be. And the worst approach of all is captured in the quote Ian Paul supplies from Hugh Houghton, “The approach [allegory] differs from the trend of biblical literalism adopted by modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, which interprets the Bible as the literal word of God which is not open to interpretation.” He, of course, is referring to the notion, otherwise expressed as, “The bible says what it means and means what it says.” My concern here is there are many Christians who really believe that when they read the bible, they are not interpreting it at all.

    I once introduced the idea that there is nothing in the bible that doesn’t require interpretation in an adult bible study. One member objected, saying, “I can think of something in the bible that doesn’t need interpretation.” “What would that be,” I asked? “God is love,” was the reply. “OK, then, what does God mean, and what is love?”

    I think that when Jesus reduced the entire Old Testament to the two Great Commandments, he is telling us that no matter how you interpret the bible, make sure that it reinforces these. If the bottom line of any interpretation succeeds in this, we get the bible right. We will still be arguing about how best to love God and our neighbor, but we will at least be within hearing (and loving?) distance of one another.

    1. I somehow missed this when you first posted it. You are making good points. One of the problems I run into is that more biblically educated people mean something different by “literal” than do many in the pews, yet they use the word “literal.” For many people not acquainted with biblical scholarship, reading a vision “literally” means finding a physical referent for all symbols in the physical world.

      So we need to watch how we use the word “literal” to be sure those hearing understand what we mean. Telling people to read the Bible literally will result in one set of errors. Telling them not to take it literally results in its own set of errors, when they hear “seriously,” “factually,” etc. as the meaning of “literally.” That’s why I think it’s important to specify how we take a passage specifically, not just that it is not literal.

      And then there are passages that can be taken in more than one way …

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