May 16, 2008
You Don’t Take the Bible Literally, Do You?
“You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”
You’ve probably been asked something like this. How do you respond?
If you say Yes, you’re likely to be lumped with fundamentalists of the deepest dye. If you say No, you probably are trying to evade being lumped with fundamentalists of the deepest dye. Or there is the option of saying that you don’t take the Bible “hyper-literally” or “with extreme literalism,” which is another way of distancing yourself from those on the “far right” (and speaking a sort of nonsense at the same time).
Unfortunately, the question itself assumes a lot about the Bible and a lot about the meaning of “literal.” You probably want to respond with nuance. You’ve probably seen very smart Christians fall into this trap of literal vs. nonliteral.
What about trying some variant of the following: “I’ll tell you whether or not I take the Bible literally if you tell me whether or not you take the newspaper literally.” All but the most hasty or least reflective are going to suspect something is up. If this doesn’t provoke a quick response of “Of course!,” it might produce some reflection. And if your interrogator does choose the quick response (with perhaps a proviso regarding the reliability of journalists), you can take the following tack:
Really? What about the comics? Do you take them literally?
The point is not that the newspaper contains more crazy stuff than you realized, and so does the Bible! No, the point is that you read each portion of this variegated text called “the newspaper” according to the unspoken rules for each section. You know how to read the comics, the personals (if you do!), the Op Ed, the ads and the news items, and you unconsciously shift gears from feature to feature. There are not two modes—literal or nonliteral. There are a number of modes of reading, and they all depend on the textual signals embedded in the “letters.” And yet all these things are going on within something we refer to as one thing, “the newspaper.”
So then, you can go on to point out that it is only because we mistake the textual signals of, say, Genesis 1-2 or Daniel 7 or Song of Songs or Revelation 20 that we misread these texts. The Bible is made up of many genres and subgenres, and even within books there are different types of texts. Like the newspaper, it is not all uniform. Not at all! Reading it properly means reading by rules that might not be readily apparent to us, since they are rules of millennia ago. But they are rules that a certain people in a certain place would have understood intuitively. We could even call this "literal" reading.
Maybe the newspaper illustration will open up that conversation. I hardly think it’s original, and there's much else that could be said about this complex issue. But the illustration might be useful.