On Taking the Bible Literally

According to a 2011 Gallup survey, 3 in 10 Americans “interpret the Bible literally, saying it is the actual word of God,” while 49% say “the Bible is the inspired word of God but [shouldn’t] be taken literally.”

That’s commonly how the survey is quoted. But if you go to the survey results themselves, a specific and important statement begins the piece: A plurality view Bible as inspired word of God but say not everything in it should be taken literally.”

Yet in the Gallup poll, 3 options are given for what the Bible is:
Actual word of God
inspired word of God,
or fables.

I can’t help but wonder how the questions were presented. I mean, the Bible isn’t a book. It’s more of a concise and fixed library. It has 66 books. And those 66 books include various genres and multi-genres, using countless literary devices. Included in those literary devices in those books are metaphors, similes, hyperbole, and other forms of figurative language.

So I have a problem with drawing a false dichotomy between believing the Bible is the inspired word of God and not taking portions of it literally.

I don’t really get that question, though I think I do. Only, when someone is asking, it’s hard to tell what they’re asking. I sometimes hear the phrase “literalist,” which I think is broad, confusing, contradicting and often used as an epithet.

133ff1356d351ec1cab7fa08951a937bf0959680d998d875fa024fea985ba494As a teenager I believed not only that it was certain and indisputable that the earth was less than 10,000 years old and that Genesis 1-2 was an exactly literal account, but that if you interpreted it otherwise, your soul was going to Hell. But at the same time, I didn’t believe, as many Christians today do, that the book of Revelation told the precise story of a list of chronological events that would happen in the future, including an invasion of flying scorpions that would sting everyone on earth, etc. At the time, my interpretation of Genesis 1-2 (and the genealogies after it) would commonly be called “literalist.” However, the interpretation of Revelation I rejected would also be called “literalist.”

So was I a literalist?

Now that I am older, I have realized that there is really no such thing as a pure literalist, because nobody I’ve ever met or heard of has ever held a strict literalist view of the entire Bible, every passage.

There are only kinds of literalisms, or ways of approaching literal interpretations, or “parts” of the Bible that are seen literally. It’s not black-and-white. And therefore, it’s not easy. But neither is studying the Bible. You can’t do it your whole life alone, for example. It’s meant to be read in a community. But even in a community it can be read wrong. Even with experts it can be read wrong. But dividing people into categories of “takes it literally” and “doesn’t take it literally” doesn’t do anybody much good.

Take, for example, The Sermon on the Mount. Are we literally supposed to remove our eye if it offends us? Give to anyone who asks something from us?  Taken literally, the answer to both questions would be yes. Ask many people, and they would say so. But who is living by that? Who?

If you read the psalms, Samuel, and Job, taking all their poetic language literally, you’d find that in ancient times God’s people believed the earth was flat, had pillars under it, and could not be moved. If you read them figuratively, or apply the fact that it was composed of and for an ancient people with a different understanding of the world than we have, you have a more nuanced interpretation: the earth was flat to people of antiquity, the “pillars” are representative of whatever holds the crust up, and the “shall not be moved” part could refer to the immovability of the landscape at large as men come and go. In other words, you read parts of the Bible as poetry, because you see patterns of poetic language.

Or look at the opening chapters of Genesis. Some say that since the book in general treats itself as literal history, the beginning chapters are literal history, no matter what. Others point out that while the majority of the book behaves as literal history, the first two chapters are composed in a different genre style, and even have two overlapping accounts, so something more figurative must be happening. Variations of these opposing views exist, as well.

There are at least 4 major interpretations of the book of Revelation, much of the differences concerning what part of the narrative unfolding is literal versus figurative. Those who claim that it is dealing in figurative language look for patterns of apocalyptic language, which is an academic discipline.

The Bible calls Jesus a lamb, a sheep, and a vine. Find me one person who believes that Jesus literally is a four-legged, wool-bearing beast; a wooden slat that swings on a hinge; or a green shoot from a plant that bears grapes. If you don’t believe that, you’re not taking the Bible literally when it says that. You understand how metaphor operates.

When someone becomes an opponent of belief, it is easy, I think, for them to accuse believers of viewing every verse of the Bible literally, when that is probably never true. By building this illusion of a believer who doesn’t know figurative language, a non-believer can secure their unbelief. But let’s be honest.

Let’s also be honest about ourselves when we, believing the Word, champion that we take the whole thing literally. We know better. To take a portion of it metaphorically does not lake it any less true. That depends on which passage we take non-literally, and our motives behind that assumption.

All literalism is selective literalism.

Our determination on how literal passages of the Bible are should be based on context, genre, and how that passage fits with the rest of scripture. We can have false motives, like hoping that a behavior we engage in is just fine, or hoping that a teaching we’ve always believed was right is actually right.

The first question isn’t whether we take “the Bible” literally, but whether we take it seriously. Sometimes, that’s really what we’re asking.

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