Reading the Bible literally?
I’m not going to use this post to critique literal readings of the Bible. Instead, I want to paraphrase The Princess Bride, and point out: “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”.
A long time ago, a preacher I knew told me about another preacher who offended his congregation. What did the congregation do? According to my friend: “They literally crucified him!”
Except that they only got angry. No crosses or nails were used to express their anger. So, um, “literal” is probably the exact wrong word to use there.
I have the same reaction when I hear people talking about whether they take the Bible literally or not. A common conversation might go like this:
<blockquote>Vaguely Christian Person: “The Bible teaches that God hates gay people.”
Vaguely unChristian Person: “Wait, you don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”
Vaguely Christian Person: “Yep, every word.”
The funny thing to me is that “taking the Bible literally” is the very last thing either of them should be concerned about in this conversation. No one that I know has ever suggested the passages on homosexuality are “figurative”.
Bigger issues are “Does the Bible teach that homosexual activities are sinful?”, “Does it teach that God hates sinners?”, “Do the passages on homosexuality need to be interpreted in light of cultural circumstances?”, “Is every word of the Bible from God?”, and even, “Do we take the Bible’s moral pronouncements seriously?”
These are big issues, and not one of them is addressed by asking whether one takes the Bible “literally” or not.
Since the Bible is rife with NON-literal metaphors like “the Lamb of God”, etc, it should be obvious that “taking the Bible literally” is exactly the wrong thing to be talking about.
Unfortunately, the horrid usage of the word “literally” has caused it to be confused with “seriously” or “truthfully” or “factually”. And that has led a lot of people to have knee-jerk reactions against talking about “figurative” or “metaphorical” interpretations of scripture.
Once, I was having a conversation with someone about being “cleansed by Jesus’ blood”. I mentioned that this was figurative, and she practically (but not literally) went ballistic. She kept insisting that we literally come into contact with Jesus’ blood at baptism, and that his blood literally cleanses us.
Consider: blood has no ability to clean anything. Christianity is not about being literally clean - it’s about having sin removed. Sin is not literally dirty. Jesus’ blood isn’t literally around anymore, and is certainly not floating in baptismal waters.
So everything about this is a metaphor. People become figuratively dirty through sin, and need a figurative cleansing. Jesus’ figurative blood figuratively washes people, removing the figurative dirt.
Realizing these facts doesn’t in any way diminish what Jesus has done. In fact, to try to take these concepts literally just makes them creepy and weird.
Almost everything in the Bible is infused with figurative language. From Revelation, which is entirely figurative, to the parables, which mean “figurative”, to the expressions like “Lamb of God” and “Bright and morning star”, to Jesus’ own insistence on using metaphors like “eat my body”, regardless of how offensive people found them.
So, please stop talking as if any of our doctrinal or moral controversies are tied up with taking something “literally”. Of all words, let’s at least let the word “literal” be used that way.