Weary of Literalism

I am weary of being accused of manipulating the biblical witness or being a tool of the Devil.

"Love One Another" by Tim Graves
“Love One Another”, Photo by Tim Graves

The implication of literalism when applied to those of us who study the Bible using historical-critical and literary methods is that we are at best naive and at worst lack integrity.

I do not have the answer. I am not sure that there is one right answer. Just as self-identified literalists, I begin my biblical reading as a human being with my own assumptions and biases.

My weariness lies in what feels like accusations of having biases by those who pretend they do not. Yes, as a human being I read the Bible through my own experiences of God. We all do.

I assume, and assume is the correct word, that it is ancient literature inspired by God. It is a collection of various writings by ancient people seeking to understand, explain, or express their experience of the Divine. This assumption is based on prayerful and rational reasons.

Others, those who self-describe as literalists, assume the writings in the Bible constitute the “literal, inerrant word of God.” Just as I make a decision about what the canon is before I ever turn a page, the “literalists” do the same. Both decisions are extra-biblical, meaning we decide what the Bible is based upon our personal and cultural experiences.

Just as I have well-thought out, prayerfully considered reasons for my approach, literalists have reasons for their approach. While I do not agree with their approach, I do not question their faithful desire to be true to God’s intentions. We are both seeking to be faithful to the One we describe as God.

But here is where my weariness of literalism’s proponents comes in. I grow weary of the accusation of bias when my interpretation of the Bible is different from their interpretation. The accusation that I have bias comes with an implicit (and sometimes explicit claim) that they approach the text without bias.

This is simply not true nor is it possible.

The arrogance of “rightness” and having the one right approach feels like judgement to me. It closes off discussion despite our need for one another. It makes it harder for all of us to hear and act upon the Divine persuasions to love our neighbors as ourselves. (See Mark 12:28-31.)  It separates us from one another and severs the body of Christ.

If that is not a sin, I don’t know what is.


Related Post

Characterizing the Truth, August 26, 2011

Characterizing the Truth

I wrote a three paragraph bio yesterday. The bio was for the families of the children in Tumbleweed House where I will begin a substitute teaching job next month. Before beginning to write, I reviewed previous bios I have written. I looked at the bio I had written for the online system at my seminary, which emphasized God’s call and claim on my life. I looked at the bio from my early childhood teacher training and consultant business. It emphasized the kind of person I am, the depth of my experience, and my approach to training. I looked at biographical material I created for the Commission on Ministry prior to my ordination and I looked at a short bio I wrote for the AERO Conference program. They, too, had their own emphases.

Each one of these narratives described an aspect of who I am. Each one of them also said something about the audience for whom they were intended and about the issues that concerned them. The families at the school are concerned about their child and my commitment to them. My seminary cohorts would be exploring the strange spiritual journeys which brought us all together and, so, my call to ministry was significant. The potential clients for my teacher training and consulting wanted to know why they should pay good money to listen to me.

Each one of them was significantly different and time-locked. That is, I wouldn’t write exactly the same thing today. Yet, each one of them was absolutely true. I simply emphasized the things important to my audience–and to me–at the time they were written.

The Christian canon is like this as well. Each segment of the scripture must be viewed in the context in which they were written. Knowing context, helps us to understand inconsistencies in the text. There is truth in the text but the different parts may literally contradict one another. This does not prevent truth from being discerned through the text. It does mean that we must consider to whom the texts were written, when they were written, who wrote them, and why they were written. In my bio for the new job, I wrote of the connections between my spirituality and the philosophy of the school. These are real and true but they are not how I described my spirituality to my seminary cohorts two years ago. This is because 1) I was writing to different people; 2) I am a different person than I was two years ago; 3) I have a different purpose in writing; and 4) Each of the audiences use a different vocabulary.

This is precisely why a literal, inerrant reading of the biblical text is a flawed approach. A literal, inerrant reading of the biblical text gives the written words a power and meaning for which they were never intended. A literalistic reading of the scriptures turns them into gods unto themselves. It is the Divine, the One I identify as God, who inspires those who wrote and read and heard the ancient texts. My bios were inspired by the events and feelings of my life and are my interpretation (meaning applied) of those experiences. The same is true of the scriptures: they are inspired by events, feelings, and experiences of the ancient peoples with the Divine. They are the meaning applied (interpretation, theology) by the authors to their experiences.

I am not suggesting that God did not, and does not, speak through the scriptures. God meets people where God finds them. Christians have imbued the canon with authority and meaning, so God meets us there. Some find the Divine in nature, God will meet people there, too. God also speaks through the lives of others. As we learn of the faith, theology, and experiences of our foremothers and forefathers through scripture we can use that to help us make meaning of our own experiences of the Divine.

The Christian canon is a tool for our spiritual growth. It is not God. It is inspired by, though not written by God. Sadly, when we take a literalistic approach we end up worshiping the text rather than the magnificent, loving One who is so much bigger than any one of us can possibly imagine.


Why Simply Quoting Bible Passages About Kings in Ancient Times is Not Useful

Why simply quoting Bible passages about kings in ancient times is not useful to the #DebtCeiling debate: Government was different in Bible times. This means we can’t take scripture about how to relate to government literally. We must prayerfully find God’s truth in it for our times. That is, we don’t throw scripture out. We read it expecting the Spirit to help us discern God’s word for our times. This is best done in community.