Why I Don’t Read The Bible Literally (But I Do Take It Seriously)

June 16, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Bible in PewIt never ceases to amaze me how misunderstood the orthodox Christian belief concerning Holy Scripture is.  Even The New York Times can’t seem to figure it out.  Take Charles Blow, an op-ed columnist for the Times, who stands stunned at the views of many Americans on the Bible.  With a mixture of disbelief and disdain, he reports:

One Gallup report issued last week found that 42 percent of Americans believe “God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.”

Even among people who said that they were “very familiar” with the theory of evolution, a third still believed that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.

It’s not clear what the respondents meant by being “very familiar” – did they fully understand the science upon which evolution’s based, or was their understanding something short of that, as in, very familiar with it as being antithetical to creationist concepts?

Whatever the case, on this issue as well as many others in America, the truth is not the light.[1]

Blow goes on to cite people’s opinions on the Bible itself according to this same Gallup pole:

Nearly a third of Americans continue to believe that the Bible “is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”

Furthermore, nearly half believe that it is “the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally.”

About a fifth of Americans said they believe the Bible is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.”

The questions Gallup asks concerning the nature and character of the Bible frustrate me.  Gallup wants to know, “Do you believe the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word?”  Personally, I would have to answer “yes” and “no.”  Do I believe the Bible is “the actual word of God”?  Yes.  Do I believe it is to be “taken literally, word for word”?  No.  But this is not because I want to discredit the Bible’s veracity, authority, or inerrancy.  Rather, this is because I follow the Bible’s lead when it interprets itself non-literally in some places.  The Bible is full of metaphors, symbols, and other figures of speech as even an elementary reading of it will uncover. One need look no farther than “The LORD is my shepherd” (Psalm 23) to find a metaphor – and a beautiful metaphor, I would add – of Scripture.  Thus, I would find myself more at ease with Gallup’s second position:  “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally.”

Blow, however, summarily dismisses this second position:

I am curious which parts would get a pass from most of these respondents and which wouldn’t. Would the origins of the world fall into the literal camp? What about the rules – all or some – in books like Deuteronomy?

Perhaps Blow has not yet discovered the difference between reading something literally and reading something contextually.  Just because I don’t practice, for instance, the sacrifices outlined in Deuteronomy doesn’t mean I don’t understand them literally.  It just means that I read them in light of Hebrews 10:10:  “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”  Christ’s sacrifice for sin put an end to all those Old Testament sacrifices for sin.  For me to try to follow those laws would be like me taking a ticket for an Elvis concert, going to the venue listed thereon, and expecting a concert usher to let me in!  Though I may read the ticket “literally,” that ticket’s time is past.  So it is with the Old Testament sacrificial system.  Its time too is past because it has been fulfilled by Christ.  But that isn’t me reading the Bible non-literally.  That’s just me reading the Bible contextually.

I suspect part of the reason Blow disparages option two when it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible is because, for him, only option three, which says the Bible is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man,” is viable.  He writes:

I don’t seek to deny anyone the right to believe as he or she chooses. I have at points in my own life been quite religious, and my own children have complicated views about religion. As my oldest son once told me, “I’d hate to live in a world where a God couldn’t exist.”

That is his choice, as it is every individual’s choice, and I respect it.

What worries me is that some Americans seem to live in a world where facts can’t exist.

Facts such as the idea that the world is ancient, and that all living things evolved and some – like dinosaurs – became extinct. Facts like the proven warming of the world. Facts like the very real possibility that such warming could cause a catastrophic sea-level rise.

Ah yes, facts.  Facts like the Bohr model of the atom or the rallying cry of biogenetics: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”  Oh, wait.  Those “facts” turned out to be not quite as factual as we once thought.  Contrary to Blow, I’m not so sure that a great uprising of people who want facts to not exist is the problem.  The problem is there are people who disagree with him on what the fullness of the facts are and how the data that form the facts should be interpreted.  Now, I’m not saying these other people are correct on the facts.  I’m just saying these other people with other thoughts on what the facts are that contradict Blow’s thoughts on what the facts are not necessarily rejecting facts themselves.

Blow says he is “both shocked and fascinated by Americans’ religious literalism.”  I don’t think he even understands what “religious literalism” is.  Nor do I think he understands that many serious people of faith understand and trust the Bible theologically, morally, and historically without always reading it literally.  No wonder he’s so shocked and fascinated.  He simply doesn’t understand.  Then again, I’m not so sure he wants to.

__________________________

[1] Charles Blow, “Religious Constriction,” The New York Times (6.8.2014).

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. rickconti  |  June 17, 2014 at 7:02 am

    Well put, and echoing my thoughts precisely. Anyone who takes the Bible “literally” would have to believe God is a bird, since the Psalmist says, “He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings.” Some of scripture is poetry and meant to be understood as metaphor or parable. Sadly, which parts those are gives rise to all manner of confusion and conflict.

    As for science, I read an interesting quote this week from Neil deGrasse Tyson (which the quoter described as “brilliant”): “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Or until it changes, as you so sagely put out. Otherwise, we’d still be putting leeches on anyone who looks remotely sick.

    Fundamentalism comes in all shapes and sizes.

    Reply

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