On Biblical Literalism
I was invited to participate in a forum on Creationism in the NY Times. You can find the whole conversation here. (Note that a subscription is required after 10 free articles a month.
Here is my contribution:
Biblical literalism usually emerges from a faithful impulse, deeply meaningful faith in God, Jesus and scripture in Christian tradition. (Corollaries exist in Judaism and Islam, but I will confine myself to Christianity.) That faith is frequently buttressed by experiences with God and the Scriptures that shape and reinforce their meaning. Denial of any of those elements is for many rejection of the God of the Scriptures.
What often goes unexamined are the assumptions that underlie biblical literalism about the intent and genre of the text: Specifically, biblical literalism requires reading all of the bible as having the intent to relay a series of historical (and theological) facts. This ignores what we know about language, that there are many kinds (genres) of speech and writing (rhetoric) which we use in infinite combinations without thought to make our points: irony, exaggeration, puns, sarcasm, riddles, proverbs, quotes in and out of context, etc. Insisting on biblical literalism flattens out the richness of the text and of its multiple contributors. In addition, there are many texts and books now bound as “the Bible,” yet no single Bible: there are differing number of books in different sequence in Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Anglican Bibles. For example, the King James Bible that has become standard in Evangelical and much of Protestant Christianity has had a number of books removed from its original Anglican formulation, with most of its adherents non-the-wiser, though Anglicans and Episcopalians still use them.
Literal readings of non-literal texts can also lead to fraudulent readings of the text, dogmatic tenacity to ahistorical or unscientific claims and the loss of credibility for those who insist on nonsensical interpretations.
I teach a 3-point interpretive paradigm shifting from “is the bible true” to “how is it true.” Determine: 1) what the text says; this requires knowledge of original languages since all translations are unreliable at points, 2) as much as possible what the text may have meant in its originating contexts; i.e. euphemistic expressions and evolving language, 3) and, what the texts says in our contexts, what values and themes transcend time and which do not. Determining the genre, rhetoric and interpretive possibilities of a text is hard work and many prefer simplistic formulae. But even literal readers accept that the earth does not have four corners though that was the literal meaning when the texts were composed and transmitted.