You Do Not Read the Bible Literally

While this could easily be a rant against the improper use of “literally” in pop culture, The Oatmeal has already done a wonderful job of that. So instead, and knowing full well that this discussion is bigger than I can address here because of the attention span of anyone who reads things on the internet, I will address the train wreck that is the Evangelical use of “literal.”

As evangelicals, we have three phrases that serve as trump cards in every conversation. For instance, if you go to a friend for advice on a life-changing decision and you don’t like their advice, you can just say, “well God is leading me in this direction.” Show stopper.

But as it relates to more serious beliefs the major trump card is “liberal.” If you want to dismiss someone without actually engaging with what they are trying to say, simply call them a “liberal,” which is the evangelical equivalent of the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s. It’s shorthand for “the ‘world’ is a zombie and you have been eaten.”

But related to this trump card is the more specific, “You don’t take the Bible literally!? (audible gasp)” trump card.

But, in the words of famed linguist Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The fact is, everyone I know reads most of the Bible literally. And no one takes all the Bible literally. So when you say that you “read the Bible literally” you are saying nothing important at best, nonsense at worst. So if we are going to get somewhere in our discussions about the Bible we have overcome our tendency to throw out trump cards and catchphrases and start speaking accurately about what we mean.

First, everyone I know reads most of the Bible literally. The opposite of literal is figurative. If we don’t take the Bible literally, the other option is that we take it figuratively. But I don’t know of anyone who thinks the whole Bible is a giant metaphor (what would it be a metaphor for?) or that it’s hyperbole (an exaggeration) or that it’s one giant instance of sarcasm. So, I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t take most of the Bible literally. Atheists, Buddhists, and Christians all read most of the Bible literally. I am not even sure what it would look like to take it figuratively.

Second, while everyone I know takes most of the Bible literally, no one I know reads all of the Bible literally. Why? Because not all the parts of the Bible are the same. For instance, when the Psalmist says “God is my rock,” we do not “take it literally.” That is, we don’t think that the God we worship is a literal rock. That would be weird. Instead, we (rightly) read it figuratively. The same goes for Jesus’ parables. No one thinks that the Jesus was referring to an actual son who ran away from an actual father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. No historian is spending time trying to find the money that the wicked servant buried in the ground. We (rightly) read those as parables or allegory. What’s more, if it is allegory or parable, then we would actually be wrong to read it literally. On the other hand, when we read, “Then David became king of Israel,” we read that literally. We do not think that’s a metaphor for something. We think that the story is trying to say that a man, named David, became a king over a nation called Israel. That doesn’t mean we all agree that this actually happened – but that’s not what “literally” means.

So, what’s the point? Learn to say what you mean.

Most often when someone says they “read the Bible literally,” what they actually mean is one of two things:

  • I read this particular section of Scripture as a historical account and believe the author intended me to read it as historical.” So, when you want to “defend the Bible” and dismiss someone who does not read Genesis 1–3 in the same way your tradition taught you, don’t say, “I read it literally,” say, “I read it as an historical account of what actually happened when God created the universe.”
  • I read this particular section of Scripture in the way it seems obvious that the author wanted me to read it.” The implication underlying “I read the Bible literally” usually is “The Bible is pretty clear about what it’s saying so if you make it complicated it’s because you don’t want to believe what the Bible plainly says.” It’s very clear when the Bible is talking about history and when it is talking in metaphor. If it is not clear to you, you are resisting what the Bible is saying, either because you don’t think God can do supernatural things or because of some moral failing in your life that you are trying to justify. Now, I think this implication is completely naive to how complex reading literature can be. But if that’s what you think, then just say that. Because when you say “I read the Bible literally” you are not saying that, you are saying something completely different.

The sooner we can leave off with labels and catchphrases, the sooner we can begin engaging in useful dialogue about what the Bible is, what we can expect from it, and then how we should be reading it.

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.'”
-Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

19 responses to “You Do Not Read the Bible Literally

  1. Great blog, Jared!!! Anyone who quotes the great Montoya has my vote (I proposed to my wife the night we saw that movie). We think do alike Jared… tell me why we aren’t friends in the ‘literal’ sense if the word!!!!! :-). Blessings.

  2. Phyllis Tickle made a great point on this when she was here a couple weeks ago. She phrased it in terms of the ‘actuality’ of scripture vs. the ‘factuality’ of scripture.

    In short, it’s not important that everything happened exactly the way it was written down in the order(s) it happened, but that the overall story is so beautiful that there’s no way it didn’t happen.

  3. As a long time teacher of English, Alice is correct, but so is Jared. Let’s hear it for semantics and context, especially context.

    When will you tackle Bible verses as formulae? That is a big issue in some Evangelical circles. I am tired of being made fun of because other people do not understand that the Bible is not a book of “spells,” as in, “…if you pray this way…” When will people realize that God cannot be manipulated?

    Please understand, I am not saying it is not powerful to quote scripture in our prayers, but we should never believe God must act in a certain way because we quoted scripture. Also, quoting scripture is often used as a “show stopper,” as you put it, to either end or avoid an uncomfortable discussion about what we believe.

    I look forward to your discussion about this some day and about people using the scriptures out of context.

    • Wendy, you are so wise! I think your Jewish background probably helps you a lot in this regard. The prophets are full of warnings about trying to manipulate God with incantations and other formulae. I think we are a long way off from evangelicals reading their Bible in context. It would require killing a lot of sacred cows and it just takes a lot of work to see the Bible as a whole rather than a book of aphorisms.

  4. I completely agree……… Liberal means: “the ‘world’ is a zombie and you have been eaten.” But, besides that, I have never heard someone say, “I READ the Bible literally. ” That actual phrase. I have heard, “I take the Bible literally. “and they simply mean they believe the Bible is God’s word. I have never met anyone who believed God was a giant bird with wings (Psalm 91), but yes, I know people who believe Genesis is a literal 6 day creation, and I know some that find that embarrassing in light of Science. I also like what Mark Twain said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts I do understand that bother me.”

    • You’re right, I forgot to add that “literal” also equals “God’s word” for most evangelicals. But again, that’s an improper use of the term. “Literal” has nothing to do with God. I can believe the Bible is God’s Word and not take it literally or I can take it literally and not believe it’s God’s Word. So again, claiming the Bible should be “taken” literally (I still have no idea what that would look like) is not helpful.

  5. Hey Jared,

    This is really great! As someone that advocates for a mostly figurative reading of Genesis 1-3, I’ve been branded with all of the associated names and slurs.
    I usually just say that I DO read the Bible literally. Poetry is read as the author literally meant it – poetry. History is read as it was literally read – history.

  6. I don’t know if you intended it but this post is thoroughly comically (literally??) entertaining, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Maybe it is the levity that you bring to this always throat-grabbing topic that is needed in the hearts of those who ‘figuratively’ use ‘literally’.

    Thanks for the lunch break entertainment.

  7. just want to say that i *literally* appreciate your efforts to retain your evangelical, Bible-lovin’ roots. thanks, jared.

    p.s. the homebrewed podcast with daniel kirk and philip clayton offers a little bit of interesting food for thought on this topic. clayton mentions that we should be more aware of the different “theologians” who wrote the Bible and take seriously that the theologian-as-poet is different than the theologian-as-prophet, et. al. Even though we read the Bible “literally,” we can’t read it all the same way (i.e. GENRE matters).

    • I like what they say but I think they are still confusing by calling that a “literal” reading and distinguishing that from a “literalistic” reading, if only because they are inventing new meanings for those words. “Literal” doesn’t mean “read it according to genre identifications in a proper way.” We simply call that “how to read properly.” What they should say is “You should read the Bible according to genre, just like we do with any other piece of literature.” And when you do that, you will find out which parts should be read literally and which should be read figuratively.

  8. Very cool post Jared. I am surrounded by a majority in my church who hold to a literal 6 day creation young earth view. The use of morning and evening as day and night just is a dealbreaker for them to accept it any other way. I wonder if you would have some fun with satan in this context. Is satan a supernatural fallen angel, or might he somply be an adversary and depending on the context spoken of, could be a person or our own adversarial inner resistance to God??? Glad i found you via Rachels blog.

    • Your questions about Satan make you sound like a good rabbinic reader! Of course, we aren’t even told in Genesis that the serpent is Satan. He’s actually just a very crafty/wise (same word in Hebrew) animal who talks. The story doesn’t even say he’s ‘evil’ (why is an evil serpent in the perfect garden?).

      • Jared- excellent points about the serpent!! I have pondered a long time about the true identity of satan- actually translated ha’satan= the satan and of course meaning adversary. I commented on Rachels blog about what really happened in Jesus temptation in the wilderness. I see it as Jesus using a narrative story to show how in His humanness He experienced temptaion but obeyed the Father and turned to His Word to resist. I think satan is personified in the various mentions of him in the NT. Of course, translators could have easily put *adversary* instead of satan, but theological bias comes into play it would seem. Look forward to following you now Jared and feel free to email me if you would like to discuss this further.

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