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