When Literal is Lifeless

Jul 22, 2011

books by color

I recently came across news of another Gallop poll that attempts to sort and label people according to their beliefs about the Bible.  You know the polls I'm talking about.  Inevitably, they use catchwords like "literal" and "inspired" to tidy diverse opinions into neat categories.

I think I understand and sympathize with what is meant by statements like "I believe that the Bible should be read literally."  However, I always bristle at that word literal.  In my mind it makes Scripture sound too much like a set of instructions for assembling IKEA furniture.

Now, before I step on anyone's toes (oh dear, is it too late?), I should say that I do understand that theologians who use the word literal use it to mean something like the word straightforward.  In their view, to read literally is to read straightforwardly, without twisting the meaning of the text to suit our own purposes. 

They understand that the Bible is made up of diverse genres.  They know that poetry must be read as poetry.   History as history.

And yet, while I don't exactly disagree with this approach, I wonder if it doesn't compress the Word into a more human-sized package. 

History is history, yes, but what if history is also more than history?  What if it happened and is happening?  The story of a people long ago and the story of you today?

It may be the poetry lover in me, but I find that only metaphor gives me a sense of the Bible that seems more God-sized, less me-sized.  The Word is the Son of God, the Word is a lamp, the Word is a sword, the Word is food, the word is life.

This might not seem like very good news.  Too often, I would rather have an instruction manual (especially where work and motherhood are concerned) than a person.  I would rather go hungry if it meant that I could have every choice made for me.  Every question answered.  Every complex issue explained and categorized.

But we are so much more than IKEA furniture.  Instead of a lifeless history lesson, we’ve been given a history that lives.  Instead of diagrams, we’ve been given poetry.  Instead of to-do lists, we’ve been given wisdom. 

Hold the Bible tightly but your interpretation lightly.  I read that somewhere recently.  I can understand why it makes some believers nervous.  We’re meant to be building our houses on rock, not shifting sand, right?

Yes!  God’s word is solid and true, but, too often, our interpretations, those ideas we like to keep in neat little packages lined up on mental shelves . . . well, they are less so. 

The risk of holding too tightly to our own understanding is that we can no longer be unsettled by the word of God.  If we cannot see its somewhat wild, messy beauty, we risk assuming that we have God all figured out.  We may assume that our lives look just as they should.

In The Cloister Walk, the poet and Christian Kathleen Norris describes her lifelong determination to “focus on the fuzzy boundaries, where definitions give way to metaphor.”  It was a determination born in her one day in fourth grade math class.  Her teacher, exasperated that Kathleen had once again failed to give the right answer, said sarcastically, “You see, it’s simple, as simple as two plus two is always four.”

At that moment, Kathleen had an epiphany and, without thinking, spoke up: “That can’t be.”  She writes: “Suddenly, I was sure that two plus two could not possibly always be four.  And, of course, it isn’t.  In Boolean algebra, two plus two can be zero, in base three, two plus two is eleven.  I had stumbled onto set theory, a truth about numbers that I had no language for.  As this was the early 1950s, my teacher had no language for it either, and she and the class had a good laugh over my ridiculous remark.”

The Bible contains truth solid enough to stand on.  To build our lives on.  But it’s far from simple.  It’s alive.


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