Saturday, November 12, 2005

on biblical literalism

Smallholder over at Naked Villainy has written about Intelligent Design theory and his opinion of certain Christians who espouse it. In a recent post, he writes:

Please note carefully that I'm not bashing all Christians.

As a Christian myself, I'm trying to advance the spread of Christianity by denying the validity of errant thought. The Christian God is not a vengeful, intolerant, hate-filled, anti-science God.

He is a loving, forgiving God who gave us [our] brains for a reason.

Perhaps he intended us to learn about his creation instead of shivering in caves and breeding better cattle through the proper placement of carved sticks.

Query: Why is it that the most hateful Christians wrap themselves in the cloak of literal translation? And why does their literal, inerrant translation ignore the words of the Bible that aren't congruent with their hatred?

Query: Why aren't Christians condemning [Pat] Robertson's idiocy? Why do so many Christians tune in to CBN every day for their daily [dose] of narrowminded bigotry?

Over on his blog, Memento Moron, a self-avowed literalist Christian named Brian agrees with Smallholder that a certain stripe of Christian acts in un-Christian ways, though Brian points out-- rightly-- that not all Christians who believe in the Bible's literal inerrancy act in that manner.

But regarding his style of literalist Christianity, Brian writes:

When I say that I interpret the Bible literally, this is what I mean: I believe that the Bible is Divinely Inspired, that it is inerrant and self-consistent, and that what it says is so, is. However, I also believe in interpreting the Bible Literarily. [sic] By that I mean that the Bible, while true, is also a piece of literature, and as such must be read as one.

Divinely Inspired means God-Breathed, not God-Dictated. God inspired the writers to write certain truths, but he allowed them to write them in their own style, while at the same time ensuring that the writer's style did not interfere with the accuracy of what they wrote. It was a partnership between the Holy Spirit and the writer that I'm sure only they understand.

But this means that the writers of the bible wrote in certain styles, used literary devices, and themes, turned certain phrases in certain ways to convey not only facts, but ideas and emotions, to evoke specific moods. The Bible is a story, or a series of intertwined stories. As C.S. Lewis once said, it's the Myth that happens to be True.

So when we interpret the Bible, in order to do so literally, all that is required is that we accept that what it says is the truth. To then go on and interpret it literarily, we must pay attention not only to WHAT truth it presents, but HOW it presents it. This means taking into account things like style, device, context, etc.

Brian's notion of literalism is unconventional. If we go by the conventional* notion, the one I heard repeatedly in theology and religious studies classes, then Brian is no literalist-- or, at least, he's far from being one in the full and proper sense.**

Literalism as Smallholder and I understand it entails certain ontological commitments-- one of the most basic being that all the events described in the Bible happened exactly as they were recorded. In other words, if we had a time machine and a video camera, we'd be able to go back and witness things like the sun stopping for three days, people walking on water, manna falling from heaven, and so forth.

There are, of course, degrees of literalism. Most Christians take it as a basic article of faith that the man Jesus did, in fact, rise from the grave-- i.e., that the resurrection was a historical event, not simply a "new reality" that had sprung up in the minds of Jesus' disciples. Christians may differ, however, about the historicity of other events described in the Bible. A Christian might believe, for example, that Jesus rose from the grave while simultaneously dismissing the two creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 as myth***. This inconsistency is strange but common. I suspect that many Christians simply choose not to think about it.

But biblical hermeneutics presents a special problem: the Bible does include a great deal of historical fact. This is where matters get dicey. How to parse fact from myth? The Bible mentions names, places, and events whose historicity can be independently verified or disproved, but those story elements are interwoven with other elements not so easily verifiable.

For example, God himself is an active player in much of the Old Testament: talking, planning, emoting, physically acting on behalf of his chosen people. Do we take his presence, his words and actions, literally or figuratively? The problem of factuality leads immediately to the matter of the brute truth or falsity of a historical claim, and let's not forget the meta-question of whether a given claim is meant to be read as a historical one-- an eternally vexing question for biblical exegetes.

One of the most interesting scholarly questions is: were the writers of the Bible aware they were writing in a literary manner? There is a strong argument to be made that they were aware of this, at least to some extent. An expression like "forty days and forty nights" is, scholars agree, a literary convention, and would have been understood as such by ancient listeners and readers. But when we reach the part of the story where God says something or does something... do we know for sure how the writer understood the passage he wrote? Even more important for us: does it matter? We have no camera. We have no time machine. Why strain our brains trying to be transtemporally telepathic?

All the above is just to say that the scriptures, which combine myth with history, don't make the interpretive task easy. Full-blown literalists-- the kind Smallholder and I are thinking of-- make the disingenuous move of claiming that no interpretation is necessary, or that only one interpretation is possible: that the scriptures, being literally true, are equivalent to a journalistic account of events. This is a genre mistake. I've written on that before.

And what, in the end, is Brian's argument with Smallholder? If both Smallholder and Brian are nonliteralists (by the conventional definition of "literalism"), and both are disgusted by the un-Christian behavior of their more literalistic coreligionists, what's to disagree about? Brian is right to urge caution in critiquing Christians; overly broad generalizations can target the innocent. But Brian's nuanced redefinition of literalism may have been an unnecessary detour from more substantive issues.

*The common definition is here:

Main Entry: lit·er·al·ism
Pronunciation: 'li-t(&-)r&-"liz-&m
Function: noun
1 : adherence to the explicit substance of an idea or expression
2 : fidelity to observable fact : REALISM
- lit·er·al·ist /-list/ noun
- lit·er·al·is·tic /"li-t(&-)r&-'lis-tik/ adjective

What the above definition makes clear is that a literalist goes no further than the surface meaning (i.e., "explicit substance") of the text. Surface equates to substance. A literalist reads the sentence "He exploded with anger," not as a metaphor, but as literally true: the dude got pissed off and actually blew up on the street, showering meat everywhere. The sentence "Jesus rose from the dead" would be treated the same way-- as a factual, historical claim, not as "myth" in the Campbellian or Bultmannian sense: a symbolic narrative containing existential meaning.

**I'm not saying that Brian should bow to mainstream pressure. He's free to define his terms any way he likes. It is, however, a simple fact that the Webster's definition of "literalism" is the received meaning. In my opinion, it serves no constructive purpose to redefine the term. But while the Webster's definition is the common one, I won't insist on calling it the only one. Definitions do change, after all. As long as we agree on terms, it doesn't really matter what terms we use.

We could, for example, refer to the people Smallholder is targeting simply as Assholes, and define "Asshole," for rhetorical purposes, as "someone whose scriptural literalism leads to hurtful and/or harmful thought, speech, and behavior." Having agreed on that definition, we can proceed on the assumption that neither Brian nor Smallholder is an Asshole, whereas the avid readers of are, very likely, all Assholes.

I am, however, confused about what Brian is doing in his post. He seems to be saying, at least initially, "I'm a literalist, and Smallholder's making us all look bad." But when he reveals his own definition of biblical literalism, it becomes obvious that he's not the kind of person Smallholder is targeting.

Imagine a Republican who fancies himself a Democrat. He votes Republican, talks about Republican issues, and is in every practical sense a Republican, but for some odd reason he likes to call himself (and envision himself as) a Democrat. One day, someone casts aspersions on Democrats and this de facto Republican feels himself to have been personally insulted. But why? Does he have grounds to feel insulted? Not really: he is, in every sense, a Republican, but his off-kilter self-conception makes him think he's been targeted. Of course, he's free to label himself as he pleases-- no one can stop him from doing that. But his labeling is going to cause unnecessary confusion, because everyone else has adopted a different conceptual schema. This, I think, is the essence of Brian's confusion about Smallholder's position. Brian was never a target of Smallholder.

***Order of creation, Genesis, Chapter 1: Cosmos, earth, plants, astral bodies (????), lower life forms, then people. Chapter 2: Cosmos/ground, mist, male human, plants, then animals, then female human. Contradictory order, if the creation stories are taken literally. Kinda hard to explain the contradiction without some fancy mental tapdancing. I've read attempts at reconciling the inconsistency; they're quite clever, but also somewhat desperate, often relying on linguistic trickery re: how to read Hebrew verb tenses.


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