Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Risk of Reading Literally

Biblical literalism usually emerges from a faithful impulse – a deeply meaningful faith in God, scripture and, in Christian tradition, Jesus. (Corollaries exist in Judaism and Islam, but I will confine myself to Christianity.) That faith is frequently buttressed by personal experiences with God and the scriptures that shape and reinforce their meaning. For many, to deny the truth of the scripture would be to deny God of the scriptures.
The assumptions about that “truth” often go unexamined. We must ask about the intent and genre of the text. Biblical literalism requires reading all of the Bible as being intended to relay a series of historical (and theological) facts. This ignores what we know about language, that there are many kinds of speech and writing, which we use in combination 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 its multiple contributors. And even among Christians, there is no single Bible: there are different books in different sequence in Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Anglican Bibles. Literal readings of nonliteral texts can also lead to fraudulent readings, dogmatic tenacity to ahistorical or unscientific claims, and the loss of credibility for those who insist on nonsensical interpretations.
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