Only Crazies Take The Bible Literally

“Do you take everything in the Bible literally?” I was asked.

“No” I said. And I think you’re probably a bit of an idiot if you do.

The truth is, no one takes everything in the Bible literally. Well, I’m pretty sure they don’t. Even the person with the loosest possible grasp of different genres of writing and the way in which people use language must be able to see that everything in the Bible isn’t to be taken literally (he says knowing, sadly, he’s undoubtedly wrong).

For example, I recently had one of my teenagers come up to me and ask a question about the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation. Her philosophy teacher had challenged her on it and she didn’t really know how to respond, although she did say she didn’t think that only 144,000 would be saved. Her teacher responded by saying that if you take the bible literally, you have to believe that.

Erm…expelliarmus!

It’s worrying isn’t it. Not that only 144,000 might be saved but that there are people teaching at A Level who seem to think that that kind of flawed thinking is some kind of knock down argument to be used against Christians. What’s happened here is that we’ve found someone who, like many others, seems to have little to no grasp of the fact that the Bible features lots of different genres of writing (isn’t it great people like that get to teach others). Revelation is apocalyptic, not really a genre we have today, but clearly not something to be read literally, but something filled with picture language pointing us to real life truth. On his reading, presumably he also thinks we’re all on the lookout for a seven headed, ten horned beast rising out of the sea too!

It’s frustrating because that kind of thinking is so clearly idiotic. I wonder if he’d also like to ridicule Christianity on the basis of the woman described in the Song of Songs. Here she is:

She’s a regulation hottie alright!

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the writer’s description of the woman is clearly not literal. He’s using metaphor and simile to describe her beauty. Admittedly, his language is a bit culturally removed from our own. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I felt led to tell my wife that her nose reminded me of the tower of Lebanon and her belly was like a heap of wheat (probably the last time I was looking for a perplexed look/a slap). It’s poetic language, to be read as poetry. Is the woman very beautiful? Yes. Does her hair literally look like a flock of goats? I’m not going to insult you with an answer to that one.

The thing is, the majority of people have no problem understanding this sort of thing in real life. On the whole, when people use a turn phrase, other people understand what it means without any confusion. For example, I’ve never once said to someone, “I’m completely shattered” and had them stare around in confusion because I’m not literally lying in a thousand fragmented pieces across the ground. It’s understood that I’m saying I’m tired.

I remember a few years ago when I worked for a very high church, I got into a slight disagreement with the vicar over transubstantiation. I don’t believe the the bread and wine is literally the body and blood of Christ, but merely a symbol or representation them in order to remember Jesus’ sacrifice. However, the vicar was scandalised and got me to look up Jesus’ own words.

“What does he say? This is my body. Is, is!

At the time, I didn’t have much to say in response apart from that I thought Jesus was clearly speaking in a symbolic sense. Today I’d probably say I think that’s OK as long as people are consistent in the way they interpret the rest of Jesus’ words. So if you’re going to say that the bread and wine is literally Jesus’ body and blood because he uses the word “is”, I hope that when Jesus says “I am the gate” you think Jesus was literally made of wood and swung on hinges.

Please close me behind you.

“That’s ridiculous,” you say.

Ah, but what does Jesus say? “I am the gate. Am, am!”

Of course, I sincerely doubt he believed that because it’s obvious that’s not how Jesus intends us to take those words. Personally, I think the same can be said for transubstantiation but that’s a whole other argument (although I will just add that Jesus never actually says the wine is his blood, he says the cup, so if you’re going to take it literally, I hope you don’t think he was talking about the wine, because that’s literally not what Jesus said).

The Bible is crammed with different genres: law, poetry, history, parables, letters, wisdom, apocalyptic, prophecy etc and they all need to be read as those genres are intended to be read. Some are literal and some aren’t.

Do I take everything in the Bible literally? No, but I do take everything in the Bible seriously.

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