“We aren’t supposed to take the Bible literally,” I recently heard a church leader (who should know better) claim.
I find this to be a fascinating statement, if incredibly unnuanced and misleading.
On the one hand, in a great many cases it is obviously true. But in these cases it is so obviously true as to be an uninteresting observation. In Luke 10:30, Jesus begins, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers.” What follows is one of Jesus’s most famous parables, the Good Samaritan. I can certainly imagine a world where college students stay up late into the night arguing about what year this historical journey Jesus tells us about took place, and where scholars write book-length treatises attempting to uncover the identity of the historical Good Samaritan.
I can imagine such a world, but it does take some imagination. Because such a reading of the passage in question is patently ridiculous. I have come across a great many crazy things on the Internet (and, for that matter, in seminary classrooms), but I have yet to meet a single soul who thinks that Jesus’s Good Samaritan is intended to narrate an historical event.
There are plenty of other examples of passages in the Bible that are clearly and uncontroversially not to be taken literally. Virtually no one takes these bits of the Bible literally. And we virtually all agree this is the best way to take them seriously.
On the other hand are passages that are more controversial. Augustine didn’t think the creation story of Genesis 1 was talking about seven literal 24 hour days, and a less well known church father, Eusebius, thought people who take the imagery of Revelation literally are missing the point. I tend to agree with both of these assessments, but there are plenty of well meaning Christians of a certain bent that would beg to differ. In fact, American Evangelicalism has spawned a whole publishing industry around vehement disagreement with both of these allegorizing projects.
Perhaps this is all that is meant when Biblical literalism is decried. If so, I would suggest stating this view with much more nuance.
But I doubt this is what’s going on. My hunch is that the real quarry here is usually of more doctrinal or moral significance.
Take the Resurrection. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 suggests that we need to be realists here - if Christ is not raised our faith is in vain. But that hasn’t stopped practitioners of modern liberal theology from bringing their allegories to bear here. Christ wasn’t raised from the dead - that’s impossible - (so the argument goes) the disciples had some kind of feeling or experience of the divine that they couldn’t help but describe in terms of a resurrection. Such a psychologized resurrection of Jesus, one that left his body in the tomb but that had him somehow figuratively living on in his followers hearts, might be an interpretive option as a way to read the New Testament, but it is a decidedly un-Christian one.
To turn to moral issues, I have heard it suggested that Christians are hypocrites who don’t take their Bibles seriously because they eat bacon and oysters, mix types of cloth, and do other things condemned in the book of Leviticus. Christians don’t take these commands literally, so isn’t it arbitrary to take some others literally?
Of course this way of thinking naively misunderstands the kind of thing the Bible is (a topic for another day), and further ignores a surprisingly broad consensus on which Old Testament laws continued to be taken seriously among Jesus’ followers. Since the days of the church fathers we’ve understood there are three types of laws in the Old Testament: those concerning purity, those concerning the sacrificial system, and those concerning morality. Christians believe that Jesus made us pure through his sacrifice, and so laws concerning purity and sacrifice are no longer needed, but the moral law is still in place. Hold the New Testament in one hand and Leviticus in the other, then have a blast allegorizing the sacrificial and purity systems. But when it comes to loving your neighbor, you’d better take that one literally.
The most (in)famous early Christian allegorizer, Origen of Alexandria, still thought the literal sense of any Biblical text was crucial, and that you couldn’t come up with a good interpretation of Scripture at all if you didn’t first tend to the literal meaning of the passage. But I think sometimes the truth is that people who complain about literal interpreters of the Bible just don’t like what the Bible says and are trying to shift the conversation by hiding behind their literal Bible complaints. At least in the cases where there is such broad and ancient consensus about what the Bible says and what it means by it, in my view it would be better to simply say that one disagrees with the Bible at this point. Because one way to describe the mainstream of the Christian theological tradition is as a discussion, not about whether to take the Bible literally, but when and where to do so.
Because we do take the Bible literally. Like, literally all the time.
Which reminds me of another problem that might be mixed in with this one: the fact that our culture plays fast and loose with the word “literally” itself. A great many people, it seems, don’t even take “literally” literally. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us when we have problems taking other things literally too.
A Brief Attempt to Describe My Love for My Nine Month Old Daughter
My wife and I are writing in one of those baby memory books, chronicling the growth of our nine month old daughter in her first year and beyond. This is my response to the prompt, “Describe the love you feel for your baby.”
How strange to be asked to describe my love for you, Annie. For starters, how does a person describe love? The obvious thing to do would be to talk about how you make me feel, how my heart jumps out of my chest when you smile or laugh, how it sinks when you cry, melts when you say “dada”, how no matter what you’re going through I have a deep, unconditional affection for you.
But love is so much more than a mere feeling. Such an answer seems like a cop out, and that in spite of the question’s apparent attempt to bait me into such a response. Here are three other ways to think about love, all of which I take to be deeper and more substantial than some cheap and fickle feeling, and how they relate to my love for you.
First, love is a commitment, a promise. The most obvious example of love as a promise is a wedding - like the promises I made to God and to your mother the day I married her almost four years ago. In a way, that promise extends to you as the third member of this family that she and I formed that day. As your father, I’m deeply committed to doing my best to promote your flourishing and to help you to become the person God created you to be.
Second, love requires sacrifice. I’ve sacrificed some sleep, a lot of free time, and a number of other things. What I don’t quite know is what sacrifices will be required down the line. But what I do know is that I am in this with you and for you, for the long haul. Your mother and I will do what needs to be done to promote your well being. Of course that doesn’t mean you’ll get everything you want. It does mean I will do my best to make sure you always have what you need.
Finally, love is a virtue. Virtues aren’t the kinds of things you can gain completely in a day, a month, or a year. Virtues are excellences of character that take growing into. Annie, I have loved you since before I met you. And, by grace, I am growing into that father’s love for you. And, by the Father’s grace, my life loving you will teach me in more ways than I can imagine how to love others better: your mama, our neighbors, our enemies, our God. Thank you.
I love you.
The Wisdom of the World and the Idols of the Heart
Have you heard the one about the guy in the hurricane? It’s a preacher cliche, of sorts.
As the waters rose all around him he kept refusing the help of others - first from someone in a large truck as the water covered his street, then from a boat through a second story window as the water filled the first floor of his house, and finally from someone in a helicopter as he sat on the roof of his house, one tiny island in the archipelago of rooftops that used to be his neighborhood. Each time, in response to each offer, his reply was always one of deep faith: he didn’t need the truck, or the boat, or the helicopter to save him, because God would save him.
But the waters rose, and so, eventually, did he. And as he stood before the throne of God, he was more than a little annoyed at God for not coming to his rescue. “I trusted you!” he said, “I believed! Why didn’t you save me?”
God wasn’t having it. “What are you talking about?” responded the Almighty, “I sent a truck, and a boat, and a helicopter!”
It’s easy to laugh at this guy for being so obtuse. After all, followers of the God of Abraham have almost always been open to finding blessings from God in worldly sources. The book of Proverbs, the Old Testament’s compendium of wise sayings, sounds more like the kind of street smarts you could pick up from your grandma than the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a Sunday sermon. Several of these sayings even seem to be drawn from an Egyptian source, The Instruction of Amenemope (see Proverbs 22-23).
Early Christians weren’t afraid to borrow liberally from Greek philosophers. In Athens the apostle Paul quoted an ancient poet and even made use of a pagan shrine to explain the gospel to the Athenians. A few centuries later some Christians, impressed with the insight of the Greek philosopher Plato, thought that he must have had access to some divine revelation. There was even a story about him being tutored by the Biblical prophet Jeremiah. Unfortunately that’s impossible; the great Athenian and his supposed Jerusalemite prophet/tutor weren’t even alive at the same time. Fortunately that didn’t stop early Christians who happened to notice that lack of timeline overlap from learning a thing or two from Plato. If Plato discovered some true things, why shouldn’t Christians make use of them?
If this license to borrow from secular wisdom needed further justification, at least a few early Christians offered some by means of a clever Biblical analogy drawn from the story of the Exodus. As God’s people were finally freed from slavery in Egypt by Pharoah they left in a hurry and took advantage of the kindness of their Egyptian neighbors:
“The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.” (Exodus 12:35-36, NIV)
Just as ancient Israel wasn’t shy about making use of the Egyptian’s physical treasures, so the early Christians reasoned they were free to make use of their world’s intellectual treasures. As the cliche goes, all truth is God’s truth. If Socrates or Epictetus stumbled upon some illuminating insight, why not use it?
Well, there is one glaring risk. The danger of plundering the Egyptians is always the temptation to do exactly what the Israelites eventually did with a lot of that treasure - melt it down and make a golden calf out of it.
This is not a good thing. The many examples of Christians borrowing from worldly wisdom only to turn that wisdom into a replacement for God are instructive here. And I think the many examples we could point to here are why some Christians are opposed to appropriating the wisdom of the world.
But just because Origen went a bit overboard in his conversations with gnostics, seeming to posit things like the preexistence of souls, doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from those who aren’t perfectly card carrying orthodox Christians. Just because Thomas Aquinas and his followers got a little too into their metaphysical systems, doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to learn from Aristotle or other non-Christian philosophers. And the excesses of some Christians bending the faith a bit too far to include modern science doesn’t mean we should ignore science and all that the disciplines that go by that name are learning about the world we inhabit.
And that brings me to what got me thinking about all of this to begin with. I find it fascinating that some Christians are so skeptical of science amid our current global pandemic. I appreciate the resistance to anxiety – I really do. And I certainly understand the quarantine fatigue – and that some of the public health recommendations are just plan uncomfortable. But, to take only one example, I don’t see any reasonable Christian rationale for a “we don’t believe in masks” view in churches. Scientific consensus changes – especially when it comes to a virus like the present one that we know so little about. But at the moment there is good evidence about things like mask wearing and social distancing and other recommendations, and it seems silly to reject them. Your Egyptian neighbor is trying to hand you a bowl of diamonds, why not take it? By no means should you worship that bowl or its contents, but it seems reasonable to treat it as a gift from God.
Of course I know safety can be an idol, and of course following scientific advice can too. The human heart is a factory of idols, as Calvin said (or should have). But faith is not at odds with prudence. So I wear a mask in public for the same reason I exercise, try to eat healthy, and don’t play Russian roulette - because I think it’s better for me.
And in the case of mask wearing, it is also an opportunity to love my neighbor. What’s more Christian than that?
Moreover (and with this I’ll give it a rest), ignoring the world’s wisdom in favor of your own can just as easily become an idol as anything else.
This week I’m thinking about Abraham’s calling in Genesis 12. There’s a lot going on here, but the basics are pretty simple. God shows up to Abram (this was before he received that extra “ah” in his name) and asked him to do something extreme: leave.
God told Abram to leave in three different ways:
- “Go from your country,
- your people,
- and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1b, NIV, numerification added)
In a manner of speaking, Abram is being asked to leave behind his political identity, his cultural identity, and his familial identity - all of which would have had economic implications for his ability to continue to eek out a living and survive while providing for Sarai his wife, his nephew Lot, and all the people he employs. At this point there doesn’t seem to be much clarity about where it is he is to go - he’s just supposed to leave. And in a world before the Internet, before telephones, and before even a functioning postal service, Abram leaving means Abram will likely not ever communicate with - much less see - any of these people he’s linked to in his country, his people, or his family ever again. This is no small ask God is making.
Of coarse God doesn’t leave him empty-handed. God tells him to get up and go to an as yet undisclosed location, but God also gives Abram a seven part promise to go with his three part departure:
- “I will make you into a great nation,
- and I will bless you;
- I will make your name great,
- and you will be a blessing.
- I will bless those who bless you,
- I will make your name great,
- and whoever curses you I will curse;
- and I will bless you;
- and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3, NIV, bulletification added)
Abram is told to leave everything behind, and God will make him into a great nation through which all other nations will be blessed. Not a bad deal.
But there’s one small detail that I’ve left out so far. This promise is impossible.
Because Abram and Sarai are unique in one, and really only one special way: they are the first couple in the history of humankind to have trouble having a kid. How is non-father Abram going to become a great nation? How will his name be made great, since his lack of children basically ensures that no one will remember his name?
On top of all that, in a cruel pang of irony, his name literally means “exalted father.” God promises to exalt him and his name, but such exaltation is not possible without fatherhood for Abram. And this is one thing he and Sarai are not able to pull off. And at seventy five years old, we might imagine his best fathering years are probably behind him.
But Abram goes. Hoping against hope, he leaves. Everything. In response to the promise of a God he might have known little about. He had no way of knowing it would pan out. He had no way of knowing that his descendants would eventually become a nation, much less a great one. He had no way of knowing he would even have descendants at all.
This is obviously foolish. This is obviously faith.
It seems we know a lot more than Abram. We know a lot more about science and history than Abram did. And we know more about God too. But do we trust as much? We cling to our identities, political, cultural, and familial. Christians know this God of Abram who came to us in the flesh - as one of Abram’s own descendants - to reveal this God to us. And yet we trust less.
This is obviously foolish. This is obviously not faith.
But we are also the sign that God’s promise to Abram came true. By faith in this same blessing, we are the people of the earth who are being blessed by the blessing of Abraham.
But I can’t shake the thought that all our blessings have been taken for granted. That we can be a blessing, but won’t. Maybe because of our failure to leave. Because of our failure to place ourselves in God’s hands, in God’s trust. Because of our enmeshment in other identities, other values: the political, the cultural, the economic.
This, too, is foolish.