F.A.Q.: Can We Take the Bible Literally?

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed if the Bible itself is trustworthy, what to do with the Old Testament in a New Testament Church, how to evaluate the translation process, and other matters of hermeneutics. Today I want to discuss one question I seem to be asked with increasing frequency: can we take the Bible literally.

It’s pretty easy to see how this particular question came to such prominence in people’s minds. The debates on evolution and the age of the earth have given rise to any number of books on either side and places such as the Creation Museum. The creator of the latter continues to showcase the literal reading of Genesis with a full-size replica of Noah’s ark, the case for a global flood writ large on the northern Kentucky landscape contra those who believe Noah’s flood was either local or non-existent. The questions arising from how to properly read Genesis are seemingly endless — and that’s just a single one of the Bible’s sixty-six books. True, fewer issues pop up about things like the atonement or David and Bathsheba, but there are many who would claim things such as the miracles, the Virgin birth, and even the resurrection are either allegory or fiction. (And don’t get me started on nine-tenths of Revelation.)

In true Me fashion, let me say that the answer to “Can we take the Bible literally?” is yes . . . and no. Before you rally the lynch mob or form a posse, let me further state approximately zero percent of its readers takes the Bible 100% literally. If we did, passages such as this from Song of Songs would be either incomprehensible or horrifying: “Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies. . . . Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim” (SoS 7:2,4b). Consider also this portion of the Song of Deborah: “At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay. At her feet, he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell — dead” (Judges 5:27). I think we can all agree Solomon’s lover was not a construct forged of drinking vessels, grain, flowers, and geographic features. Similarly, since his death in Judges 4 never mentions multiple resurrections or a staircase, it’s safe to say Sisera didn’t sink and fall repeatedly after Jael drove a tent peg through his head as he slept.

We can easily recognize both of those passages — and many, many others — as poetry, things said for effect and not to be taken literally. Solomon’s depiction of the Shulammite woman is a very imagetic metaphor; Deborah’s description of the death of Sisera utilizes parallelism to make her point. It’s obvious we take things like form and genre into consideration when reading our Bibles, even if only unconsciously. And the distinctions make a world of difference in our interpretations of those passages.

So when genre and rhetoric would indicate a passage is not to be taken literally (as in poetry and apocalypse), we read it with symbolism in mind, decode the sign systems, and gain meaning from the text. When they seem to say it’s a literal depiction of events (narrative and law, for example), we interpret things literally. It really is a both/and sort of thing.

The hard part is figuring out which is which.

It’s easier for things like most of the wisdom books or Revelation. The imagery alone is enough to tell us they can’t be taken totally literally. But what about Job? Jonah? Miracle accounts? Genesis? Those are harder for some people to figure out. There are arguments to be made on either side, and they get increasingly complex as you go. Taking Jonah as an example, some say it’s an extended parable or a morality tale because of things like the whole fish food incident. Others say it must be literal because it mirrors features of the other prophetic books and there are other biblical references to a prophet named Jonah son of Amittai.

And we all know the Genesis debates.

In the end, will there be a “more correct” way to interpret problem passages? Probably. But since God alone has all the answers, our job is to make a solid biblical and theological case for why we choose to interpret certain passages as literal and others as more symbolic. Once our evidence is in, we take our stand. But no matter how we view a few texts, we can always take comfort in one thing: Jesus literally died for our sins and literally was raised the third day. Rejoice that salvation has come!

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Love Story

I’ve talked too much politics recently, and for that I apologize. I suppose today, on St. Valentine’s Day, I’m obligated to talk about love (or wuv, twu wuv, if you prefer). With that said, I feel like most of us have a working, orthodox theology of love. We understand it from the biblical perspective — not as unconditional endorsement or an apathetic tolerance, but as a genuine care of the other which requires grace and discipline both. And so while I could go on about the various forms of love and whatnot, I’ve decided to go another route today.

I’ve been re-reading a bit of narrative theology lately, a school of thought which resonates with those of us with degrees in literature. Sometimes story can convey truth more readily than textbook-esque syllogisms; if you don’t believe me, ask your valentine tonight which he or she would rather hear, “I love you, and here’s what you’ve done to mean so much to me” or “When I look at you, my body increases output of testosterone/estrogen, adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin with the result I feel emotional attachment to you.” One is the story of your life together; the other is what’s happening on the biochemical level. (Trust me: the story means a lot more.)

Perhaps that’s why love stories mean so much to us. We don’t care about the physiology so much as the emotional content. Yes, it’s grand someone’s thoughts swing one way as key neurotransmitters are deployed, but I’d rather see them sacrifice for one another, make loving gestures, that sort of thing. We all prefer Romeo & Juliet (a teenage romance resulting in multiple deaths) to the BBC’s explanation of the chemical reactions in your brain (unless it’s narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and then it’s even money). The deeds, the action, the romance, the tensions, those are why we enjoy love stories. They tell us tales about people like us living lives like ours but to whom something extraordinary happens, an extraordinary something we’d all like to happen to us. It captivates both heart and imagination in ways raw data cannot.

Unless they’re sad love stories, of course. In which case women leave the theater crying as men wonder what just happened in the last two hours, both in the heart of his lover and on the screen (because, let’s face it, no man is going to be paying rapt attention to a chick flick).

Perhaps this is why the Bible makes use of love stories as often as it does. And not just love stories — love poetry. Reading Song of Songs in Hebrew may make one’s head hurt more than reading a Shakespearean sonnet, but we can’t remove Solomon’s work from Scripture. It’s one of the greatest ancient portrayals of romance still existing today. Nowhere else in the Bible can we find such beautiful depictions of love and sexuality. Sometimes readers will wonder how on earth it made it in there in the first place, but again, we all love a love story. We all understand what Solomon and his Beloved feel for each other. Song of Solomon helps us to recognize that such feelings are gifts from God.

In the great debate about sexuality, we’ve forgotten to emphasize that point as much as we should. We omit love to discuss sex. We forget about the God who created both. Maybe that’s because we blush when we read Song of Songs. Maybe it’s because we as Christians have misrepresented sex as something shameful and dirty for so many years. Whatever the reason(s), we need to reclaim eros just as surely as we need to embody agape. The God who is holy love, unconditional love (whether you call is agape or caritas [“charity” in the KJV]) is also the God of eros, of erotic, romantic love.

A brief caveat here: don’t confuse the romantic/erotic with the lustful. God did not create lust any more than He created anything else sinful. Lust is the perversion of love, the pale imitation of the real. Love for another is holistic; it is care for the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves of the other. You cannot truly love someone if you don’t care about their mind, just as you can’t fall in love with a soul which is darkened and twisted. Lust says otherwise. It relies upon biochemical sympathy to say “my body wants your body” without caring about any other dimension. It ignores the personhood of the individual and offers a reductionistic identity correspondent to their physicality. And that’s a problem. Bodies don’t last. Sometimes minds don’t even last. But love will care for the whole person, not just a single component of them. Lust never can and never will be able to offer anything more than sexual attraction.

Love offers a lifetime of devotion and dedication. That’s the kind of love God gifted us. He wired us to love one another in this way, designed us so that we would be able to care for one another on a romantic level. Such is the goodness and graciousness of God.

Now, this isn’t to say the single are “less-than.” It’s not to say the love which we pursue defines us in any way other than to point to our humanity and the Divinity which created it. We can enjoy life and personhood and a relationship with God without being married or dating. Paul even refers to it as a preferred state. So those who have the gift of romance can never look down upon those who do not. And those who do not should not feel envy or bitterness towards those who do. All rely on the provision of a sovereign God (and more than a little human initiative). All experience love, no matter the form it may take.

Most importantly, all know the love of God. A God who sent His Son to die on a cross for us, simply because He loves us and want us to love Him.

Now that‘s a love story.

A Nonpartisan God

Monday I did something I swore I would never do: I quit my party. Not a birthday party or some social function. I don’t really host those in the first place (and typically decline invitations to those of others). No, Monday I mailed my paperwork to change my voter registration. As a result, I’m pretty sure I’m the only person on either side of my family to not be a registered member of the Republican Party. (I guess I’m just the malcontent. The rogue.)

I’m now independent, unaffiliated with either of America’s two major political parties — or with any of the minor ones, for that matter. It means I can’t vote in party primaries, and the switch cost me some major political capital in other ways given the current state of things. My former party controls every level of my government, local, state, and federal, so I’ve just abandoned those who make the rules, so to speak. Much like my (former) fellow GOP-ers, I at one time celebrated that we had, at long last, taken back control. I waited in anxious anticipation for the conservatives to set in motion things many of us — and many Christians of all stripes — had awaited for years. And they did. Republicans in Kentucky advanced thrillingly pro-life legislation. They ended mandatory union dues. The national legislature began hammering out how to protect religious liberties, and the president nominated a worthy heir of Justice Scalia to the Supreme Court.

Then things turned ugly.

And I’m not talking about just in the capitals, either. People on the ground outside of D.C. and Frankfort, private citizens without any political office whatsoever, began spewing some of the most hateful, vitriolic, anti-Christ rhetoric I’ve heard in a decade — and practically all of it in the name of Jesus. At first I was shocked and appalled. Then I became angry. Now I’m just sad — and more than a little curious. Did Constantine do this to my brothers and sisters? By legalizing my faith, by declaring Christianity the religion of the Empire, did he consign us to hatred in the name of politics?

Historically Christianity and political clout haven’t mixed well. Don’t get me wrong; if you know me at all and/or read the rest of this blog, you know I’m an amateur political theologian who would use political means to safeguard biblical truths. But the simple fact of the matter is Christians can be some of the world’s worst bullies while in office — or out of it when talking about politics. We tend to push for theocracy and mock or damn anyone who would stand in our way. Sometimes we kill them (Servetus and the Inquisition, anyone?). It’s just not right. But we do it anyway.

Usually we do it because of two concomitant errors. First we elevate portions of the Bible over others, demonizing those who disagree with our rankings in the process. Second we place allegiance to our politics/party/country above the demands of the portions of Scripture we ranked lowest. Both parties do this, which is why I went independent instead of simply becoming a Democrat. But consider the following before you tell me I’m wrong about that.

1. Abortion terminates innocent human life and is therefore morally wrong.
2. The Bible consistently emphasizes the moral duty owed to immigrants and refugees.
3. Christians are called to be selfless and put God first, not America first.
4. The Bible condemns same-sex relationships.
5. Jesus never asked the sick for a co-pay or the 5,000 for a drug test.
6. They will know us by our love, not our patriotism; our caring service, not our party platform.
7. God is a jealous God, and you shall have no other gods before Him.
8. The worship of or primary allegiance to something other than God is called idolatry, and idolatry is sinful.
9. Every human being is made in the image of God.
10. God loves everyone equally.

Now, with these ten biblical truths in mind, let’s examine party platforms.

The Republicans score points for being anti-abortion and pro-traditional marriage, but lose points for being increasingly nationalistic and xenophobic, putting self and country above the widow and orphan. They also lose points for putting frankly sinful profit margins ahead of providing access to health care and pharmaceuticals.

The Democrats earn points for Care of the Other, including policies on health care and immigration. They lose points, though, for promoting the murder of the unborn and advocacy for alternative sexualities/non-binary genders. They also lose points for a sort of forced atheism in most policy-making, a theocracy of a different sort.

So tell me: how do you weigh the two on even a handful of policies? Is letting a refugee die because of fear better or worse than paying for abortifacients? Whose life is worth more? Is the shameless promotion of big business in the name of ideology (i.e. capitalism) while letting the poor die of treatable diseases better or worse than attempting to normalize once unthinkable and still evil sexual relationships? Should we ban prayer in schools or the teaching of scientific fact? Who must go: God or Darwin (because it’s evident no one will fight for both)? Both parties are steeped in pervasive systemic sin. So which sin is worse?

Listening to their followers, the Other Guy is always the enemy, the most immoral. Republicans call Democrats heathens, “snowflakes,” traitors, and generally un-Christian — all while saying Jesus would of course build a border wall because even heaven has a gate. Democrats call Republicans uneducated, anti-science, bigoted, and racist — all while saying God is love and therefore loves sinful expressions of sexuality because it’s all about love. Both believe God is on their side exclusively. Both believe God votes their party line.

Both are terribly, horrifically wrong.

The eternal God of the universe existed infinitely before the foundation of either political party, and He will exist infinitely after both cease to exist. He supports biblical causes, no matter which party — if any — claims those causes as its own. He does not blindly support the United States in everything it does anymore than He always affirms the party line. All are composed of sinful, imperfect men and women trying to serve a perfect God. No party can claim Jesus as its mascot. No party can categorically claim every member of the opposition is going to hell. And the Risen Christ will never, ever carry a flag other than his own, the standard of the kingdom of heaven.

Stop believing the lie God is always the conservative. Stop believing He is always the liberal. God is God, and He will support the righteous and oppose the unrighteous, all while loving both. He cheers for what is right and condemns what is wrong, no matter the party, nation, or person. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar.

And that’s why I’m no longer a Republican.

The Known

We all know the adage “scientia potentia est” — knowledge is power. Somewhere down the line, someone thought they’d be clever and mash it together with another fun phrase then expand on the result: “Knowledge is power. Power corrupts. Study hard. Be evil.” I can’t totally agree with the logic there, but it inadvertently highlights a certain stigma, I think. Many people do associate knowledge with some sort of evil, be it hubris, egoism, atheism, gossip, or something else. It doesn’t help that the smartest character in most movies and television shows is the villain. We’ve turned it into a stereotype: brains = baddie. I maintain this specious equivalence is one reason I was voted in high school both Most Likely to Succeed and Most Likely to Blow Up the World.

Scripture won’t let us go quite that far, but it doesn’t always portray knowledge in a positive light, either. Proverbs may teach us knowledge is born of the fear of God, but the very next book goes a different direction. Ecclesiastes, the great wisdom capstone of the cynical Solomon, offers us two key verses on the subject: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (1:18) and “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (12:12). If ever I am tempted to argue with the Bible, 12:12 is the reason. As for 1:18, well, the studies are in, and those who score of average intelligence report being much happier in life than those with higher intelligence. (Ignorance really is bliss, it seems.) So maybe there’s something to the idea of knowledge and wisdom causing sorrow and grief after all.

But knowledge itself, well, I’ve never bought into the notion knowledge is intrinsically good or evil. Knowledge, to me, is moral Switzerland. Raw data are void of moral content. It’s only in the application, in the praxis beyond the theory, that knowledge and ethics can be properly juxtaposed. For example, knowing the significance of the carotid artery is trivia. Putting pressure on it to stop someone from bleeding out is heroism; deliberately severing it is murder. Knowledge may have enabled both actions, but it didn’t cause them. Actions still require volition.

Some may agree with me to a point and then declare specific data are good or evil, exceptions to the rule. I can appreciate the perspective, but I still disagree. Most would (rightly) argue that satanic rituals are evil. Knowing about them, however, is not. I could use the knowledge to perform one, yes, but I could also employ that information to recognize one in progress and put a stop to it. I know quite a bit about Gardnerian Wicca, but I’m not a witch. Knowing its beliefs helps me to argue against them from a Christian perspective. In both of those (extreme) cases, a neutral knowledge of an evil thing leads to good actions. Again, moral content is added in praxis.

At this point, I’m obliged to look at obligation. If I know Sweet Nell is tied to the railroad tracks and the 11:15 is due at her location any moment, doesn’t the information I possess obligate me to act according to a certain ethical standard and rescue her? Yes, it does. But suppose I adhere to another ethic, one which sees the elimination of the hero’s beloved as a worthy objective (assume I work for Evil, Inc.). Am I still ethically bound to save her from stream-driven death? No, not if we assume ethics are relative and human agency isn’t beholden to a moral absolute. The base knowledge (damsel in distress) hasn’t changed; all that’s varied is the moral implications, the sense of ought-ness connected to the actions arising from the knowing. The use of knowledge is governed by obligation at times and by morality always.

In the same way, learning — the acquisition of knowledge — is governed by an ethical framework and moral obligations. We’re obligated to learn as much as we can about God. We ought to find out where the baddie tied the girl to the tracks. We should stay away from the private matters of other people. If we cross those bounds and learn, the knowledge gained may have moral consequences. Whether it does or not, however, the information itself remains neutral.

I admit I’m biased about this. I like knowing things. Growing up, I soaked up useless trivia like a sponge (the reason my sister called me “Garbage Brain” — head full of junk). When asked which of the divine omnis I’d like to be — omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent — I always pick omniscient. An unslakable thirst for knowledge defines who I am. With that said, I don’t believe God, mysterious though He is, delights in ignorance. He created us with great intelligences capable of learning about the universe. It’d be a shame not to use them.

So study hard. Learn all you can. Just don’t use it for evil.