On Taking the Bible Seriously.

“We take the Bible seriously.”

I saw this phrase last weekend on a church website and sighed a little. I'd also just seen it as a denomination's values statement. Both went on to explain that literal interpretation of the Bible was in view.

Often, Evangelical Christians say this to make a distinction between themselves and others. Implicit in the statement is the “we” is underlined and in italics, and the “seriously” explicitly means “accurately."

Come to our church, because other churches in town use Bibles as shims under their bar stools. But WE interact with the Bible the right way.

It’s admirable to want to get it right. Only an idiot would set out to get it wrong. But it’s a whole other arrogant can of pompous worms to say you and your team nailed it where others hammered their thumb.

At risk of sounding defensive, I’d like to offer myself and my own experience as a stand-in for others. I've learned and come to celebrate that the river of interpretation this old and sacred collection of writings comes to us in is wider than many of us might’ve imagined.

It hasn’t happened a lot, but I have been accused over the years of not taking the Bible seriously because I don’t take it literally (read concretely, plainly or at face value). I've not been asked about my faith in Christ when I've been accused of being flakey or watered down. I've been accused of lacking sincerity or devotion for suspecting Adam is not a historical figure and is about something else, that the Flood and its survivors’ ensuing incest may not be the best telling of how our species got to now and is perhaps about other things, for questioning whether Jesus really ever walked on an unfrozen lake and that perhaps the story of him doing so was about something else. Etc, etc. 

I remember a man stopping me after a sermon to tell me it was his first time at our church, and that he was offended by the notion that I didn’t take the Bible literally. I had mentioned that the creation account in Genesis makes no specific demands on us in terms of its historicity, but that it’s in the very least a story about what happens to us all. I'd said something poetic like, Oh how often the seemingly benign apples of impulse affect vast swaths of our existence.

“Was I hearing that you do not take God’s Word as literal truth?” he said, his adrenaline glands pumping out praise for the Prince of Peace.

“Um, gosh, not all of it, no.”

“How do you justify such a position?” he continued.

“Well, frankly man, I don't think anybody takes the Bible as literal truth. You included.” I tried to speak gently but I won’t pretend like I wasn’t irritated.

“I most certainly do!” He was holding up his Bible now. “This is God’s perfect Word!”

“But you still have both your eyeballs. Jesus said to gouge them out if you look lustfully at others. You’ve never once lusted?” Again, I am admitting I wasn’t being totally good-natured. “Not even once?”

“That’s not what Jesus was saying,” the man assured me.

“Oh.”

And for another few moments, as I genuinely tried to deescalate what I was complicit in escalating, the man explained how that passage about spooning out your own eyes for the Lord was a metaphor despite neither Jesus, nor any one else in the New Testament, adding any qualifiers to what He'd said. In fact Jesus went on from there to talk without asterisks about cutting off our hands too.

Clearly, taking Jesus seriously here meant not taking his words at face value. Any literal interpretation here would be universally recognized as insanity rather than devotion, even though Jesus “literally” said it. 

I've heard many people say, “Well you can’t just turn the Bible into a buffet where you decide some parts are literal and some figurative.” To which I respond, 

Sure I can. 

We all do it.

We must simply be thoughtful and respectful about it.

This is intrinsic to reading and speaking and using words and we're all doing it. 

If I show you a picture of my wife and say, “This is Kristi,” you wouldn’t for second think I meant that the picture in my hand is her. It’s figurative language about who the image represents. It would be childish to insist I am married to a photograph based on my words. Communicating has always been like this. 

“For it is written in the Law of Moses:

‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’

Is it about oxen that God is concerned?

Does he not certainly speak for our sake?

It was written for our sake, because the

plowman should plow in hope and the

thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.”

-Paul, seldom literal, 1 Corinthians 9:9-10

 

This all may seem unorthodox of me, and perhaps even puzzling for some folks who understand Christianity as a rigid belief system measured by accuracy of thought. But, make no mistake, I and others like me take the Bible very seriously. Because to take something seriously doesn’t mean a refusal to entertain alternate takes or to have interpretations beyond so-called plain meanings. I would argue that to not question an interpretation that's been handed to you, to leave assumptions uncritically challenged, to ignore historical/socio-economic/cultural context because you hope that by embracing the immediately apparent meaning of words you'll be labeled as more “serious”, is very unserious. 

And, it strains one's credibility as an inspired, deep-thinking person to say the highest devotion is found in "just read what it says." 

And it makes the Bible a wedge (it's at least that these days) rather than a place for great, disparate views to intersect. Swallow-it-this-way-or-else is the cheapest entrance fee to a club. Even if you shout it in a sermon, it's empty of real lasting human value. Does “science vs faith” sound familiar? Those two things were never supposed to be adversarial, but have been made so by those who think the most earnest faith is the one that disallows an ancient text to say more than one thing. When I look up and wonder what I am seeing and you make me choose between cosmic expansion or a large dome with star-shaped puncture holes in it where the rains come through, like the Bible portrays, I will choose the expansion thing and say the Bible swung and missed at what the sky is. That’s what many people have felt forced to do. But that's not the fault of the scriptures as much as the fault of well-intended egos who make the text do things it doesn't intend to do. A song never demands I believe the sun literally goes down or comes up because those are some of its lyrics. That’s figurative language in service of another point. I don’t take the song more seriously by making its lyrics about the sun moving do things they never meant to do. I kinda ruin the song by doing that. Why would this same disposition toward God’s Word, which is at least divinely-inspired art to point us to our Source and to life, be any less earnest?

If you want to interpret the Bible literally, concretely, in as many places as you can, you are totally at liberty to do so. Lots of devout, intelligent, astute people of faith do. You will often have some real headaches as you do, but so will others who interpret the Scriptures along other hermeneutical lines. All interpretations have their hang ups. But you have to resist believing that you taking the Bible literally positions you more favorably within the Biblical tradition. That this makes you more serious about it. Understand that whatever way you go at Scripture, you are occupying one part of a wide river of thought. One that has plenty of room for those who, for example, cherish calling God “Father” as the Scriptures present as well as those who remind us God isn’t literally a dad - let alone male - because at one point the deconstruction of those words matters. We can celebrate Genesis and its Creation narrative as written and plainly read, while leaving plenty of room to simultaneously celebrate the complex mystery of a 13.7 billion-year-old Universe. The river's that wide. The one thing this wide river of interpretation won’t float is a particular group of modern people out of the tens of thousands of Christian splinter groups stating, “WE got it right because WE took it seriously.” That dog won’t hunt.*

 

*not referring here to literal dogs or hunting.