When teaching at Kalamazoo College, I sometimes had to fight an uphill battle with secular liberal students who basically took fundamentalists at their word that they were following the Bible “literally” and who felt that such “literalism” was somehow the most authentic form of religion.

Throughout my time there, I would emphasize the fact that a literal reading of the whole of Scripture that sticks to the “plain sense” and comes out with a single meaning is impossible. First, there are clear surface-level contradictions, and as soon as you start coming up with ways to explain that away, you’re not being literal anymore. Similarly with the strategy of prioritizing certain books or passages over others (the “canon within the canon” approach) — while such an approach is basically unavoidable, it is also not “literal” because the Bible doesn’t come with its own meta-text telling you which parts to emphasize.

Some students were probably convinced, but I think it’s a weak argument because it concedes the terms of debate to the fundamentalists. It puts literal interepretation into the series that includes allegorical interpretation, midrashic interpretation, historical-critical interpretation, etc., elevating it to a dignity it doesn’t deserve — similar to the attempts of Intelligent Design advocates or climate change skeptics to be accepted as partners in a “debate.”

In the last couple quarters, however, I stumbled upon a new strategy, emphasizing the word “literal” itself as a rhetorical move by which fundamentalists assert their superiority over other Christians. The term “literal” doesn’t function so much as a hermeneutic key (the “heroic” era of fundamentalist commentary is largely behind us, and now their descendants are more or less unapologetically eclectic in their use of Scripture) as an emphatic term. To say they believe in the Bible “literally” is to say nothing more than “we really, really believe in the Bible” and thereby to claim ownership over it for their communities and interpretations. And it tends to be effective, as other groups of Christians are made to feel insecure about their loyalty to Scripture — or, more perversely, try to back away from Scripture to avoid looking like fundamentalists — and outsiders, such as the well-meaning secular liberals who admire religious conviction so much, largely take their word for it.

As support for this, I point out the fact that, seemingly paradoxically, the terms “literal” or “literally” are themselves almost never used literally. Instead, they normally serve to underline hyperbole: “If I read another page of Heidegger, my head is literally going to explode”; “I could literally eat a horse right now”; “I am literally going to die if I don’t find a bathroom soon”; etc. The same, then, would hold for “I literally believe every word in the Bible, literally.”

45 thoughts on “Literally

  1. Well put! My wife calls most of the “fighting literalism” strategies “anti-Federalism” — defining our arguments as against their arguments. We become “non-Fundamentalists” rather than positively what we are. These strategies always concede the choice of venue to the Fundamentalists, but then fail to argue against the real flexibility of their position(s). I love this realization, that “literally” functions as hyperbole. It sounds like a useful way to get the prima facie problem out of the way, especially if one actually wants to discuss the place of theories of inspiration in the doctrine of scripture.

  2. My impression is that such language is used to indicate a commitment to a particular understanding of Scripture, to the belief that the Bible is to be taken seriously as the revelation of God’s will and truth as a whole text and thoroughout its parts. It is employed as a reaction to those who dismiss or denigrate certain aspects of Scripture to conform it to some supposed ‘spirit’ of the Christian faith. As such it isn’t just hyperbole or a rhetorical move, but a commitment to the letter of the Scripture (hence ‘literal’) against those who might play the Spirit off against it.

  3. You are saying almost exactly the same thing as me, but with a positive rather than a negative spin. Let me gloss:

    “My impression is that such language is used to indicate a commitment to a particular understanding of Scripture, to the belief that the Bible is to be taken seriously as the revelation of God’s will and truth as a whole text and thoroughout its parts.” — Others don’t take it seriously? Who might that be?

    “It is employed as a reaction to those who dismiss or denigrate certain aspects of Scripture to conform it to some supposed ‘spirit’ of the Christian faith.” — Oh, I see, you mean liberals.

    “As such it isn’t just hyperbole or a rhetorical move, but a commitment to the letter of the Scripture (hence ‘literal’) against those who might play the Spirit off against it.” — But surely it is also a rhetorical move, to position oneself against those spirit-emphasizing liberals who don’t take Scripture seriously, right?

    Your comment is just like a David Brooks column — saying the exact same thing all conservatives do, but seemingly more reasonably.

  4. But the problem isn’t just that conservatives take the Bible more seriously than liberals, it’s just that they interpret it differently. Conservatives clearly minimize and dismiss major portions of the Greek Bible because it does not conform to their political ideology. Everyone reading the Bible makes decisions and has certain hermeneutic commitments when approaching the text. The conservatives just do a better job of disguising the ideological underpinnings of their readings by using pious language such as inspired, etc. For example, one thing Jennings helped me understand is how thorough of a critique Paul and Jesus offer against the family, marriage, etc. Clearly, it’s not an accident that these verses are completely ignored by conservatives.

  5. Right, they avoid defending their interpretive choices by “going meta” — like our friend Alastair here, who throws around empty language of “commitment” and “taking the Bible seriously,” etc. And it seems to me that we have to redouble that by “going meta” and naming their rhetorical posturing for what it is, so that we can get back to a straightforward battle between competing claims.

  6. First, I never liked the we take the Bible seriously attitude as an apologetic (and I heard a lot of it growing up plus a bunch of other crazy stuff like “they” want to get rid of your Bibles!-I’m sure everybody has a story to tell) because I eventually discovered guys like Nietzsche or B. Russell took it even more serious at times; in short, the critics are sometimes the ones who take it more serious. One can say that even the “political Paul” readings from Badiou, Agamben and Zizek illustrate just by the fact they read it closely per their own agendas that they take it seriously. I mean Badiou looks like he really, really likes to read Paul (more than some evangelicals who have suddenly want to get away from Paul and read more Jesus). One of my favorite Zizek lines is when he points out that Jesus says to hate the family then his traditional friends suddenly break out into semantics.

  7. I’ve dealt with this as well. I usually try to briefly explain several approaches to scripture and try to show how they each start with certain assumptions about what scripture does. Prior decisions are made before even opening the texts and these seem to have some causal relation to conclusions drawn about the text. Most people I encounter think that a person can come to a text as a blank slate and that the text clearly means one (literal) thing. So, when I say that I’m interested in reading christian texts as politically subversive or texts of social critique, I have to do extra-biblical work to show my point. My audience usually finds this prima facie wrong because I’ve then appealed to a source outside the particular words on the page. I have even more difficulty when trying to do the “thinking the unthought” approach.

    I’ve found that even most academics assume that a biblicist approach is the most genuine form of interpretation. Granted that I usually give a heterodox interpretation, they assume that what I’m proposing is somehow no longer christianity, that I’m giving a view is doing an injustice to scripture. At the same time, I have a friend at Villanova (Chris, are you reading this?) who thinks that I’m wrong about this and most people view christianity as something more diverse. I hope he’s right, but nevertheless, in my experience, I’ve found that most people do actually think that a literal view of scripture is the most authentic and to give an interpretation otherwise is somehow wrong.

    I also think that many people take a literal approach because it’s easy. Just read the words and you’ll get the meaning. It takes too much effort for most people to do, for example, redaction criticism, or historical-critical, or rhetorical analysis.

  8. I got a lot of that about “changing” Christianity beyond what it could bear, too. My favorite, though, was when we’d read liberation theology texts and people would say, “This would never catch on!” — as though it was purely hypothetical.

  9. In his “The Difference Heaven Makes,” Christopher Morse gives his spiel on why he thinks the word “literal” is dubious. If I remember correctly, he opts for the term univocal to describe the fundamentalist perspective of Scripture (or what he takes as the fundamentalists projected ideal of univocity). Anyway, I think the mixture of the “hyperbolic” use (e.g. “My head is literally…”) with the “plain sense” (e.g. ” You liberals are idiots because the words are staring you right in the face along with the Truth of the words”) use makes for good group-think artillery against “the liberals.” So, with this double valency, the New-Calvinist radical first indicates that “the liberals” are intellectually inferior because of their failure to get the objective-plain sense meaning of the Scriptures. And second, with the idiomatic-hyperbolic usage, the New-Calvinist radical further emphasizes his/her supposed intellectual superiority over “the liberals.” But the hyperbole isn’t a proactive rhetorical device; it doesn’t encourage the New-Calvinist radical to actively engage the liberals’ “intellectual inferiority” — just the opposite. The critical distance of the intellectual superior to inferior morphs into a comedic-disinterested difference between the intellectually superior *viewer* and the intellectually inferior *spectacle,* undermining any serious attempt at engagement between the two factions. Put another way, if I am smarter than you, I can have a conversation with you; you are worth saving. If I am smarter than you and you are a joke, I watch and laugh while you entertain or enact my preconceived notions.

    Perhaps all of this is too unkind. But, I was born and bread an evangelical Christian, and I need a scapegoat.

  10. The amount of literature produced in the late 19th and early 20th century Missouri Synod Lutheran writings (to take just one camp as an example) parsing the differences between “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” and “literalism” is staggering. In those cases, “inerrancy” (in its various permutations) generally wins out over “literalism.” But I don’t know how widespread that sort of definitional wrangling has been in other traditions.

  11. There’s also something to be said about exactly which parts of the Bible are supposed by literalists to be taken literally, and which parts not – as Jeremy points out, ideology obviously has a lot to do with it. It seems to skew toward the Old Testament (excluding the most objectionable sections, like those that condone slavery) and the more mystical parts of the New Testament (those that deal with Christology and eschatology), yet the radical social teachings are easily chalked up as hyperbole. The last time I taught the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, I don’t think I could convince a single student (many of whom I’m sure came from conservative evangelical backgrounds) that Jesus might have wanted his listeners to “literally” offer their attackers the other cheek, or to give up their possessions, or even to strive to be “perfect”.

  12. You definitely get the sense much of the time that conservative Christians view actually following Jesus’s teachings or imitating him as the most naive and ridiculous thing you could ever think to do.

  13. I sort of like conservatives here because it’s so perverse how they read the Sermon on the Mount. It’s like they believe that there’s no way Jesus was actually serious so they turn it into one big joke. Jesus only made it seem ridiculous so we’d understand the real purpose here: that intentions are all that matters. The obsession with intentions is probably what allows them to neglect actual social conditions and behaviors.

  14. I’ve also found this is also the only way to get students to not simply take “literalists” at their word, and to then also assume this is the most authentic version of Bible reading.

    It still doesn’t always work, but arguing that it’s best understood as a rhetorical strategy and not a hermeneutic is the best I’ve been able to do.

    There’s a general tendancy they have to take any evangelicals’ statement that’s sympathetic sounding as disingenuous, and any horrible-sounding statement as the Freudian slip that reveals the true intent. Trying to convincingly frame both as rhetorical — i.e. always as arguments meant to move someone or effect something — is something I’m still working on.

  15. In my thesis, I just finished writing a section criticising the aura around the Chicago statement on inerrancy. I think your post is spot on. To show their animosity towards acknowledging hermeneutics they put in their 1982 statement (the second one, on Biblical hermeneutics) that ‘Thus we deny that the “horizons” of the biblical writer and the interpreter may rightly “fuse” in such a way that what the text communicates to the interpreter is not ultimately controlled by the expressed meaning of the Scripture’. One wonders who they didn’t like… And that’s prefaced with first saying that there’s a ‘single, definite and fixed’ meaning of the Bible. My favourite trick of theirs, though, was in the first statement (the one which every member of the Evangelical Theological Society must accept) in which they deny their own historicity in saying inerrancy is not ‘a doctrine invented by Scholastic Protestantism’. How can anyone argue against such airtight proofs?!? Literally!

  16. In defence of literalism – literal readings are contrasted with metaphorical or allegorical ones. The fundamentalist would likely not deny that there are verses to be taken metaphorically, but would maintain that not every text should be taken metaphorically; some should be taken literally. When it says ‘by the hand of God…’ we are not to suppose that there is an actual hand belonging to God that this word refers to. When it says that Jesus was reclining at the table, we are not supposed to read this as a metaphorical table, but as an actual table. Descriptive historical propositions like this are most importantly to be read as literal, for they constitute truth claims. Something like the Sermon on the Mount, being in the imperative mood, cannot have a truth property. Sure, it’s easy to point out ways in which fundamentalists are inconsistent with their principles. Low hanging fruit, etc. I actually think it’s very important to maintain the importance of literal readings. I think Paul believed that the actual body of the man Jesus was revivified and resurrected (no doubt undergoing some kind of change, by and by). Because I do not believe such a thing happened, I am not a Christian. Without a literal reading, my disagreement can be anulled by simply shifting the goal posts. I should not like that to happen.

  17. It is important to no one’s faith, in the entire world, that Jesus was literally sitting at a given table on a certain day. It is impossible to care about that.

    And how do you know when a text is making “truth claims”? Why should we just automatically take any non-metaphorical, formally constative statement as intending to be a historical truth-claim? For instance, it’s possible that the author of Jonah wrote it precisely as a fictional story or parable and didn’t bother to include the disclaimer because he figured the initial audience would know. And even though it’s not in all Bibles, I’ve read commentaries indicating that Judith includes historical errors on purpose, in order to flag it as a fictional story — but within your hermeneutical frame, such a strategy becomes completely undetectable.

    By the same token, why not view the Gospels as fictionalized biographies of Jesus? There are, after all, four of them, and they are significantly different — and freely borrow and change things from each other. Luke mentions doing interviews, etc., but none of the other ones do. Or what about Paul’s accounts of what his opponents believed? People routinely exaggerate in such contexts.

    I could go on. The Bible is primarily a literary text. There is basically nothing presented to give “just the facts” — even the apparently “historical” sections (e.g., Samuel, Kings, Chronicles) are shaping and sometimes fudging the historical evidence to make a particular point. Going with “literal” interpretation as a default is lazy — it is precisely not to take the Bible seriously. It is to treat a collection of artfully constructed texts like a phone book.

    Finally, how on earth is the resurrection something to be believed “literally”? I’m not saying it’s not central to Christianity to believe Christ was resurrected — but what would a “literal” belief in the resurrection really mean? The mechanism is never specified, and the Gospels give conflicting accounts of what the resurrected Christ was like. Where does the word “literal” enter in here as a substantive, rather than rhetorical, way of characterizing one’s belief in this matter?

    In short, your comment seems to be saying, “I’m a secular liberal who totally buys into conservative Christian rhetoric, and rightly so.”

  18. Well, I tried to craft my brief comments in a precise manner to avoid the kinds of implications you ascribe to me, so I guess I’ll have to go ahead and insert all those tedious qualifiers in future. This is really an amicable disagreement, because I’ve moved closer to the position you describe since my recent re-reading of the Platonic dialogues and my realisation that the ancients weren’t half as naive about their mythologies as we suppose.

    However, I do still think it proper to maintain a gap between the self-understanding of early believers and how we might understand them. Knowledge of the mechanics of resurrection is not ingredient to a literal understanding of the claim that ‘this one that was dead is now alive’. Not alive in my heart, or in my memories or in the practices of the community of followers – but alive in the same sense in which I have stood by the hospital bed of someone recently deceased, and I could have pointed to my friend and said ‘he is alive’, and I could have pointed to his wife and said ‘she is dead’. I’m sure you know what I mean by these words. I am of the opinion that when Paul wrote that God had raised Jesus from the dead, he believed that the body of the man Jesus that had been crucified and buried had been made alive and was numerically identical to the body that appeared to Peter, James, and the five hundred. Do you think Paul did not believe such a thing? If you don’t think so, then I suppose my spade is turned.

  19. If we’re going to be “literal” about it, I’d say that essentially all the NT passages that deal with the resurrection in detail (beyond just asserting it) would indicate that Jesus post-resurrection is alive in a new and completely unprecedented way — and it is widely said that the Christian community is somehow his “body,” meaning that the community-centric reading is not some made-up liberal bullshit but is actually in the NT.

    What you’re describing is the case with regard to Lazarus’s resurrection, but it’s too simple and straightforward to match up with what the text “literally” says about the resurrected Christ. And because of the weirdness of the resurrection, I think it’s the height of arrogance to say that we straightforwardly know what the original communities meant by “Christ is risen.”

  20. But Rob, even if we could access the self-understanding of early believers, even if that self-understanding were identical across such a diverse group – and I think these are pretty gargantuan ‘ifs’ – why should that self-understanding be absolutely decisive in defining the truth of what it means to be a Christian? Isn’t that the backdrop of the literalist approach: that there was some pure first moment when the truth was revealed, and since then the best we can do is be passive recipients of that original, or else give up on Christianity entirely?

    I just don’t see why that has to be the case. Let’s say that Paul believed the seen risen body was numerically identical with Jesus’ corpse (I’m not sure how we ‘know’ this was Paul’s belief, but say we can, for the sake of argument). Why is his interpretation of this aspect of the event (and it is only one aspect, even on the most ‘literal’ reading) the one and only touchstone in determining all subsequent interpretations?

    On a broader note, it’s no coincidence that the Dawkins-style atheists and the conservative evangelicals agree that religious beliefs must be literal truth claims. It’s a depressingly narrow identity politics, the winners of which will be those who occupy pre-defined fixed positions.

  21. I agree with what you are saying here Steven. But…to play Devil’s advocate, whatever Paul meant (as the earliest extant source on the resurrection, I actually think it is not at all clear), it is pretty clear that “resurrection of the corporeal body” is the belief held by the majority of Christian believers today – an this includes not simply fundamentalists but mainline Catholic and Protestant believers. The vast majority of apologists will go to incredible lengths to make this claim over alternative explanations, reading elements (like the empty tomb) desperately into the Pauline corpus. Though I think the reading you are suggesting is clearly part of what is there, what Rob L says is not unreasonable.

  22. Re: Rob L. and Adam’s back and forth:

    Except for Rob’s final sentences in his initial reply (“Because I do not believe such a thing happened, I am not a Christian. …”), I’m surprised the point that the Bible is sometimes wrong is controversial (though Adam’s counter about the difficulty of picking out which statements are truth claims is a good one). Do those who disagree with Rob think that, with the correct interpretation, the N.T. and Hebrew Bible authors/editors make no errors on subjects regarding women, slavery, homosexuality, and war/ethnic cleansing? Or, put differently, is it possible to say that the literary text we call the Bible gets some issues right and others wrong?

    (Sorry for the cliche’ question, but I’m always curious to see how people respond this.)

  23. Your question betrays a fundamental misunderstanding. The Bible is a body of texts by different authors writing over at least a thousand years. It does not have one thing to say about any given topic. I am willing to bet that anything you can come up with as a pervasive and undeniable theme of Scripture, I can come up with a counterexample (or at least a text that completely ignores this supposed universal notion). There are entire books of the Bible that barely mention God, for God’s sake!

    Yes, texts within the Bible say things that we do and should reject. No question. But the Bible as Scripture is what you make of it. There are passages that even the most “literalistic” ignore or explain away — and that’s just part of what being faithful to a Scripture entails. The idea that you have to go up or down with the whole thing or else you’re an equivocating coward… that makes no sense. That does not match up with how anyone, in the history of the world, has engaged Scripture. Ever! It’s a simplistic dream made up by fundamentalists and then latched onto by well-meaning liberals.

  24. And Alex, your argument does not match up with what we’re discussing. You’re drawing on the later Christian tradition, while we’re talking about the supposed “literal” meaning of Scripture in and of itself. Yes, the mainstream Christian tradition has held that Jesus was resurrected corporeally. But the mainstream Christian tradition has held a lot of things, many of which are clearly contrary to the plain sense of Scripture — for instance, Mary’s perpetual virginity. The mainstream Christian tradition does not count as evidence of what the plain sense of Scripture is, particularly since in the defining arguments in defining orthodoxy, it was always the literalists who turned out to be heretics.

  25. [Warning: I went for much longer than I intended]
    First, g’day Steve, it’s been a while!
    My initial defence of literalism was not intended to elevate it as an honoured or even sole hermeneutic – of course not! But Adam originally said that he would deny it a place amongst the various other approaches – allegorical, metaphorical, historical-critical, &c, and I merely wanted to counter that and say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a literal reading of certain texts. I certainly agree with Steve that even if, for the sake of the argument, we could access the original self-understanding of the evangelists, that need not overdetermine and constrain later interpretations. However, such a move would involve acknowledging the original belief, disagreeing with it, and self-consciously crafting another way of reading the texts. There are plenty of philosophers who do this, notably Zizek, (but also Derrida and Badiou, et alia, in their own way). What, however, A seemed to be suggesting, was that his non-literal way of reading the text was in fact how the original author/s want us to read the text. I will happily concede that something like this might be operative in Judith, for example. I will also happily concede that a literal reading is in fact wrong even for ostensibly ‘historical’ texts, where there are textual indicators that might tell us that the author intends a non-literal reading.

    I simply want to maintain the claim that there are a small but important number of cases, like the claim that the dead man Jesus had been made alive, that the author wants us to understand in a literal sense (and for what I mean by literal in this case, see my previous comment). I didn’t think this was controversial. If one doesn’t think that such a thing took place, then I think it’s perfectly fine to re-read those texts and resurrection traditions in different ways and still call oneself a Christian – I haven’t made the step to police the boundaries and say that this is a sine qua non of Christian identity.

    I suppose my wanting to defend a (little bit of) literalism stems from my annoyance with DZ Phillips a few years ago. From memory, he gave the example of a woman praying to Mary for her daughter’s healing, and DZP went on to say something like “of course this woman doesn’t actually think that Mary is up there somewhere and will actually be the instrumental cause of her daughter’s healing – we must attend to the woman’s grammar and then we’ll see that what she really means when she says this prayer is …..” I found this rather patronising on his part. I think there are very many people who pray to whichever saint, and really do think that the saint is up there and will help them out on this occasion. Same goes with conversations with one’s family – we all perform a hermeneutical charity when they say in conversation “God did this in my life”, and instead of saying “well I know what you mean by God but I reject transcendence therefore what you’re saying can’t be right” – we rather try to interpret charitably and we choose to undertand them as referring to the beneficial phenomena in their life originating from the source on which they and we are dependent (or some such thing, I’m just riffing here). But I think it would be dishonest of me to say “well, I don’t think you mean what you think you mean – let me tell you what you really mean…” And that’s the kind of thing that denying the legitimacy of a literal reading seems to do, it closes down the possibility that the ancient author did in fact have that particular self-understanding.

    To A.: in detail, and with regard to the resurrection, I don’t think the case of Judith is analogous to the gospels. Each gospel would have circulated singularly in its own reception community for some time before they were eventually collected, which means that the inconsistencies wouldn’t have been available for the readers/listeners, and therefore it’s unlikely to have been the intention of the author to make his gospel different for the purpose of indicating to readers that it wasn’t to be taken literally. Further, I generally resist readings of the resurrection that emphasise its ‘sui generis’ nature. The reason that Jesus’ resurrection was considered a possible narrative climax for his life, was that it reflected the Jewish hope for resurrection of righteous martyrs; this was when Lazarus’ sister thought that he would be raised, and in the same scene John has Jesus say ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. Matthew’s gospel has a whole bunch of other holy people raised from the dead and coming out of their tombs after Jesus’ resurrection, and Paul says that Christ is the firstfruits of the general resurrection. So I read more of a continuity between Lazarus’, the other holy ones’, and the general resurrection – and Jesus’ resurrection. If that’s the case then they would have understood Jesus’ resurrection as profoundly bodily – not to exclude the idea that in his resurrection his body was glorified and became more than it was, but only that it demands we not exclude the bodily identity between the one that was raised and the one that was crucified.

    I guess all I’m after is a concession that this is what a literal reading of ‘Christ is risen’ entails, and that this literal reading is not de jure prohibited. As for the project of a material theology – continue!

  26. I’m rejecting the term “literal” as a helpful qualifier because the hermeneutic of literal-ism is bullshit.

    I also reject the idea that a “literal” reading of the resurrection is possible because any attempt to think resurrection automatically pushes you into more speculative realms — and in fact, even in the earliest NT writings, the resurrected body of Christ had already been subject to a dispersion (community as body, sacrament as body) that we can’t immediately and unambiguously say was simply metaphorical (though it might have been simply metaphorical). The apparently straightforward meaning (which no one is denying) of the resurrection is itself not all that straightforward.

    What you’re saying is not particularly innovative: we have to start with something like the plain sense of the passage we’re interpreting. That’s something that’s shared with all methods of interpretation, including deconstruction, for instance — otherwise we’d just be making shit up and claiming it’s somehow related to the text. The reason literalism does not belong among the hermeneutical methods is because it claims no hermeneutic is necessary or desirable. Stick to the plain sense and you have immediate access to a unified and unambiguous meaning of Scripture — that’s literalism, and that’s plainly false.

    Rejecting that rhetorical strategy does not mean disallowing any reference to the plain or straightforward meaning of Scripture. That’s a necessary (if provisional) starting point for all hermeneutical methods. But literalism isn’t a hermeneutical method — it’s a rhetorical claim posing as a hermeneutical method.

  27. Notice also, Rob, how you constantly have to refer to things that aren’t “literally” in the text in order to make your case for literalism — the original use and reception of the individual Gospels, for instance.

    The only time that the “literal” use of the text is an end in and of itself is when they are literally read out loud in a liturgical setting. And even then, you normally get some interpretation later in the liturgy.

  28. If, in disallowing the rhetorical strategy of ‘literalism’ one is not barred from making reference to the plain sense of scripture, then I shall use the word ‘literal’ to refer to the plain sense, and let it not be understood as contrary to your critique of ‘literalism’. And the reference to the gospel reception use was obviously not made as a positive evidence for the literal reading – it was only negatively meant to prevent one from reading the gospels as if the contradictions could be a signal to the reader to take the claims in a metaphorical sense.

  29. Why on earth would anyone be barred from making reference to the plain sense of Scripture? All the authentic hermeneutical approaches I mention do so — it seems impossible to interpret a text without starting with, you know, the text.

    But there’s also another thread of what you’re saying that doesn’t have much to do with biblical interpretation directly, saying that of course people hold some religious beliefs “literally” (and presumably these beliefs are grounded in a “literal” reading of Scripture). That seems hard to deny, but I’d challenge the idea that such people hold their beliefs “literally” as opposed to some other alternative.

    Rather than “literal,” it seems more useful to say that they have an “unreflective” belief — they just haven’t thought about it much. The person praying to the saint hasn’t thought about the issue and decided, in opposition to other views, that there really is a saint up there — they’re expressing their hopes by repeating formulas that their community has given them. Those who start reflecting about their beliefs almost never come up with the strereotypical “literal” beliefs (God is literally a dude with a beard, etc.).

    There’s a danger that this will lead to a patronizing view of the simple believer, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not giving a certain topic a lot of thought. (I am burdened with nearly toxic levels of reflection and analysis in nearly every area of life, so not thinking too much about something is totally foreign to me — but my lifestyle surely isn’t for everyone.) I think I’m going to write a post about this question, to clarify further.

  30. I made the point about what you call unreflective beliefs, because I think the way we treat such beliefs should be analogous to how we treat the scripture. To avoid being patronising, we should at least acknowledge their naive realism and not try to pretend that it’s something else. And I think something similar applies to the biblical texts -I get annoyed with that style of commentary that says things like ‘Paul brilliantly leads his argument from A to B” because I think that gives him too much credit. I dont think the biblical writers were that sophisticated. Paul’s stuff is a collection of ad hoc rhetoric, and so on for the evangelists. I think that the early oral tradition probably had more midrashic nuance but that by the time the traditions were reified in the texts, a certain naive realism had set in, and that that’s how the author of the text intended the readers to read it. And all along, by literal, I’ve simply wanted to take that unreflective realism at face value in order that any reflective departure from that might be acknowledged as a departure, and not identified with the original intention. But yes, do write more.

  31. There’s nothing particularly “wrong” with naive realism, but there’s also nothing particularly commendable or authentic about it. Naive realism is just where some people are — either they’re uneducated, or they haven’t really had occasion to think things over. Viewing that as some kind of normative position for the religious believer is fucking patronizing, because it relies on the implicit view that as you become more educated and reflective, you will naturally become less religious.

    An intrinsic part of being a secular liberal is being patronizing toward religion, so I don’t particularly blame you for being so fucking patronizing — nor indeed do I expect you to acknowledge that you are being so! No, you are being the most understanding toward religion that it’s possible to be, in your own mind! You’re probably pissed off that I’m saying otherwise, though you’ll continue to respond in a calm and measured way to show how reasonable you are.

  32. This is getting a bit frustrating, and reminding me why I try to avoid blog discussions. The whole format seems perfectly designed to create misunderstanding. Don’t let this prejudice my recommendation of Patrick.

    Steve, if you’re still reading, sorry for turning out to have been a rebellious student – but I believe it is written that the father is not guilty for the sins of the son :)

  33. Rob, would you clarify two things for me? (1) You wrote, “And I think something similar applies to the biblical texts -I get annoyed with that style of commentary that says things like ‘Paul brilliantly leads his argument from A to B” because I think that gives him too much credit. I dont think the biblical writers were that sophisticated. Paul’s stuff is a collection of ad hoc rhetoric, and so on for the evangelists.” I would agree that the biblical authors are not giving logical formulas by means of ordered propositions, at least not frequently. However, I do see them often emplying rhetorical devices that aid in reaching some creative conclusion(s). Anyway, i’m not sure exactly how you meant “ad hoc,” but I do think that there are examples of the authors demonstrating great rhetorical skill, e.g., the editor of the Johannine Gospel chiastically structures the entire gospel in a way that is brilliant. Yes, chiasms were pedagogical tools at the time, but I doubt the average Palestinian Jew could done what the writers of Fourth Gospel did. Likewise, Paul’s writings are full of political subversion to such an extent that I’d be hard to convince that he made it up on the fly.

    (2) Do you hold the following position? “Viewing [naive realism] as some kind of normative position for the religious believe r[…] relies on the implicit view that as you become more educated and reflective, you will naturally become less religious.” Do you think the religion does/should lose its place the more educated one becomes?

  34. Well, your method seems to have been to wrongly draw implications from things I say, and then to criticise those implications as if they were my claims. One example can be taken from immediately above. I said that in cases where someone advocates a naive realism we should have the honesty to acknowledge it for what it is. Instead of plainly agreeing or disagreeing, you draw the implication that I therefore make naive realism normative for religious belivers, and then you criticise that – when in fact I never said any such thing. And this whole thing that I’m a secular liberal- where did that come from? Your own invention. Anyway, that will suffice from the many examples I could have picked. That’s what I mean by ‘misunderstanding’.

  35. Don’t just criticize me negatively for misunderstanding — correct me! The only way my assumptions about your arguments — which very closely match previous arguments I’ve had with patronizing secular liberals — can be dethroned is if you offer an alternative, rather than empty complaints.

  36. The above comment was in response to Adam. It should answer Mark’s second question. To Marks first, I don’t see why political subversion couldn’t be made up on the fly – the situation was so forcefully present to them that I doubt they could have avoid being subversive.

  37. The answer is just – don’t make assumptions. I think there’s a Bruce Willis film where assumptions are said to be the mother of all fuck ups. If I make a positive claim of a very non-controversial point, don’t assume anything at all about what points you think I might be against in making that point. Just deal simply with what I do write. Indeed, read me literally :)

  38. So you’re saying something that (a) is denied by no one because it is (b) so obvious as to be trite. Great.

    And I’m sorry, but if you’re not going to supply me with anything except material that sounds like pretty typical “well-meaning secular liberal” opinions on religion, then I don’t know what I’m supposed to do — just hallucinate some kind of depth and nuance? On what basis?

    If I take you literally, you’re saying the same kind of things I’ve seen a hundred well-meaning secular liberals saying. If you have some other hermeneutical key, don’t withold it. I can’t know what a unique intellectual snowflake you are when all I have to work with in this thread are tautologies and cliches.

  39. This comment thread has disappeared up its own ass, in any case. I’m closing comments here. If you want to continue this discussion, comment on the other post — and any references to this discussion and how it went and how badly I misunderstood you wil be deleted from that thread.

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