Please, please read through to the end of this post, because I’m about to open with a very controversial statement, here:
I am not a biblical literalist.
The reason for this is simple: I’m an American, steeped in a culture that still clings to vestiges of Puritan legalism and narrowness of perspective. Puritans left the Church of England because they thought all the splendor retained after the break from Rome was an insult to God — never mind that the Bible is chock full of descriptions of the extravagant beauty associated with worshipping Him. Ignore the beauty and splendor associated with worship of God from time immemorial. We have a purer way …
The writers of the Bible, however (and remember, the Bible is a collection of Books, not just one Book), were not Puritans. They were Middle Easterners, a people whose culture and manner of speaking and writing are colorful and poetic and… probably quite antithetical in many particulars from our Puritan forebears.
An example of that poetry that no one, not even the most rabid fundamentalist, takes literally is found in the Psalms — 17 and 91, to name two — where God’s love and provision for His people is described through a hen covering her chicks. No one thinks God is a chicken or any other type of bird. But the first thing a fundamentalist will ask you is whether you take the Bible literally. He forgets that powerful truths are conveyed through the poetic devices which are never to be taken literally.
Even the anthropomorphic representations of God as a man with hands, feet, eyes, and so on, are metaphor. But the metaphor gets the point across. That’s what metaphor does.
Much of the biblical narrative is metaphorical. There are bigger truths to be gained behind the word pictures we read. So when we read the Bible, we’re going to look at a literal context, yes – but we’re also going to look for a spiritual meaning. When Israel battles a particular enemy, we may be reading an account of a war that might have actually occurred… but there’s a spiritual significance to this story, it’s included in the text for our benefit — and our benefit goes far beyond an isolated literal event. So we’re going to be conscious of that, and we’re going to look for that deeper meaning.
In other words — I may not take the Bible literally, but you can bet your bottom dollar I take it seriously. Very seriously.
Next up: some tips to get more mileage out of your reading.