Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Literal Word

        literal [ˈlɪtərəl]
        1. in exact accordance with or limited to the primary or explicit meaning of a word or text
        2. word for word
        3. dull, factual, or prosaic
        4. consisting of, concerning, or indicated by letters
        5. true; actual
        6. (Mathematics) Maths containing or using coefficients and constants represented by letters: ax2 + b is a literal expression  
        Compare numerical [3a]
        (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) Also called literal error a misprint or misspelling in a text
        [from Late Latin litterālis concerning letters, from Latin littera letter]
        literalness , literality [ˌlɪtəˈrælɪtɪ] n

For those who regularly engage in the bible and theology, you do not have to spend much time at all listening to church teachers and preachers before you will hear someone espousing the manifold virtues of a literal approach to biblical interpretation. Certain theological topics in particular attempt to rely heavily on the concept of employing a literal hermeneutic and the presumed merit of such an approach. I imagine that for many people the inherent wisdom of literal exegesis is too obvious to even think of it being soundly critiqued. Here is my critique:

A literal hermeneutic does not literally exist. With a little bit of examination I'm sure you'll see that the concept is actually rather absurd. An overwhelming amount of the bible would be rendered completely unintelligible if the words were understood literally. It is likely that one of the most common mistakes "young" bible readers make is to take passages or phrases that are idiomatic, allegorical, or symbolic, and attempt to understand them literally.

It is often said that the historical-grammatical approach is a literal hermeneutic, however it's self-evident that such a concept is necessarily false. By definition the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, which emphasizes the reading of text in lieu of the indigenous context, original intent, and unique genre of the particular passage in question, contradicts the idea of approaching the bible with consistent literalism. It is necessary to read Song of Solomon much differently than the way Leviticus should be read.

Now I know that this idea would probably produce a visceral reaction from some bible readers who have been taught that there is such a thing as a literal hermeneutic and that it is the only right way to read the bible. But I would truly enjoy meeting someone that actually consistently interpreted the bible literally and have them explain how they make sense of anything. For example, just within the sermon on the mount alone (Mathew 5) you would have to take away that...

    1.    You are composed of salt, as in the particular chemical compound (NaCl) useful for preserving food. (v13)
    2.    You are an actual light that emits photons and collectively you and other lights compose a city on an actual hill (which seemingly contradicts the first point). (v14)
    3.    If you have ever been brought to sin through visual stimuli, you are commanded to tear out the eye responsible and throw it away (no littering). (v29)
    4.    Ditto for your arm. (v30)
    5.    God actually sits on heaven (which we should perhaps expect to resemble a giant chair) not unlike how you are now sitting at your computer. He also rests his feet on the actual Earth. (v34, 35)

I hope the above list of interpretations are as obnoxious to you as they are to me, because they highlight the natural shortcoming an actual literal interpretation has. Obviously it would be impossible to render the Bible intelligibly this way, as the authors and characters used idioms, hyperbole, and poetic devices in common communication just as we do. But you are probably saying, "Boring Gabe, nobody actually reads the bible like this. This is nothing like what I mean when I say I read the bible literally". Of course it isn't what you mean, but the words we use are so very important. If our communication is reduced to some ugly amalgamation of broad equivocations than we will lose the very ability to meaningfully articulate the foundational tenants of our faith and the opportunity to have sensible and productive discourse with other people over differing views.

It seems to me that people usually intend one of two things when claiming to use a literal hermeneutic. The more ingenuous error happens when people say they read the bible literally but it is clear from how they speak that they actually intend to express their commitment to taking the bible very seriously. That is, that they sincerely believe the bible to teach the truth and they hold to the high virtue of employing the utmost sincerity in their commitment to an uncompromising application of biblical teaching to their personal lives. More specifically, they take the bible at its word on the miraculous and believe in the modern relevancy and everyday importance of the New Testament teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. This is a great position to have and I heartily encourage it, but it is a separate issue from whether or not the biblical text should literally be interpreted literally. For example, I believe that Jesus is rightly described as the sacrificed lamb of God in the 5th chapter of the Apocolypse, however I don't know anyone who expects to meet a bloody, mangled, wooly animal--one with seven horns and eyes no less!--when they one day come before the Christ.

The second manner of erring in the claim to a literal hermeneutic is, in my view, much more of a serious problem than the former example. It is particularly popular among some Christians to support their theological conclusions as superior based on the virtue of the supposed literal hermeneutic they are employing. It then becomes a matter of convenience to push forward a fallacious argument in order to dismiss other opinions: they read the bible the literal (right) way, other people are doing something less (e.g. spiritualizing or allegorizing) and they beg the question by asserting that every other approach is by definition wrong. The root problem with this is the misnomer of claiming literalism as a hermeneutic. They do not have any higher platform from which to disparage the non-literalism of others. They end up tending toward hypocrisy in so much as they wrongly criticize those they disagree with for not acquiescing to an impossible standard that they themselves do not actually uphold. This is often and perhaps most easily seen in debates on eschatology where one person declares their view more literal than the view of another person when in reality they have both taken some passages literally and some not. They simply disagree on what is literal and what is otherwise.

This is an important issue in theological discussion because carelessly disparaging the view of other people on faulty grounds leads to the dismissal of people who have different conclusions than us without caring to understand anything about them. This leads to increased disconnection and segregation within the body of Christ (not a literal term) and is unfair--even misleading--to those younger Christians that might be naive to the difference between their preacher/teacher's personal dogma and the methods of sound biblical exegesis. It is also a red-flag for the veracity of our own positions if the best polemic that can be mustered against other opinions is fundamentally false. Arguing from such a point is all around unproductive for everyone involved.

So let us dispose of claims to literal hermeneutics. Nobody actually uses one and there would not be any virtue in doing so. Read the bible as it was written to be read. We should recognize that when we disagree with someone because they read a certain passage non-literally that we have to actually deal with that passage on its own merits. Simply pointing out that they are not reading it literally without pointing out why the particular section in question should be understood literally is in no way a valid argument. Of course, anyone is free to disagree with me and I heartily invite your expressed dissent. If you have stumbled across this and you're wondering who I am and what authority I have to speak on this, be sure to understand that I am nobody of significance and I don't carry any special authority. However, I believe that the preceding argument is able to stand on its own legs (also not literal).