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Do You Take The Bible Literally?

…Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. – Luke 14:33

As many Christians react to the emotionally tone-deaf excesses of fundamentalism, some of us have come to believe that we should “not take the Bible literally.” When I hear folks say this, I generally think I know what they mean – and I think I agree. That is, the Bible is not a science text book, and just because something happened in the Bible does not make it universally applicable and morally pure. Context matters, and when we read the Bible out of its context, we risk not only misunderstanding God’s revelation to us, but potentially doing real violence.

The evidence of this is all around us. Instead of focusing all our energies on doing works of justice and mercy, sharing the good news of Christ’s Kingdom with the whole world, many of us have spent generations debating whether the earth is 6,000 years old, whether God enjoys a good genocide, or whether women should be allowed to speak in church. In this context, it makes total sense why many of my brothers and sisters refuse to “take the Bible literally.” This often seems like short hand for saying, “we would like to focus on things that really matter.”

Yet, for myself, I cannot escape the feeling that this retreat from “literalism” frequently becomes a renunciation of taking the Bible as seriously as we ought. The dangers of blind fundamentalism are clear – but what of the risks of syncretisticindividualism? How can we avoid our innate human tendency to wiggle out of the deeply challenging message of the Bible if we refuse to be held accountable to it?

Is it possible that we have simply been taking the wrong parts of the Bible literally? What if, instead of trying to turn the Book of Revelation into a master plan for World War III or contorting Jesus’ few statements about marriage into a hardly-convincing argument against gay relationships, we resolved to take literally the Sermon on the Mount? What if we literalistically applied Jesus’ radical call to economic justice, healing and reconciliation? What if we were willing to bear the literal consequences of his call to renounce everything and follow him?

I think that few of us – regardless of where our theology falls on the Evangelical/Progressive spectrum – do a very good job of this. These are hard parts of the Bible to take at face value. It is relatively easy to condemn gays, silence women or affirm the idea that God created the world in six literal days. And it is equally easy to abandon the witness of Scripture and cobble together our own narcissistic path. What would it look like if we had the courage to refuse either temptation?

Without a doubt, this is the most fearsome path we can embark on. When we take seriously the wild-eyed Gardener who demands that our lives be pruned from top to bottom, it is a full frontal assault on our whole way of life. The narrow path of Jesus involves giving up any semblance of self-importance and control. Yet Scripture assures us – and we come to know from experience – that this deeply challenging way of Jesus is worth dying for.

How can we embrace the Bible with all seriousness – falling neither into fundamentalist faux-rationalism, nor the blind skepticism that offers itself as an alternative? What effect does it have when we joyfully receive the revelation of God through the witness of Scripture? How has your life been changed by taking seriously the example and teachings of the prophets, the apostles and Jesus?

  • Thanks for pointing out the difference between taking the Bible seriously and taking it literally. The former requires a lot more energy than the latter. I have not done a great job with it, but I do find myself very much challenged by some points made by Jesus and the prophets. They don’t let us get away with token acts or with rationalizations.

  • A nice piece. Sadly, what people generally mean by “literally” tends to distort accurate readings of the Bible. And many who don’t want to take the Bible “literally” actually want to take the Bible on their own terms, to avoid being challenged by it. Folks of all sorts want the Bible to say what they prefer. To take the Bible “seriously,” it seems to me, is to engage it thoughtfully, expecting that God still encounters and teaches us through Scripture. The Bible continues to be a gateway to learning from our Present Teacher.

  • “A man (woman) has to know his (her) limits.”

    Re: the Bible. Knowing and processing the entire Bible is indeed a very formidable undertaking. A narrower focus could be more realistic — and possibly desirable and sufficient for Christians.

    For Christians, the priority focus would seem to be to

    (1) learn what has come down to us about the behaviors and the teachings of Jesus,

    (2) strive to emulate the principles that underlie the behaviors of Jesus and to follow his instructions.

    Easy. No. Daunting. Yes. But isn’t doing these two things the most important things we can do as Christians?

    If yes, THE question is how best to proceed.

    Somethings appear easy. Following the examples and instruction of Jesus about praying in private and listening sounds easy, but it is not the usual practice in churches and of those who pray. So, how best to depart from the norm in order to follow Jesus re: praying, and to sustain doing so?

    Do others have useful guidance to offer?

    In what comes to us as Ben Franklin’s autobiography, he shares how to improved his writing, himself in various ways and how he was usually effective in obtaining concurrence and support for his proposals.

    Are there others whose lessons might usefully be considered?

    And, what is the role of religious groups in such learning and personal change?

  • As usual, Micah, you set out the issue and the challenge so well. We cannot use the words “Light” or “Seed” or “Christ” or “Redemption” without plumbing down into the Word that lies in, beneath and around them. Those words and the vision that they give us are so packed with meaning that cannot be known without the narrative. For me the cloud of witnesses, the generations of God-seekers and finders are encountered there, in the scriptures. Thank you for all you do to keep the conversation going.

  • Micah,
    Thank you for the wonderful blog post today. It is very helpful to me. Also thank you to James Breiling for your comment. I’m going to print it out to put in my Bible. I’ve been studying the New Testament with all of these commentaries and frequently feeling confused by all of the different views. I’m also busy working and don’t have time to really study the Bible as a scholar.Sometimes it’s so hard to “see the forest for the trees”. Your two point focus is helpful.

  • When I go to Friends meeting it often seems to me that I have entered a refugee camp. It appears to me that many of those who attend are there to avoid being somewhere else. Many of the people I encounter their have a dangerous allergic reaction to my belief in the risen Christ. I hope that is only because they confuse my belief with christianity. [The lower case “c” is deliberate.] I can appreciate Gandhi having said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” All that is left to me is to stand to my duty. “For we hold that in all disaster, and faith we have found it is true, that as long as you stand to your duty then God will stand by you.” My apologies to the Kipling trust.

    Tom Horne

  • I like this thinking, in particular the fact that the book of revelation is not a plan for W.W.III. I see that a ten horned beast may simply be a person who is righteous with the ten commandments (possibly Jesus, who is the only person I will ever allow to call themselves my God) and a seven horned beast (righteous person with the seven gifts of the holy spirit, also likely to be Jesus) who is able to arrest me with the will for love (Holy Spirit). I hope you like my opinion or understanding of revelation.

  • Is there room in the Society of Friends for someone who takes the Bible neither literally nor seriously?

    I hear often from other Friends that those of us who don’t identify the Bible as source of inspiration or understanding are either 1) refugees from other traditions that have used the Bible to harm certain people, 2) narcissistic individualists who don’t want to be told what to believe, or 3) people whose lack of education (usually at the hand of inadequate First Day school) has resulted in unfortunate Biblical illiteracy. We are told that if it wasn’t for these 3 things, we’d love the Bible more and be better Friends. For me, none of those are true.

    The crux is this: Nothing gets to be true just because someone writes it down in a book – even if the book is old and widely revered. I can accept that the text of what we call the Bible (pick a translation) reflects the understandings and experiences of the people who wrote and translated it over time. I can accept that there is value in struggling with it, but for me, the value is in the struggle itself rather than the actual text. I find Truth in the eisegesis, not the exegesis.

    For this, really, any text will do – the Bible, the Tao te Ching, the poems of Leonard Cohen, even a scripture of the senses engaged in daily living. What is important is the shared sincerity of the seeking and the willingness to be changed as Truth is revealed.

  • Margaret, Howard, Rene, Susan & Donald: Thank you for your good insights and kind encouragement!

    James: I definitely think you’re right that we have to read the Bible from Jesus out. He’s the lens through which we understand everything else. In him, all things hold together.

    Tom: It’s hard to lift up the life and character of Jesus when so many in your community associate him with the Crusades and Inquisition. Those acting in the name of Christ have done so much to place stumbling blocks before those who might seek the truth. I hope we can keep working to reveal the love and power of Jesus in our lives, to those around us.

    Vonn: It’s not up to me to decide who belongs in the Religious Society of Friends. As far as I can tell, there is no body that regulates membership in the Quaker community – and even if there were, I’m not sure I’d be invited to serve on the clearness committee! 🙂

    I’m sorry that you don’t find the Bible to be a source of inspiration for you. I have to admit, it’s tough for me to understand, since in my experience the Bible is an amazing storehouse that describes God’s dealings with my spiritual ancestors. Throughout the text, I find an incredibly compelling picture of who God is and what God’s character is. Thanks to the faithful witness of those who have gone before, I can begin to make sense of what I have personally experienced of God.

    I don’t believe the witness of the Bible “just because someone wrote it down in a book.” Rather, I have been convinced by the way that the Holy Spirit has repeatedly confirmed in me the truth of the biblical witnesses. I have no doubt that the authors of Scripture were inspired by the same Holy Spirit that has so transformed my life.

    What’s more, God continues to use this text today as a tool to draw me even closer to Jesus. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures are a great help in teaching me how to grow to maturity in the image of Jesus. There’s just no calculating how precious these writings have been and continue to be in my walk with God.

    I agree with you that there is truth to be discovered in many different texts. At the same time, it is my experience that the Bible is unique as God’s revelation to the Hebrew nation and the early Church, who have borne such beautiful and compelling testimony to the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, the promised Messiah.

    As I seek to be a disciple to him, I am grateful for the words of the Bible that so many of my spiritual ancestors have labored to preserve. In gratefulness to their faithfulness, I want to take these words as seriously as I can, asking the Holy Spirit to guide me in reading them rightly.