…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?