Lee McCracken quotes a book called The Scope and Authority of the Bible (scm classics) by James Barr, which points out something that is frequently misunderstood by the critics of fundamentalism. Many atheists and others mistakenly believe that fundamentalism requires that one interpret the Bible literally at all times. But Barr correctly notes:
It is often said that fundamentalists are ‘people who take the Bible literally’. This however is a mistake. Fundamentalist interpretation concentrates not on taking the Bible literally, but on taking it so that it will appear to have been inerrant, without error in point of fact. Far from insisting that interpretation should be literal, it veers back and forward between the literal sense and a non-literal sense, in order to preserve the impression that the Bible is, especially in historical regards, always ‘right’. . . . It is the inerrancy of the Bible, especially its truth in historical regards, that is the fundamentalist position, and not the notion that it must always be interpreted literally. (pp. 77-8)
This is important to understand. Fundamentalism is not necessarily synonymous with Biblical literalism, but with Biblical inerrancy, which is not the same thing. In fact, as Barr notes, inerrancy frequently requires non-literalism. When a passage in the Bible is clearly contradicted by the evidence, there are two choices: One is to continue to insist on a literal interpretation and the evidence be damned (this is what young earth creationists do); the other is to reinterpret the passage as figurative or allegorical so that it no longer has to agree with the evidence.
It should also be said that even those who would generally consider themselves to be Biblical literalists do not take every single passage literally. When it says in the book of Isaiah that the trees clapped and the mountains sang, no one actually takes this to be literally true. The language here is clearly poetic and not intended to be taken literally and even the most hardcore fundamentalist is capable of recognizing the difference. The problem comes when passages are not so obviously meant to be figurative. That is where you get a big split between those who interpret a passage literally and those who do not.
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