Biblical literalism, literally

The increasingly common use of “literally” to mean something emphatic (but not literal) has provided much fodder for comedic monologues (language warning!), drinking games, BYUtv skits, running jokes, Oatmeals, etc. Last August Dana Coleman (at Salon) brought to our attention Webster’s Dictonary entry on ‘literally’, which now admits that, in addition to the ‘according to the letter’ sense, the word can mean “in effect; virtually”. In other words, it can signify both “according to the letter/actually” and “not according to the letter/figuratively”. If you understand ‘virtually’ and ‘actually’ to be opposites, ‘literally’ can then be a contranym,* or a word that is its own antonym, like ‘cleave’.

Does this have anything to do with what fundamentalists mean when they say the Bible is literally true? It’s a serious question, and one that struck me tonight as my friend at dinner reported that a General Authority told LDS Stake Presidents in a recent Utah Valley training meeting that we are to remember that the Bible is literally true.

I spent the next 30 minutes exploring with her why such a statement doesn’t hold up well in an LDS context: the tension with Article of Faith 8, the much larger problem of what literal means. It is difficult even to get through the first couple of verses of Genesis (let alone the rest of the Bible!) in a literalist mindset. What would the literal meaning be of “day” in Genesis 1 during the 3 “days” before the sun is created? She appealed to McConkie’s assertion that it means “period of time”. In other words, not literally. I then asked her about Genesis 2, when the order of creation in Genesis 1 is contradicted. (Plants are clearly created before humans in Genesis 1 but after humans in Genesis 2.) She offered Philo’s explanation, paralleled in Moses 2, that the order of Genesis 1 is “spiritual” but Genesis 2 is “physical”. Again, I pointed out that this is not a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2, but an appeal to a scheme outside the letter of the text. So, again, not literal. And so on. (Perhaps ironically, “literalists” would get much closer to the possibility of a literal reading by dividing the texts into the 4 sources of the Documentary Hypothesis and then attempting a literal reading!)

Biblical scholars have long pointed out that fundamentalists, in their efforts toward a “literal” reading of the text, often conjure the most radical and textually unsubstantiated explanations to preserve a “literal” reading. What is more, even the most pious ancient readers thought the literal reading to be the most uninteresting, or that at least the literal meaning isn’t the end of the story. But I think there is clearly something else going on with the modern conservative use of the term, something beyond the simple definition of literal, and it strikes me tonight that it’s precisely the same problem as the broader (“mis”)usage of “literally”. It’s not that literalists don’t understand what literal means. It’s that they’re using it to mean something so completely different that it might approach its opposite. This is perhaps best explained by the folks at Merriam Webster, in the discussion of “literally”:

 Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposition of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the [second] use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

And there we have it: Biblical literalism isn’t about adhering to the letter of the text, it’s a hyperbolic appeal to fundamentalism, and one that has come to be enshrined in our theologico-political vocabulary.


*Note that “apology” made it onto the list of contranyms, as it can be both an admission of a wrong and a defense of a right. But that is a topic for a different day.