While I love the debates on whether or not a particular passage in scripture is intended to be taken literally or metaphorically, lately I’ve been wondering if after all this time, we’re simply asking the wrong set of questions.
Back in February I had the opportunity to attend the Justice Conference with one of my friends who spoke on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology of social action. During an unrelated breakout session, one of the speakers broached the topic of the age old literal or metaphoric debate. The speaker (and for the life of me, I can’t remember who it was) asked if perhaps we would get more gas mileage out of asking a different question entirely.
Instead of asking “do you take this passage literally?” or “do you take this passage metaphorically?”, the speaker suggested that perhaps we should begin asking: “do you take this passage seriously?”
I’ve spent months now mulling over this concept, and while I think there is value in asking “what does literal mean?” (because sometimes, metaphorical is the literal way to interpret), I think that asking a different set a questions is a place that could radically change the face of American Christianity.
First, I think an important foundation for us to agree upon is that the Bible is ridiculously hard to interpret. Yes, I know you’ve been told that scripture is actually so simple that anyone can understand it, but that’s usually a line used by people who don’t want their worldviews shattered. I have two master’s in the subject, am mid-way through my doctorate in the subject, can read biblical Greek… and for me, it is STILL hard to interpret scripture… certainly not a task that I would ever attempt in isolation. Understanding scripture is more than understanding the words… it’s understanding nuance of language, issues in translation, cultural differences with authors, audiences… understanding the Bible means we have to work tirelessly to understand the people it was about.
Don’t misread me- I’m not saying we can’t understand the Bible or that we shouldn’t draw conclusions, but simply being clear that we must enter into the issue of hermeneutics with a deep humility. We must understand biblical interpretation is difficult and something that people have disagreed about throughout all of Christian history.
Within the discussion of biblical interpretation, we hit certain trouble passages that often become an impasse between those who choose to interpret using a straight literalism, and those who aren’t comfortable with such an approach. However, what if both sides are actually missing the point?
What if the literal or metaphorical discussion has become so consuming, that we fail to take scripture seriously?
I’ve been told in the past that if I don’t accept a literal, 24 hour creation, that I am rejecting everything else in the Bible. On the flip side, I’ve heard it said by some that nothing in the Bible was intended to be taken at face value.
Both sides, have missed the point.
The literal or metaphorical discussion fails us, if it fails to cause us to take scripture seriously.
I think instead of getting hung up on these problem texts and instead of classifying other Christians as “in” or “out” based upon how they are most comfortable viewing these texts, we should simply ask a different question:
Do you take this part of scripture seriously?
Think of how this new question could radically change the discussion and bring both sides together in a meaningful way…
Instead of debating whether or not the universe was made in seven, 24 hour days (which I don’t believe it was), the question instead becomes:
Do you take it seriously that this world is God’s creation and that he asked humanity to care for it?
If we do take it seriously- regardless of how or when it happened- we can join together and actually start caring for the environment, as people who take God’s creation seriously.
Instead of debating whether or not God flooded the whole world, or if it was a localized flood, the question becomes:
Do you take it seriously that God is so anti-violence that he allowed the world to experience judgement when it became too violent?
Here in America, we tend to forget that God’s disdain for violence was what triggered the flood story. Do we take it seriously? If we take this seriously, we must become the people who reject violence, instead of the people who are protesting in support of our right to use violence. We must be people who take God so seriously, we pick up a cross instead of a .45
Instead of debating whether or not there was a burning bush, or a host of plagues across Egypt, the question becomes:
Do you take it seriously that God hates slavery and wants people to go to any length to end it?
If we do take the story of Moses seriously, we must be serious about addressing Human Trafficking in our culture. Whether or not every aspect of the story happened “literally”, the entire point was that God hates slavery and wanted Moses to free slaves. If we take this seriously, we’ll find ourselves doing the same.
Instead of asking “Did God really rain fire down on Sodom and Gomorrah?” the question becomes:
Do you take it seriously that God hates greediness, consumerism, and oppression of strangers/immigrants?
If we do take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah seriously (which I wrote about here), we will be forced to recon with the fact that God was furious with this culture because they were “overfed”, “arrogant” and mistreated immigrants and strangers. By taking this story seriously, we would find ourselves working to change American culture which is both overfed, arrogant, and everything else that was wrong with Sodom. Taking this scripture seriously, means we would take the sin of greed seriously.
The Bible contains a host of “problem” passages that beg the question: “did this literally happen?” And, while there’s nothing wrong with asking that question– getting hung up on the question can cause you to miss the depths and richness of scripture. It is possible to know the passage without actually knowing the passage. For too long, we have missed the entire point of these problem stories, and I believe it’s because we’ve spent too much time debating the wrong questions.
I could continue to walk through story after story, and get lost in debates that ultimately don’t matter. Why? The point isn’t whether or not it happened the way it is described as happening… the point is much deeper. And, to get to that point, we have to start asking different questions.
The question must begin with:
Do you take it seriously?
Let’s meet there.