I‘ve been asked by several people in various comments or emails what fundamentalists and evangelicals mean when they speak of taking the Bible “literally.” I’m going to take a moment to hash that out here.
First off, I don’t know a single fundamentalist or evangelical who takes Jesus’ parables “literally.” Similarly, none of them look at the Proverbs or Song of Solomon and take them “literally” either. Even the most fundamentalist fundamentalist understands that there are different genres, and that Jesus’ parables are stories with morals, that when the author of Proverbs speaks of “wisdom” crying in the street he is speaking allegorically, and that the Song of Solomon is poetry. Taking the Bible “literally” does not mean being completely idiotic, as it is sometimes parodied.
What does it mean, then?
It means that when a book says it’s written by Luke, or Paul, or Peter, well, that’s who it’s written by. Asking whether it could really have been written by that person, whether maybe the content signals a later authorship or the style indicates a more educated author, is not okay. If it says it’s written by Paul, it’s written by Paul. I should note that somehow this also extends to books whose authorship has long been traditionally assigned to a given individual – for example, the first five books of the Bible have traditionally been assigned to Moses, and the book of Matthew to Matthew – even if the book does not itself state its author. So asking whether Moses really wrote Genesis? That’s a no-no.
It means viewing “books of history” – Genesis, Esther, I and II Kings, the gospels, Acts, etc. – as factually correct in every detail. In other words, Abraham was a real person and his wife Sarah really was noticed and lusted after by the Pharaoh of Egypt, Esther really saved her people from annihilation, and Paul really had a lot of shipwrecks. And there’s no questioning of sequence, detail, or event. If it says it happened, it happened, and it happened the way it says it happened. Period.
It means accepting that every miracle happened exactly as described. Balaam’s ass really talked, Sarah really had a baby in her old age, the idol of the fish god Dagon really did fall on its face before the ark of the covenant, Jesus did really feed the five hundred, and Paul really was healed from a deadly snake bite. In evangelical and fundamentalist circles, questioning any of those miracles – even simply questioning the details of how they occurred – would be enough to have your religion questioned.
It means assuming that there are no contradictions in the Bible whatsoever. If one passage says one thing and another appears to contradict it, the two must be reconciled, because both are 100% true. Questioning one passage or the other, or suggesting that the two authors just disagreed, would both win you a ticket right out of the church. There can’t be a contradiction, because God wrote it just as it is, and it’s perfect and without contradiction.
It means assuming that the words of Christ as recorded in the gospels were exactly what he said. And the same with every other quotation or monologue in the Bible. Like the assumption about historical accuracy, a suggestion that maybe the author wrote down simply what he remembered of this sermon or that is unacceptable. That would be allowing for an error. Because God guided the pen of every author of every book of the Bible, every word is completely accurate. It didn’t matter whether the author could remember a given sermon word for word, because God was telling him what to write, and God knows everything and doesn’t make mistakes. Period.
In the end, taking the Bible “literally” means assuming that God directly inspired the authors of the Bible and wrote through them, almost to the point of guiding their pens. It means assuming that the Bible was handed to us by God in the form we have it today. It means accepting its words at face value, accepting its history as history, and accepting its prohibitions and commands as still valid. And it means leaving aside any analysis of the text that would call this into question.
When I learned about scholarly understandings of the Bible, while I was in college, I was shocked. I had never even thought to ask whether Matthew really wrote Matthew or whether Paul really wrote the letters that bear his name. I had never thought to ask whether some parts of the Bible might contradict others – I had been taught that it was all in perfect harmony, perfectly shaped, perfectly polished, the perfect word of God. As I learned about contradictions and historical inaccuracies, I was shocked. I soon began to understand just how complex the Bible is and suddenly the literal understanding I’d been taught to hold growing up seemed incredibly simplistic. There is no attempt to truly investigate where the Bible came from, how it came to be, and who and what shaped its creation. Instead, the answer to all those questions was simply “God.”
As much time as evangelicals and fundamentalists spend reading the Bible themselves, they also spend time reading Christian study books and listening to pastors. Passages that command women to be keepers at home may be honored while passages that inveigh against the braiding of hair may be ignored. Or, passages that command women to wear head coverings in church may be honored while passages that state that a pastor must have upstanding children may be ignored. Even those who claim to take the Bible literally generally don’t take everything all the way, and are generally guided in their understanding and interpretations by others.
While they generally inveigh against arguing that a given command or prohibition was “just cultural,” fundamentalists and evangelicals sometimes do address the social background of a given passage. For example, I was taught that braiding hair and having one’s head uncovered were now acceptable, because they had simply been prohibited because at the time braiding your hair or not wearing a covering over your head were the signs of a prostitute. In other words, those passages were actually saying “don’t dress like a whore.” And that, rather than specifically the hair braiding or covering, was what we were to take away from it. So even those who reject the “that was just cultural” argument when it comes to passages addressing, say, homosexuality, may use that argument when explaining why they don’t follow the prohibition on the braiding of hair. And again, this varies from church to church and group to group.