Selective Literalism

I think it’s important to remember that even when fundamentalists or evangelicals say they are just reading the Bible straightforwardly while other Christians pick and choose, they’re forgetting that they themselves pick and choose. “Selective literalism” is a good way to describe it.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Rilian

    I thought it said “selective literatism” and was going to be about people sometimes not knowing how to read. Hm, it kind of is.

  • Christine

    I saw a review of A Year of Biblical Womanhood where the (Bible literalist) reviewer complained that Rachel Held Evans was taking too many parts of the Bible as instructions, she should only be following the ones that were genuinely addressed to women.

    • Lana

      Read that book and love it

  • luckyducky

    When I was really introduced to Biblical literalism as a teen (grew up Catholic) — I was taken to Bible study on a date – fun, fun! — I was like “huh?” I left this Bible study where we spent 2 hrs discussing the descriptions of heaven in Revelations as if they were a real estate listing thinking these people were… ummm… politely… interesting (bleeping nuts was more like it). Goes without saying, I didn’t go back and I didn’t continue to date that guy.

    • Lucreza Borgia

      My husband was stalked by a Mormon chick who took him to a prayer meeting for their date. Of course, she didn’t inform him of what it was and just said they would be hanging out with friends. He quickly found a reason to excuse himself and ignored her from that point on. Unfortunately, she took that as a challenge and started leaving fresh baked pies on his doorstep. They would still be warm when he would leave to work at 6am…in January!

  • Aaron

    To be fair (haaahaha), it really only says it once. The first quotation pretty clearly states what needs to happen if one is to become one of Jesus’ disciples. The second fits the comic’s needs to a T, though.

  • Paul

    Completely interpreted the sixth panel not as, “(Do you believe in) Gods that impregnate Humans?… (Do you believe in) Unicorns?… ” but as, “(Do you believe in) Gods that impregnate humans? … (Do you believe in Gods that impregnate) unicorns?… (Do you believe in Gods that impregnate) dragons?” The bible became a tad bit more interesting in a very strange way…

  • ako

    The main thing I’ve noticed about Biblical Literalism is that if you’re trying real hard to pretend that you’re not interpreting a text in non-literal ways, you end up with really inconsistent and incoherent interpretations. (And, as anyone who’s ever been in a debate with a prooftexter knows, there are bits of the Bible which, if one reads the plain and literal meaning, contradict other bits, so taking it all literally is not an option.)

    • Rosie

      Or you wind up in Calvinism, which makes God out to be a total monster.

      • Monika


        I’be never been very religious (brief flirtation because I made a religious friend in primary school is as close as I got) and I have always had two big problems with religion:
        1. The God concept seems unlikely to me.
        2. If there is a God he really isn’t a good guy and why are we all worshipping him?!

  • Darth Conans

    Calvinists aren’t literalists. They do some extremely unjustified things with Daniel and Revelation, interpreting both as allegories and accounts of the early church, not as the prophesies they claim to be.

    Robert M. Price wrote a pretty excellent book on this topic, titled “Inerrant the Wind: The Crisis of Biblical Authority.” In it, he makes the argument that the contradictions produced by a plain reading of the Bible (differing creation accounts, wildly different accounts of Jesus’ life, irreconcilable historic accounts in the old testament books like Kings and Chronicles) are so glaring that nobody can actually be a literalist. Instead, people who call themselves literalists engage in a complex pattern of special pleading, harmonization, and blindness to produce an account of what actually happens. In doing this, apologists implicitly claim that they’re inerrant, not the Bible, since the Bible contains so many things that must be explained away or justified, and only the apologist can do this reliably.

    • Rosie

      Thanks for the clarification. I wonder why it is that everyone I’ve known who attempted a literalist reading of the Bible wound up with either a pretty Calvinist-ish take on salvation (predestination, or at the very least lots of damned for no other reason than God decided to do it), or admittedly flimsy reasons to think otherwise (basically amounting to “I don’t think God would do that”).

      • Darth Conans

        This is a bit long. Well, the Bible doesn’t actually have a consistent salvific mechanism. In the Old Testament, there really isn’t an afterlife (aside from Sheol, which sounds like a nightmare, and might just be a description of oblivion) until Daniel, so a doctrine of salvation wouldn’t make sense. In Daniel, it appears that there’s going to be a bodily resurrection of all the dead after the messiah comes.
        The New Testament appears to be relatively split between predestination and some kind of chosen salvation involving Christ (and possibly works) in some capacity (the personal relationship with Jesus so beloved by evangelicals doesn’t really appear, and was apparently invented by German pietists in the 16th century). However, since the God of the New Testament is supposed to be all-knowing (and therefore presumably knows everyone’s fate before they’re born), if you’re thorough about your God, you kind of have to come down on the side of predestination. Doing otherwise would make God’s ability/choice to save subject to the whims and vagaries of human belief, which sounds incredibly wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone who believes in freely-available grace successfully defend against this. The closest anyone has ever come is the somewhat bizarre “God knows what you’re going to do, but nothing is forcing you to do it. You will do it, but only because to do anything else would be against your nature” (this is the view that Leibniz offered, for instance. It sounds remarkably like a defense of the determinist view of free will). It’s not satisfying, so most people who don’t believe in predestination instead cite a few bible verses that imply choice and move on without really talking about what it says about their God that he either can’t save everyone or makes them jump through weird mental hoops before he will.

        For a bit of a longer discussion of this, please consult “The Human Bible” episode 4, available for free through the iTunes store.

      • Rosie

        Thank you! I don’t think I’ve ever seen it laid out like that. And the podcast looks very interesting too.

  • Lucreza Borgia

    OK, maybe someone can figure this one out for me. I was in an argument with a Catholic on a forum about literal reading of the bible. His take was that to read the bible literally really means contextually and that serious biblical philosophers have been using the word literal for contextually for centuries yet most of these works weren’t even in English??

  • Darth Conans

    This tries to explain it. I’m of the opinion that trying to distinguish literalist from literal is really stupid, since to do so, you have to use an incredibly uncommon meaning of the word literal. The only real point appears to be to use semantic games to refute the Protestant charge that Catholics allegorize the bible.

    • Rosie

      Heh. A Baptist acquaintance of mine (educated in a Southern Baptist college) might have quoted that Jesuit word-for-word about how he reads the Bible.

    • Lucreza Borgia

      He used this exact blog as his proof!

    • Ryan Duns

      I bristle at your suggestion that the attempt to embrace what the Catholic tradition has held for centuries is “stupid.” Your suggestion that Catholics “allegorize the bible” itself is a claim that lacks clarity and sophistication. The original authors knew full well that they were frequently borrowed from other traditions and cultures and expected that their readers would respond to the need to interpret the text. That’s all the word ‘literal’ attempts to reclaim: that we need to read things as texts, the Word of God in the words of humans, and that nothing we ever say of God will ever be sufficient.

      Here’s the choice: either take a literal approach to the scriptures, reading it carefully and interpreting as the canons of responsible exegesis demands, or try to explain TWO accounts of creation (the temporal ordering cannot easily be reconciled) and two accounts of the flood. I simply think that a literalistic, “God said it, that’s good enough for me” approach to scriptural interpretation is tantamount to intellectual suicide and provides the fodder the likes of Dawkins and Dennet lap up gladly.

  • Darth Conans

    I apologize for the use of the word “stupid.” I still feel that the differentiation between “literalist” and “literal” is, at best, confusing, but the word is insulting, so I retract it, and would edit it out, except that this blog’s software doesn’t appear to allow me to do this.
    I believe I understand the basics of Catholic exegesis (the revelation of God is perfect, but the people who recorded it were not, so the Bible contains things that, if not exactly errors, are at least imprecise and likely to produce a false understanding if read plainly, which is why it is so important for people to rely on the clergy for their interpretation of scripture), and I think I understand what you’re trying to signify with “literal”. However, the contrasting of the word “literal” with “literalist” still strikes me as enormously problematic. Why use a word that is so similar when you’ve got other words that would serve as well and not produce confusion?
    As far as allegorizing the Bible, my meaning is this: the Catholic church takes as allegorical at least two books (Daniel and Revelation) of the Bible that are clearly meant, when taken on their own terms, to be prophetic ( I suspect you are tired of dealing with proof-texting, so I will refrain from doing it here to argue this point.) Cheerful prophesying to help the church hold on through times of adversity are the whole point of the apocalyptic genre, and if the books aren’t intended to be actual prophesies, then all of the specific (though coded) references to Antiochus Epiphanies and Nero and the specific predictions (usually incorrect) about what will happen to them make no sense (why tie a generally encouraging fable to a specific time and place and person).
    You also neglect the third option when interpreting scripture: to read it as a totally human document (albeit one that is both foundational to our culture and very interesting). This framework does a better job of explaining most of the contradictions and weirdness. Source or redaction criticism explain most of the contradictions (different sources or people trying to alter what they thought the story meant), and form criticism accounts for most of the more horrifying anecdotes (the obviously unjust stoning in Numbers 15:32-36). Obviously, I’m not going to sell you on this approach (one anonymous blog post isn’t going to shake a Jesuit’s faith), but not even mentioning it in your last paragraph is odd.
    Your way is obviously superior to literalists, if only because it doesn’t require you to ignore most of science or believe in absurdities like nephilim or horrors like Sheol (I once heard an evangelical preacher explain the layout of the afterlives and come to the conclusion that there must be at least four distinct pieces: Sheol, Hell, Abraham’s Bosom, and Heaven). But it must be odd to accept so much of higher criticism about cultural influences and multiple sources and the rest, while ignoring the general conclusion that such discoveries push towards.
    On an unrelated note, why do you still care about Richard Dawkins? The man showed he wasn’t worth paying attention to the moment his execrable “The God Delusion” came out. Chapter after chapter of anecdotes masquerading as evidence of religion’s harmfulness, evolutionary psych that everyone must have known already, and odd polemic made it the most infuriating book I read in college, and I can’t imagine anyone paying attention to him after that. He’s a pretty good biologist, by all accounts, but he can’t do theology or philosophy to save his life.