No, the Writers of the Bible Did Not Expect It To Be Taken Literally [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity cames from Nina:

Questions that haunt: did people of Jesus’ time even expect the stories they were telling to be taken literally? Would they be shocked to learn that 2,000 years later we are interpreting them that way?

They told lots of stories then about people who were sons of god, and born of virgins, and resurrected — these were themes that came up regularly. It doesn’t seem to me (or to most scholars since David Friedrich Strauss, I think), that first century folks approached storytelling with the idea that their stories were literally accurate (they instead were symbolically True).

What if when we try to interpret the virgin birth or the resurrection as historically true (rather than symbolically True) we’re just completely misunderstanding the original intent of these stories? What if people in antiquity were way more sophisticated than we are, and they would think we were impossibly thick to be interpreting their beautiful stories this way?

To give a modern example, what if I had a southern friend who said “She’s so crazy about her man, it’s like he hung the moon.” And I said, “Oh, I don’t think his ladder would reach that high.” Imagine the reaction I would get….

Great comments, as always. This week, there wasn’t really one thread that dominated, but lots of smaller threads, chasing down various ideas. I’ll probably touch on lots of them with my more narrative response:

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Would You Step on Jesus?

My friend and fellow Minnesotan, Jay Bakker, is known to throw his Bible to the ground during his talks, in order to break his audiences of their bibliolatry. At first blush, it seems like an act of sacrilege, but his point is that the Bible is ink on a page, whereas the Word of God is something more than that.

The always insightful Stanley Fish draws our attention to a class at Florida Atlantic University, in which students were asked to write the name “Jesus” on a peace of paper and then step on it. The governor of Florida was horrified, as were many others. But, as Fish reports, they got the story wrong. The professor is a Christian, and the exercise had a point:

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Stanley Fish on Defending a Sacred Text

Earlier this week, I wrote about Chuck Colson. Colson, in his 2006 attack on the emergent church movement, wrote negatively about literary critic and commentator Stanley Fish, saying,

The arguments of some emerging church leaders, I fear, draw us perilously close to the trap set by postmodern deconstructionist Stanley Fish. Defending himself after his sympathetic statements about the 9/11 terrorists boomeranged, Fish claimed that postmodernists don’t really deny the existence of truth. He said there is simply no “independent standard of objectivity.” So truth can’t be proved to others; therefore, it can’t be known—a verbal sleight of hand.

Fish is a favorite of mine. He is so, in large part, because he often does not say and write what you expect him to say and write. He is unpredictable (not an attribute of Colson’s). Last week, his post at NY Times, for instance, takes liberals to the woodshed for poo-pooing those of us who put stock in a sacred text. Money quote:

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In Praise of Relativism

Stanley Fish

One of my favorite fellow relativists, Stanley Fish, recently took to the pages of the New York Times to defend relativism. First, he defines two different kids of relativism:

There are (at least) two ways of denying moral absolutes. You can say “I don’t believe there are any” or you can say “I believe there are moral absolutes, but (a) there are too many candidates for membership in that category and (b) there is no device, mechanical test, algorithm or knock-down argument for determining which candidates are the true ones.”

He goes on to argue that, while one might argue in the forensic environment of a philosophy seminar that a stated belief in a lack of moral absolutes inevitably leads down the slippery slope to nihilism, there is no evidence outside of that classroom — in the real world — that nihilism is a consequence of relativism:

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