Biblical Literalism’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Biblical Literalism’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy June 13, 2014

David Hayward’s cartoon above illustrates the reason why I consider Biblical literalism to be an attack on Christianity, rather than an expression of faithfulness to it. No matter how much they insist otherwise, no one actually takes the Bible literally – not even all the bits that are “clearly” non-poetic.

But that doesn’t stop preachers from telling people they have a stark choice: either accept everything the Bible says, or toss the entire thing aside along with any faith, beliefs, and values they associate with it.

If that were indeed the choice that confronts us, then there would be no alternative to walking away, other than increasingly feigning faithfulness and consistency while hiding one’s hypocrisy.

Both options are detrimental to a healthy spiritual life.

But they aren’t the only options. Christianity flourished before it had a Bible, and when the collections of texts that Christians had could not be read by most of them. And even among those who could study and interpret the texts in question, what we see them doing with those texts is anything but literalism.

It is time to make clear to the world that the situation is not one of faithful Biblical literalists and then others who are compromising “sort of” Christians. If anything, the situation is one of progressives who are seeking to continue the dynamic interplay between tradition and novelty to which the Bible and the entire history of religion (not just Christianity) bears witness, and people who deceive the gullible into first believing, and then pretending, that they are being faithful in ways that they aren’t, at least not consistently.

But the above two options are not the only ones. There is an enormous range of others in between them and beyond them. While there are choices we sometimes need to make between two options, rarely are those two options the only ones.

Despite what fundamentalist preachers will tell you.

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  • Gary

    Someone in the crowd yelled out:
    “Luke 14:26 If any man cometh unto me, and hateth not his own father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

    • And what’s the context of this quote?

      • Gary

        You tell me.

      • Gary

        I’d say there is no “context” in this case. More to do with the diverse authors, redacting, and crazy quilt of bible construction. And maybe Marcion had the right Gospel of Luke, after all. I think this is certainly related, and pertinent to the original post:

        Elaine Pagels, “The Gnostic Gospels”. If we go back to the earliest known sources of Christian tradition– the saying of Jesus (although scholars disagree on the question of which sayings are genuinely authentic), we can see how both gnostic and orthodox forms of Christianity could emerge as variant interpretations of the teaching and significance of Christ. Those attracted to solitude would note that even the New Testament gospel of Luke includes Jesus’ saying that whoever “does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” He demanded that those who followed him must give up everything– family, home, children, ordinary work, wealth– to join him. And he himself, as prototype, was a homeless man who rejected his own family, avoided marriage and family life, a mysterious wanderer who insisted on truth at all costs, even the cost of his own life.”…

        “William Blake, noting such different portraits of Jesus in the New Testament, sided with the one the gnostics preferred against “the vision of Christ that all men see”:
        The vision of Christ that thou dost see
        Is my vision’s deepest enemy…
        Thine is the friend of all Mankind,
        Mine speaks in parables to the blind:

        Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
        Thy Heaven doors are my Hell gates…
        Both read the Bible day and night
        But thou read’st black where I read white…
        Seeing this False Christ, In fury and passion
        I made my Voice heard all over the Nation.”

    • JenellYB

      I think the most common problem in trying to interpret, make sense of, trying to apply, such as this passage, is in the choice of the word “hate” by translators. I’ve looked at this one a good bit considering it in context of surrounding text, redaction against Jesus’ teaching and words in other passages, and then, most revealing, in examining it in the Aramaic Greek from which it was translated.
      In my opinion, the choice of “hate” in this badly fails to convey what was there in the language from which it was translated, or at least in the sense of meanings and shades of meanings that we, in our modern English, have for the word “hate.”
      It seems to me in the Greek, what is translated as “hate” and as it is used in this text, has no direct translation into a single English word. The meaning I took from it in this would be something along the lines of how we would say, to not be influenced or guided by, as in avoiding submitting to the pressure of peers, family, friends, society as a whole, in what we should be, how we should be, how we should think, or understand anything. To disregard such elements of “the World” as we encounter it in the people around us, and important to us.
      For myself, when looking at such as this passage, I came to some understanding within my own self, my own life, how letting myself be influenced, coerced, by society around me, people close to me, that mattered to me, and what they thought was right and best for me, or what I should do in many things, often very much with pressure of threat, rather veiled or outright open, of being rejected, abandoned, if I didn’t, and often in conflict with what my own conscience, knowledge, intuitions, were urging me toward, was very much involved in many of my life’s mistakes. And that was very much an obstacle I’ve had to over come in moving toward being more fully who/what I am, and could be.

      • Gary

        As good an interpretation as any. As long as you are happy with it, that’s all that counts.

  • Dear James,

    words almost fail me to express my deep admiration for this wonderful post who expresses so many profound truths at the same time and in a seamless manner 🙂

    I am convinced that fundamentalism (and more generally Conservative Evangelicalism) are destroying Christianity by leaving us no other choice than sacrificing our intellectual honesty or giving up our faith in Jesus altogether.

    I started blogging in order to contribute to show that this is a false dichotomy , that one can be an enlightened religious believer hoping in the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

    Conservative Evangelicals (CE) keep saying that progressive Christians pick and choose from they Bible in an irrational manner.

    But as I have (hopefully) made it clear, THEY are the very ones who are guilty of this inconsistency.

    There is nothing wrong about selectively approving good parts of a book you don’t view as inerrant, everyone (atheists, deists, pantheitst, Marxists…) do that all the time.

    On the other hand, Conservative Evangelicals are constantly PLAYING DOWN the conflicting character of the different voices in the Bible and they themselves decide

    – which texts they properly interpret
    – which texts they necessarily have to distort because they contradict the former ones.

    And they delude themselves into thinking that extraordinarily implausible harmonizations are acceptable if they are just logically possible.

    I don’t hate or despise CE but think it is my duty to strongly oppose them, because they are really destroying our faith and are building a house of cards which is all too ready to collapse.

    It is certainly no coincidence that the large majority of militant atheist in America are former fundies who have never given up their bigoted mindset.

    They have kept (to an important extent) the habit of thinking of the Bible as having ONLY ONE VOICE on moral issues, as the following dialogue with an anti-theist illustrates.

    I think that the best apologetic strategy an enlightened Christian should take is :

    recognizing that there really are Biblical atrocities attributed to God
    showing that the Bible does NOT speak with one voice on most issues
    – pointing out that the central message of Jesus was progressive .

    I’m really looking forward to reading similar posts of yours 🙂

    Lovely greetings.

    • johnboy

      Born and raised Southern Baptist, but now a Disciple of Christ, I find it offensive that you equate fundamentalists with bigotry. All fundamentalists are not bigots and all bigots are not fundamentalists. Name-calling does not enhance your arguments.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I’ve stated many times the advent of the religious right in the late 1970s has harmed Christian churches more than “liberal secular humanists” have ever done. Fundamentalism is nothing new, but the mixture of political jockying with awful, ignorant theology you saw swell in the 1980s and beyond . . . add in a touch of televangelists and prosperity gospel . . and you have the popular conception of “Christianity” becoming a joke which demands no respect from anyone who can think critically.

    • Sterling Ericsson

      You forgot about the faith healers with magical hands. They didn’t help much either.

      • JenellYB

        As I have observed them, most the ‘faith healing’ ‘Holy Ghost” pentacostals/charismatics are as bent toward literalism and legalism as any other evangelical/conservative Christian communities. Maybe even more so than most. The “faith healing” and “magic hands” stuff, as well as being much concerned about “demons” and the Devil after them at every turn, also comes out of literal ‘interpretations’ of select passages of text, incidents related within the bible, especially the NT. Such as Jesus’ declaring that his followers would do such great works, miracles, as He did, and even more, and Jesus’ casting out devils (demons) and commissioning His disciples to go out and do that, too. It is the same kind of taking select passages of text our of context of the whole and spinning it into applying it to people today, and they will stand on biblical literalism and inerrancy as much as any other in arguing such beliefs and practices.

  • WeAreThey

    I also find the “rapture” obsessed so-called “prophetic ministries” that worship modern Israel more than Jesus particularly close-minded and offensive.