Is That a Metaphor?

Is That a Metaphor? July 15, 2014

I've shared both of these before, but thought they should be circulated again, since I still hear people talking about “Biblical literalists” as though there were such people. Please be more accurate and call them selective Biblical literalists. Otherwise you give them credit for being consistent where it isn't deserved.


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  • Go_4_tli

    Maybe they mean “literally” as just a word for emphasis, the way it tends to be used in conversation; contrast: “I had them *glued to their seats. Literally.” with “I believe every word in the Bible. Literally.” 😉

  • arcseconds

    I’m not sure it’s really that much of a credit to someone, suggesting that they always read things literally, with strange results when the story is symbolic.

  • Sean Garrigan

    I think it was N.T. Wright who pointed out that “literal interpretation” isn’t the taking of the biblical words themselves “literally” but the taking the intent of the writer “literally”. In other words, literal interpretation does not consist of taking various symbols, metaphors, similes, analogies, etc, according to the “literal” meaning of each word or metaphorical statement; it consists of understanding the literal *intent* of the original writer.

    If this understanding is correct, then liberals may have sinned as much as conservatives, in that while the former may attempt to establish conclusions based on “literal” interpretation, the latter seems at times to wish to sidestep valid interpretative conclusions based on an original author’s intent. That language is symbolic doesn’t mean that one can harmonize it with whatever one would prefer it to mean.

    In other words, contrary to some, the fact that a given biblical writer doesn’t appear to be concerned with what we take as the “literal” meaning of a given text doesn’t mean that they’d embrace some modern re-interpretation of the language used, esp. if the modern interpretation directly contradicts the *intent* of the writer.

    • D Rizdek

      “it consists of understanding the literal *intent* of the original writer.”
      But isn’t that the problem?

      • Sean Garrigan

        Can you elaborate?

        • D Rizdek

          Isn’t the problem understanding the intent of the writer. NTWright said literal interpretation isn’t taking the biblical words themselves literally, but taking the INTENT of the writer literally. How do we know what the intent of the writer was except by the words he used? Can you give me an example of where we might not take the worlds literally but might be able to take the intent of the writer literally? And in doing so, explain how you know the intent of the writer.

          • Sean Garrigan

            I think that, while important in terms of biblical interpretation in general, in this case shifting our focus to some specific account and discussing what you or I might interpret it to mean and then debating whether we’ve interpreted it correctly vis a vis the original author’s intent would move us away from rather than towards the important observation about what “literal” interpretation should be.

            Whether we can always be confident that we’ve inferred an author’s literal meaning from the metaphorical language used is one question, and a very important one. In the context of this blog entry, however, a different question emerges, which is the one I’m focusing on: Aren’t some who criticize literalists often guilty of the sin lurking on the other side of the literalist/non-literalist debate and waiting there to entrap us? I think the obvious is yes, and that recognizing this might help us to recognize that there’s a rafter in our own eye that needs medical attention.

          • D Rizdek

            I probably don’t grasp your point. It seems the safest thing in that case would be to reserve judgment until we are sure.

            If we heard someone on the street, on a soapbox or in the pulpit talking incomprehensibly and we had the option of “backing away slowly,” we should back away slowly.

          • Sean Garrigan

            Maybe you’re having trouble grasping my point because of the metaphorical language I used;-)

            It’s a simple point, really, and one I’ve made before. James very much enjoys taking shots at conservatives and “literalists” — and there certainly are cases in which they deserve criticism — but he seems singularly reluctant to subject his own approach to the same hard-hitting scrutiny. So, every now and then I like to remind him that there are straws in his own eye, as it were.

            BTW, be careful backing away; I’d hate to see you trip and fall on your butt;-)

          • D Rizdek

            Yes, that would be a problem, thanks for the warning.

          • Sean Garrigan

            BTW, I think it was in his “Scripture and the Authority of God” where N.T. Wright discusses the mistakes vis a vis the approach to Scripture that both conservatives and liberals make. As he enumerated the errors common to liberals I couldn’t help but think of this and other blogs owned by some of our more disputatious liberals.

    • Steven

      I think your distinction on the use of the word literal has swallowed up the whole meaning of the word literal. Figuratively speaking, of course. Literal intent is a bit of an oxymoron. I think you mean actual intent. You read a passage figuratively in order to understand what may have been the author’s actually-intended message.

      Actually, society has so completely mangled the word literally, in common (mis)usage it means the very opposite of what it use to mean. It drives me insane. Figuratively speaking, of course.

      • Sean Garrigan

        I think it was N.T. Wright’s distinction, but I could be misremembering. Next time I have a moment I’ll check the reference.

        In any case, I think “actual” works very well in this context. I’m on board in the search for greater precision, thanks:-)

        • Sean Garrigan

          On the other hand, in defense of N.T. Wright (assuming I’m remembering his argument accurately), the distinction between “literal” and “actual” in context may constitute a difference without a difference.

          For example, when my father playfully called me “an elephant” after I put on a few unwanted pounds, he didn’t literally mean that I was an elephant, but he did *literally* mean that I was becoming dangerously overweight and needed to reverse the trend (diabetes runs in the family). I think that’s what N.T. Wright had in mind. A valid “literal” interpretation of Scripture isn’t one that insists that metaphorical/symbolic language be taken literally; it’s one that insists that the meaning the original author had in mind in using the metaphorical/symbolic language be taken literally.

          So, there are two respects in which it is erroneous to argue that the biblical writers weren’t concerned with the literal meaning of the texts they used to make their various points. (1) The literal or actual meaning flows from the symbolic language used. E.g. if my father had called me a “twig” I wouldn’t have gotten the sense that he was saying I needed to watch my weight. (2) The literal or “actual” meaning obviously *was* important to the authors, or they wouldn’t have taken the time to convey it using the carefully chosen symbols employed to accomplish the task.

      • Ian

        I literally pull my hair out every time somebody is misuses that word. It is literally the most frustrating thing in the world.

  • Brian P.

    For literalists, I think I see at least several, quite different, types or themes.

    1. Theologians: Who assert Chicago or other, who support with a bit of example, but never get into the literal mud on the street.

    2. Apologists: Who get into the mud on the street and can produce a literal explanation, harmonization, or whatever for any “alleged” this or that.

    3. Family Members: Who have literally accepted Jesus in their hearts.

    4. Pastors: Who signed a statement of faith and need a literal pay check.

    The rest of us are just mockers.

  • Michael Wilson

    A number of text may have been intended to be or assumed to be taken literaly yet be metaphor. For instance, the group that wrote the creation story in J appear to be working with a knowledge of Akkadian myths and some related local variants. The new writers did not appear to take the sources they used as infallible, but also did not explain its source material or their creative liberties. I don’t think its intended audience, or authors, really thought that their was a real history that was simply unknowable. Instead speculation by ancients and altering of the myths to suit the local cult were seemingly assumed to be reasonable ways to explain the past.
    Another example are the stories of the patriarchs. The relations are reflective not of real ancestory but the heirarchy of tribes. But the chiefs Who made the stories, and perhaps the common folk Would have known the stories were new inventions, but did they imagine their was a real familly relation and history apart from the tales?

    • arcseconds

      Another possibility is that people in other cultures (I think this is especially plausible with oral cultures) don’t always make a distinction between ‘symbolic truth’ and ‘happened for really real’ truth, which we’re inclined to do always.

      It seems to me that narrative is a fundamental way of structuring our understanding, and humans almost always prefer an account that’s narratively sound, even though it would have to be considered less probable on rational grounds. Contradiction isn’t even all that important, there are lots of cases of contradicting narratives being believed by the same people: the Rg Veda attributes the creation of the universe in three steps to different gods at different times. The Māori have myths both of coming to Aotearoa (through the explorations of the mythic polynesian explorer Kupe) and of always being there.

      I really think there’s merit in thinking that people naturally think in terms of stories, and that universal, univocal, globally consistent, independently-existing ‘literal truth’ is maybe something of a modern fad that confuses us when we look at the way people treat stories. I don’t want to suggest that, say, the Hebrews thought their stories were ‘just stories’ (because that’s the other half of the exclusionary and exhaustive categorization that I think is problematic) or that they had no concept of truth in everyday life, but maybe that concept of literal truth was a lot more limited than how we currently deploy it. I also don’t want to suggest that we’re necessarily the only ones that have the big truth outlook. Actually, I think it’s something that comes and goes and is operative at different strengths at different times, even for modern Westerners.

      One way of looking at this that might be helpful is to operationalize the notion of truth that’s at play. We think that in order to find out what the ancient Hebrews did is to do archaeology, and to sift through textual evidence to see what fits in with our overall idea of what the big truth is. But the authors of the myth surely didn’t think of it that way. They thought that the true story to tell was the one that made the best story. Presumably this had to be ‘true to’ or consistent with their existing oral heritage in some way, but it’s more like the way Warner Brothers treats the earlier Batman canon, not like the way we treat primary historical texts.

      When the treatment is so different, it’s plausible to question whether the same concept is really at work here.

      With regards to the creation story, one interesting idea I heard at a talk recently is that Genesis was redacted during the Bablyonian exile (I think this is either what most people think, or at least it’s a significant opinion amongst scholars), and was deliberately written to contrast the manner of operation of YWHW with the activities of Apsu, Tiamat, Marduk, Ea and the rest them. Creation certainly looks a lot more considered and planned and orderly in Genesis than it does in Ennuma Elish.

  • Mark

    I’m still searching for kids’ songs based on the Song of Solomon. 😉