We all want certainty. I get that. It makes us feel better about ourselves. It makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It makes us feel like the big, bad monster we call “Doubt” isn’t going to get us.
So it is no wonder that, when approaching the Scriptures, many of us opt for literalism above all else. It gives us that sense of security, that sense that we have a grasp on the situation. However, I’ve discovered throughout my long and winding journey that the security we get from biblical literalism is nothing more than a façade. And, when that foundational card in our meticulously built house gets yanked out, down goes the whole thing; our faith crumbles and we are left without even a basic foundation. To use comedian Pete Holmes’ analogy, we are left with an apartment void of all furniture.
Furthermore, when we approach the Bible too literally, we are doing nothing more than embarking on an adventure in missing the point. Sure, we think we are being faithful servants of the almighty God — and perhaps some of us really are — but what we are primarily doing is nothing more than defending a position that, ironically, the Bible never asks us to defend. And when we do this, we end up missing a ton of great things that go on throughout the Bible. I’d like to mention 5 of them.
The Theology of Jesus
There are so many things said about God in the Bible, from the slightly obscure to the out-and-out insane. I won’t get into all of them here — as if we have the time or space — but those of us who use our brains from time to time know what I’m talking about. So, when we believe that every theological claim made by every writer of every book of the Bible is undeniably true, that it is theologically on-point at every turn, we hardly leave any room for Jesus to offer any critique. For instance, when we literally believe Deuteronomy’s claim that “If you do not diligently observe all the words of [the] law that are written in this book [Torah], fearing the glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, then the Lord will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies,” then when we turn to John 9, we end up in a bit of a conundrum. Why? Because this is not what Jesus teaches.
In John 9, when Jesus is pressed on the issue of intergenerational curses, Jesus doesn’t affirm the cultural norm that people are afflicted by God with grievous and lasting maladies for failing to observe every jot and tittle of Torah, but that grievous and lasting maladies afflict people so that “God’s works might be revealed.” What are God’s works? Contrary to Deuteronomy 28, where it is claimed that God is a blessing and cursing God, God’s works are wholly for the purpose of blessing (Matt 5:45), for healing and restoring: “When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s face, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’ Then he went and washed and came back able to see.”
Indeed, there are other cases where Jesus reorients our way of theologizing, but I don’t have the space to discuss that here. If you are interested, pick up my book From the Blood of Abel and then, when you’ve digested that, Michael Hardin’s The Jesus Driven Life.
The Old Testament Dialogue
This may come as a surprise to some, but it’s not just Jesus who critiques the views of his people. The writers (primarily the prophets) of the Hebrew Bible do this too. In other words, the Old Testament is a dialogue about, among other things, God and God’s nature. For one example of this, consider what happened to Jezreel.
In 2 Kings 9, there is an account of a massacre at this place by the hands of a man named Jehu. What happens is that Jehu is ordered — nay, anointed — by the prophet Elijah to strike down the entire house of his master Ahab over their tyranny and wickedness (2 Kings 9:7–8). So, he does! And he is championed as a righteous man of God for doing so.
A few generations later, however, the prophet Hosea sees things differently. Speaking on behalf of the Lord, Hosea writes: “For in a while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hos 1:4). In other words, according to Hosea, God is not all-too-pleased with what the murderous zealot Jehu did to the house of Ahab. This, in spite of Elijah’s commanding such a thing.
This move away from violence is a key component to the overarching biblical metanarrative, but it is a move that is far from a neatly drawn straight line. Rather, the Bible is a “text in travail,” as René Girard calls it, and as such what needs to happen is that the Bible needs to be “rightly divided,” rather than always being taken so literally.
The Opportunity to be Credible in the Modern World
It’s quite laughable that, to this day, some of us think Genesis 1 is attempting to put forth a scientific explanation of creation. I mean, you’d think the fact that the sun is not said to be created until the fourth day would be enough evidence for us to conclude the days in this story are something other than literal 24-hour periods. And yet, many of us continue in our ignorance.I find this sad, because not only does this rampant literalism prevent us from gleaning some of the actual theological and anthropological nuggets Genesis 1 presents (as in, when we compare it with the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish), it also forces us to under-appreciate any and all scientific discovery. And when this happens, we end up looking rather silly in the process. Anyone who uses their brain knows that it is ridiculous to think that, somehow, someway, Noah literally got all of the thousands of species of animals onto a wooden ark and cared for them for months without having all manners of chaos ensue; that Lions and tigers and bears — Oh my! — all swore off being carnivores because they understood the survival of their species depended on them becoming vegans. So, when Christians turn off their brains and say otherwise, it in turn only turns off critically thinking folks who could actually use the Gospel in their lives. All for the sake of taking the Bible literally.
The Psychology of “the Fall”
- Snakes don’t talk. But many readers of the Bible point to Genesis 3 as evidence that some snakes do. This is silly. Something else is going on here, something we’ll miss if we hold fast to a literal reading of Genesis 3 and 4.I’ll begin by saying that the serpent is used as an analogy. It represents the type of corrupted, twisted desire that arises when prohibitions are placed on things (René Girard’s work has gone a long way in teasing out the specifics of phenomenon). Notice the corruption in the very first question asked of Eve: “Did God not say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Gen 3:1) As we know, that is not what God said. There is only one prohibited tree, not many. This is a trap. Sure, Eve initially corrects the serpent, but she then imitates it by making up her own lie. It’s subtle, but it’s there, plain as day. She answers: “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die” (Gen 3:3, emphasis mine). So, what began with one prohibition has now been twisted into two.Initially, however, nothing happens to Eve. It is only after the man — who was there with her the whole time — eats of the fruit that both of their eyes are opened. This suggests that all three of the characters — the serpent, Eve, and Adam — are connected in a certain way. In other words, as Michael Hardin points out: “All of this literarily suggests that the man, the woman and the serpent are one big figure of the process of mediated desire and its consequences.” What are these consequences? Initially, accusations and scapegoating: the man blames both God and the woman (Gen 3:12), then the woman follows by turning it back onto the serpent (Gen 3:13).
The story goes on, and more consequences follow. What begins with a lie in chapter 3 quickly turns into a murder in chapter 4. In his grasping for God’s blessing, Cain kills Abel. Brother rises up against brother. Then Cain founds a city; civilization built upon blood. From there, violence escalates until the whole world is corrupt and full of wickedness.
Again, to read the “fall” literally ensures that we will miss much of this look into our psychology and how it relates to violence. It ensures that instead of digging deeper for further levels of meaning, we’ll be content to just skim the surface.
The Profundity of John’s Revelation
The book of Revelation is scary, amiright? At least, it was for me. I mean, dragons and fire and slaughter — that’s enough to keep any kid up at night. But that’s all changed now, since I don’t take it all so literally anymore.
And once I ceased believing in literal multi-headed, multi-horned creatures who were going to devour my face off, I was able to see how profound this book actually can be. For instance, I was able to see the insights this book gives regarding where the violence of empire leads to; and in contrast, I was able to see just how powerful the Gospel can be in overcoming such violence. Before, though, I couldn’t; I could barely keep from going insane over whether I would be raptured or not, whether I would be thrown into a literal lake of fire or not.
Whether we take seriously or not where our violence is taking humanity remains to be seen. That in itself is scary. But, if we can step back and see the forest in spite of all the individual trees, we can see that we have a promise: The gates of New Jerusalem never shut (Rev 21:25). So, may we heed the warnings in this book so that we can help bring about, insofar as we are able, the kingdom of God. And may all join us in the call to enter the blessed City.
Photo by Dan Wilkinson.
About Matthew Distefano
Matthew Distefano is the author of All Set Free: How God is Revealed in Jesus and Why That is Really Good News, From the Blood of Abel: Humanity’s Root Causes of Violence and the Bible’s Theological-Anthropological Solution and the newly-released A Journey with Two Mystics: Conversations between a Girardian and a Wattsian. He is also a Regular Contributor for The Raven ReView and ProgressiveChristianity.org. You can find him on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.