Monday, September 29, 2014

Fighting Biblical Literalism with Literalism?

I'm not a fan of literalistic readings of the Bible in general. There's just no argument from any worldview, in my opinion, that supports this exegetical method. Even if every word was spoken by God and transcribed by humanity, that doesn't mean every word is literally true, as no one (even Jesus) spoke that literally all the time. And even Jesus' words were obviously highly contextualized, so "plain meaning" in our time just doesn't make any sense.

When taken too far, there are some extra special absurdities derived from literal interpretations of biblical text. Therefore, some people like to argue against a universally literal reading of the Bible by pointing out inconsistencies generated by such a reading. I can find this humorous (and appropriate) at times, as it helps keep all of us honest. As an example, one could argue against requiring a belief in a 7 day creation period by showing what else we would have to believe by the same interpretive methodology. The point of the argument is not to promote a particular interpretation necessarily, but to argue against a particular interpretive methodology.

However, then there's other times when I see people fighting conclusions made by literal interpretations by making another literal interpretation after criticizing this exegetical method. This is different than what I described above, as the methodology is undermined, but then the same methodology is used to come to a different conclusion.

Let me give an example. In our Sunday school class, we're exploring Borg and Crossan's The First Paul, discussing authorship and interpretation of the Pauline letters. For those who don't know, Borg and Crossan are squarely liberal scholars. They do not ascribe to literal readings of the Bible. In fact, a central component of their thesis is that only some of the letters attributed to Paul were authentically written by Paul. The rest, Borg and Crossan argue, were attributed to him in a way that often happened at the time. This argument alone helps undermine a literal reading of Paul.

However, part of the way they argue for different authorship is through a literal reading of the texts. They have several examples, but one is the topic slavery, as they see Philemon advocating for abolition (perhaps only of Christian slaves), while reading Colossians 3:22-4:1 and Ephesians 6:5-9 as advocating for the maintenance of slavery. However, the latter verses never explicitly support slavery. They could definitely be read that way (and have been in the past, of course). However, I see both of these as very superficial, literalistic, non-contextual interpretations.

Borg and Crossan's conclusions may be absolutely correct, but methodology matters. At least in this context, I do not find they have a rigorous explanation for their exegesis, as they are relying on a plain meaning of the text, which they clearly do not support themselves.

I find it interesting that some liberal scholars seem to do this. They clearly reject biblical literalism (and have changed their belief structure often in reaction to it, sometimes to the point of rejecting Christianity, like Bart Ehrman), but then use literal interpretations to make their arguments. I wonder if they seem to believe that the Christian community only values literal interpretations and in order to be heard, they have to use that methodology. Obviously, that's not true.

Historically and currently, a significant portion (perhaps even the majority, although they tend to be quieter) of Christians appreciate and value good non-literal exegesis. In fact, demonstrating that faithful Christians can interpret the Bible non-literally and still value it is critical to maintaining the faith of many and even evangelizing to many. So personally, I find it detrimental to the community of faith when those who have rejected literalism primarily use a literal interpretation to get to their points. Biblical literalism has already been effectively discredited for decades, if not longer. Rather than continuing to use it to make our arguments, lets show how good, faithful scholarship can actually be done.

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