Rick Warren's foreword for Should We Fire God?
I cannot even guess how many times I have heard this question. And the looks I get from most people that ask it range from incredulity to frustration to pity. That thing they are referring to is the bible. The 66 books of the Old and New Testaments.
Growing up I saw the bible overall as an extended set stories, a bit like Aesop’s fables. Some helpful, some definitely not, and none of it authoritative. I can share how I traveled (very consciously) from that point to where I am now if anyone would like that to be a sticky issue we deal with.
So, as I said, I get that question quite frequently. From those in our church, followers of Jesus outside our church, and from those who don’t follow him at all. Do I take the bible literally?
Fair question, and one that is a bit more complex than most who ask it realize.
One of the first things I ask when that question is posed to me is; What do you mean by literal? The all knowing t
But, here is where it gets more complex than most who ask would think.
Who defines the exact or primary meaning of the words?
I have been in countless discussions with those who bring an academically oriented skepticism to the scriptures. The idea some of them share is that if you read the bible devotionally – as a means to connect with God and become a better person – then they will be fine. But if you try to read them academically, using higher forms of literary and historic criticism, the scriptures simply don’t stand up to that pressure.
Here is my take.
I was taught in eleventh grade AP English, courtesy of Mrs. George, that the first step in understanding the meaning of a text is to work to understand what the author had in mind when they wrote it and what the first listeners would have heard or read when they encountered it. With the obvious exception of Waiting for Godot, I agree. I personally don’t believe Waiting for Godot had a point. But I digress.
So, if Mrs. George is right, then the exact or primary meaning of the words would be set by the author in the context of the first hearers. That is different from what I have typically been told literal means, by most that pose the literal question to me. What I tend to hear is: literal means whatever my generally fair impression discerns the word to mean.
As, as it pertains to vocabulary, we are overall pretty well equipped to make those distinctions. We generally know what words mean and are fine with that. Certainly, as language progresses and as words’ meanings shift, we might miss something if we are reading something that draws on an earlier meaning of that word. But overall, that is not a huge issue.
Come back in on Sunday and we will look at where the big issues start to really arise…