Simplifications, Useful and Dangerous: The Case of Biblical Literalism

In my March 1 post, I suggested that human beings are easily confused when thinking about politics and religion. Both of these topics involve issues that are complicated and emotionally charged. Complexity and emotionality befuddle us, especially in combination.

Since we have trouble handling complexity, we need to look for useful simplifications. Here are two ways to do that:

1. Look at the big picture. Focus on core values and large-scale, long-term results. Don’t get bogged down in minutiae.

2. Beware of all-or-nothing thinking. One simple way to catch mistakes is to look for dangerous oversimplifications. We want so much to make life tidy, so we push complex realities into neat little boxes.

In religion, one of the most destructive examples of all-or-nothing thinking is scriptural literalism. A 2007 Gallup poll showed that “About one-third of the American adult population believes the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally word for word.” Literalists accept “inerrancy,” meaning that the Bible is free from error. On the other hand, about half of Americans believe that the Bible “is the inspired word of God but that not everything in it should be taken literally.”

Many Christians fear that if they admit there is error in the Bible, they will no longer be able to rely on this book. So they take a literalist stance that contradicts obvious facts.

According to the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, the Bible “has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.’”

Bearing this in mind, read Deuteronomy 28, remembering that Christianity teaches that God is Love. Did a loving God really inspire this chapter? (Be sure to read beyond verse 14.)

For massive documentation of inconsistencies within the Bible, some trivial and some quite substantial, see Donald Morgan’s list on the Web:

But don’t go jumping all over Christian literalists about deplorable or contradictory Bible passages. Just suggest that they could reconsider literalism without giving up what matters most to them in their faith tradition. I’ve found that many are quite open to this idea, if it is stated respectfully.

Roger Schriner

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2 thoughts on “Simplifications, Useful and Dangerous: The Case of Biblical Literalism

  1. All Biblical interpretation is on a continuum anyway. Christians don’t literally believe that Jesus is God’s son in the way that humans have sons, or that God speaks in the way that humans speak. They are using analogical language, but just for bits that they have decided are OK to interpret less literally. Jesus doesn’t literally expect us to cut off our hand to avoid wrongdoing. We are expected to know when the language is metaphorical or hyperbolic. Christians don’t believe the sun could stand still in the sky any more, but interpret that verse as either metaphorical or a reflection of the cosmology of the time. So in theory they could do the same for other bits of the Bible too. But I must say I haven’t found them open to this at all! It is a threat to their identity and seen as a sign of disloyalty: loyalty to the Bible equals loyalty to God and to one’s church.

  2. Excellent examples of “the invisibly obvious.” So often people understand facts such as these, but without reflecting on their implications.

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