By John Pierce

“I literally laughed my head off.”

No, you didn’t.

“I literally died laughing.”

No, you didn’t. No decapitation, nor death in any form by cachinnation.

But, truthfully, you still laughed very hard. But literal means, well, literal. And literal is not the only route to truth.

It is interesting that those who talk so much about taking the Bible literally are often unwilling to take Jesus literally. The radical, selfless and widely merciful words of Jesus — quoted by firsthand witnesses in the Gospels — usually get softened by prefaces such as, “What Jesus really meant was…”

Few would say that Jesus was just kidding when he emphatically called for turning cheeks, walking the second mile, giving away another garment if someone takes the first, not judging others, and loving enemies. But even (or especially) those who claim to take the Bible “just like it is” from “Genesis to the maps” often balk at taking some of Jesus’ strongest words literally.

Another handy qualifier is, “Well, our times are different from Jesus…” — as if that gets us off the hook.

Debates over biblical authority are some of the least constructive discussions some of us have ever had — especially with those who:

  1. Claim to take the Bible literally (although we know they do not)
  2. Equate “literal” with “true” (and consider anything other than “literal” to be false)
  3. Apply the “inerrancy” or “infallibility” that they claim for scripture to their own particular interpretations of selected biblical texts — and even to subjects that are not specifically addressed in the Bible. (This of course leads them to conclude that if someone disagrees with their particular viewpoints, then that person does not believe the Bible).

Those of us who’ve been down that road before are familiar with these tactics and are not interested in chasing such elusive rabbits again. But I still shake my head each time some (deceptive or well-meaning) soul claims to take the Bible literally and insists that such a reading of the holy text is the only option for discerning its truth.

Harvard theologian and American Baptist minister Harvey Cox, speaking to Wake Forest University divinity students this week, told about the student leader of Harvard’s atheist group taking one of his theology classes.

The otherwise bright student wrote a weak paper, according to Dr. Cox, in which he sought to discredit the Bible and therefore the God of the Jewish and Christian faiths by dismantling a literal interpretation of the Flood Story. He argued that the animals could not have been rounded up and placed on Noah’s Ark and so on.

“Don’t you not know a story when you read one?” Dr. Cox responded, shaking his head in disbelief (pun intended) that the truth of the ancient account — passed along through generations — could only be valid (truthful) if taken literally.

There are good reasons, from a biblical scholarship perspective, for not taking an exclusively literal approach to the Bible. There are simply too many different types of literature — some such as poetry, parable and myth that are clearly designed for conveying truth in non-literal ways — compiled in Holy Writ.

But, again, having that kind of discourse with someone who fears the whole Christian faith would fall apart with any inconsistency, contradiction or scientific misunderstanding within the biblical canon is fruitless. So I don’t have those discussions now unless there is some honest inquiry.

However, the main reasons I find for approaching the Bible in ways other than strict literal interpretations are not based on such scholarly grounds. Rather they come from my ongoing amazement at how such “literal” interpretations have been wrong in the past and how unloving, fearful and judgmental so many of those who make such claims can be.

Such characteristics are in stark contrast to the very essence of the Gospels — the heart of the biblical revelation. That’s just not the way Jesus said we are to live. Literally.

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