Classic Tom: Oh, ye of literal faith

Originally published in the Augustana Observer, vol. 104, issue #18, April 15, 2005
William Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” in the early years of the 17th century, in English (yes, Elizabethan English is still English). Four hundred years later, scholars still debate whether or not the titular character went mad.
Don McLean released “American Pie” in 1971, in English. Thirty-four years later, people still have only vague ideas about what the heavily symbolic lyrics mean. McLean refuses to clarify any of it.
The Bible was written over the course of several centuries around the start of the Common Era, in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Current versions are based on a canon that was decided in the 4th century C.E., and the ever-popular King James Bible was first published in 1611. Yet some people think that, though we don’t understand why the players tried to take the field, we can know with total certainty what God was talkin’ ’bout way back when.
All reading requires interpretation. It’s not often that I’ll make absolute statements like that, but that’s one of them. Any piece must be read in a greater context, with regards to both the text surrounding it and to the reader’s prior experience.
Taking quotes out of their proper context has long been a problem with Biblical interpretation. For instance, an out-of-context line about Onan disobeying an order to impregnate his late brother’s wife has fueled religious rules against masturbation and contraception for years. There was no 11th commandment saying “thou shalt not wear rubbers, and spanketh not thy monkey, for that is an abomination,” just parts of Genesis 38:9 and 38:10 taken without 38:8 or the rest of the passage.
When you encounter a text, you bring your own knowledge and experiences to the table. Someone with no literary background might think that Khan’s just being his usual badass self when he tells Kirk “from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee!” Someone who’s read “Moby Dick,” however, might find it funny that he’s comparing William Shatner to a great white whale.
Reliance on the reader’s background is why every interpretation is different. After all, if there were such a thing as a single, correct, literal interpretation of any work, everyone would follow it. Symbolism, figurative language, intertextuality, words with multiple meanings, problems with translation, and individual readers’ experiences prevent “absolute interpretations,” even in the Bible.
I’ll give the Bible the benefit of the doubt: that it was divinely-inspired and was preserved all the way up to its first transcription (I hesitate to believe that God kept it intact into English, because then there shouldn’t be multiple different contradictory translations). So what then? If you take it word-for-word, you reject evolution (and thus, most of biology), but also geology, astronomy, paleontology, physics, zoology, botany, heliocentrism, the round Earth, and math.
Yes, math. 2 Chronicles 4:2 offers up a molten lake 10 cubits in diameter and 30 cubits in circumference. Substitute that into C=π*d, and you discover that π is exactly three.
Should we really reject 5,000 years of human learning because the word of God contradicts it? Or can we assume that God just didn’t want to try to explain decimals to Moses?
Besides belittling all human knowledge, literalism is an insult to God. It’s saying “God’s not good enough as a writer to use idioms or symbols; there’s nothing beyond the words themselves.” Even minimalist writers like Hemingway use symbolism and figures of speech, but the Bible can’t possibly be that deep? God created the universe, but he’s not creative enough to write a multilayered story? Seems contradictory.
See, the literalists are saying that every word has to be exactly true, at face value, or the whole book is invalidated and the whole system of belief falls apart. That seems like pretty fragile faith if it can be totally undone by something so small. I thought faith was supposed to be resilient and strong, based on a personal connection with God and not just an all-or-nothing reading of the Bible. Faith isn’t supposed to need some absolute proof; that’s why it’s faith. If one’s belief in God can be demolished by a scientific theory or a mathematical constant, then one must not have had much faith to begin with.
Did Jesus have to deal with literalists? Did the disciples listen to his heavily symbolic and metaphoric parables and think “that must have all really happened or Jesus is a dirty rotten liar about everything,” or “the mustard seed isn’t really the smallest seed, and it doesn’t grow into a tree, but Jesus must be right?” Couldn’t he have just been trying to make a point?
I’m not saying the Bible isn’t true. I’m saying that there’s no such thing as a “literal interpretation” of any text. Treating the Bible as if there’s nothing below the surface does a disservice to faith, and it goes contrary to what we know about how Jesus taught. The literal truth of Christ’s parables was immaterial–the point was in the underlying message. In focusing so closely on the literal truth word for word, literalists miss the truth of that greater message.

4 Responses to Classic Tom: Oh, ye of literal faith

  1. Derek says:

    The problem is that if they stop taking Jesus’s word as – aha – gospel, then suddenly he’s no more an authority than Aristotle or Locke or, heaven forbid, Nietzsche.He can’t just be a good man. Who in their right mind would listen to him then?

  2. Dikkii says:

    Slightly related – Carly Simon refuses to confirm who “You’re so vain” was written about.I really would like to know the answer to that one.Mick Jagger?James Taylor?Someone else?

  3. Doubting Tom says:

    It’s not Mick Jagger, he’s just singing backup. The popular opinion is that it’s Warren Beatty. She did auction off the answer for charity, so there is one person (besides Carly and probably the object of her ire) who knows, but a nondisclosure agreement keeps him quiet.

  4. Dikkii says:

    Warren Beatty, eh?I hadn’t even considered him, although it would be a nice fit.Shame about the non-disclosure agreement though.

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