Tuesday, August 12, 2014


It's a wonder of the internet that random stories from months or years prior could end up trending because some new regurgitator happened on the right headline. It cropped up again last week, when ChristianPost, which sort of sounds reputable, recycled an old story with a new headline to grab page views.

They hit on a blog post from the "Christian" music group Gungor about their perspective on historicity in Genesis. The post itself was a reflection of a radio interview given eighteen months before and expressed an opinion that was not revelatory for them or new to the world - namely that the biblical book of Genesis is not intended to answer specific historical questions, perhaps Adam and Eve were not the names of the first people, the great flood probably didn't cover the whole of the Earth, and that perhaps it took longer than seven days to get the world to the state it was in when humans showed up.

By using words like "unorthodox" the viral piece made something controversial out of something mundane. Yes, a few fundamentalist baptists cancelled concerts or wrote angry letters, but no one was really shocked.

The things the band said might be considered on the liberal side of evangelicalism (although maybe not even there anymore), but certainly are well within the confines of Christian orthodoxy. What's more, they align with nearly all scholarly research and investigation into the subject. In other words: this is not news.

I have seen a lot of interesting responses, though - the one most interesting is this idea that "you must believe all scripture is literally true or none of it is trustworthy."

Beyond the egregious abuse of logic in that statement, it sort of skips over the more important issue: how does one know what the Bible "literally" says? The most common answer: "It's pretty clear if you read it," leaves much to be desired.

I'm coming out here today. I can admit to you, publicly (I'm pretty sure I covered this in a previous post, but I couldn't find it, so here it is) - I believe the Bible is literally true. I do.

The word literally literally means to take seriously the author or speaker's meaning when interpreting said communication. There's been a lot of controversy lately because the dictionary definition of literally has been amended. So many people now use the word to place emphasis on something, rather than to define anything specifically (that new Taylor Swift song is literally the pinnacle of human creativity). We get fooled when we think literally means "exactly what most people hear when they hear the next few words." It's not an interpretation by democracy. Literally means whatever the speaker/writer means. It's up to the interpreter to notice body language, inflection, context, past interaction, etc to parse the exact intention of the word.

It's always meant that, but the dictionary has traditionally relied on people meaning the same things when they speak. Now there are literally no rules. People can use the word any way they choose and its up to us to figure out what they mean. Sad, I guess, but helpful in this context.

When I say I believe the Bible is literally true, I mean exactly that. I mean I believe it says exactly what it's authors and compilers and editors intended it to mean when they put it together.

That's different than just "what is says if you read it," often called the "plain sense" interpretation. It's a popular one, but, again, interpretation by democracy is not always the best way to find out what something literally means.

When I say I take scripture seriously as a literally true document, I am committing myself to a lifelong process. I have to become knowledgeable about the various genres of literature found in the Bible, how they're constructed and the ways they're intended to be used. I have to parse out historical context - what was happening in the world when people first read these stories in these ways? How does that history change the meaning and purpose of the text? I have to look into the history of the passages themselves - were these oral histories, later written down - how does the process of transmission and the various contexts in which this was received over time shape the story?

In short, I have to ask a lot of questions - questions that can be answered, but never completely. Scripture itself is called the living, active word of God (although at the time those words were written, they themselves were not included in scripture, so one has to speculate about the author's intentions for his - and it's almost assuredly always his, which adds its own layer of bias and investigation to the process - own words should be viewed, and also brings into our discussion the subject of cannonization and the process by which God's people chose which writings would be scripture and which would not - another layer of investigation), which means it's an ongoing process.

All of this speaks to the notion of inspiration. Christians of most sorts confess that scripture is inspired by God - how that happens is a topic of some debate, but ultimately what it means is we think it's a true, reliable source of information upon which to base our understanding of the universe and our actions within it. During the trial of Jesus, scripture recounts Jesus' interaction with the Roman authorities who ultimately allowed his execution. One of the most famous questions posed to him is, "what is truth?" That's ultimately at the bottom of this whole thing.

I confess that Jesus Christ is truth. He claimed as much (if the scripture is to be believed). The only problem with that claim is that it's so squishy. Confining truth to a person brings into the equation relationship - something that changes over time, even if the people involved are the same people throughout.

Just another wrinkle in the process of discerning "literal" truth.

A lot of Christian believe the Bible says the universe was created in seven "literal" days." Unfortunately, that's not even an historic position. It's relatively new. As far back as the scholars of Alexandria in the second and third centuries or the great theologian (who practically defined orthodoxy for a thousand years) Augustine in the fourth and fifth, Christians (leading, important, influential Christians - and many more beyond these) were calling that particular belief silly and a menace to the spreading of faith - pretty much everything that's been said about Gungor the last week.

In the end, I do have an opinion. I can talk you through the "literal" truth of Genesis as I see it, provide the historical, theological, and contextual discoveries that have led to my conclusions, and present the ways this "literal" reading has changed over time as I've grown in knowledge and experience.

What hasn't changed, though, is my commitment to the literal truth of scripture.

That doesn't depend on how many days it took for humans to show up on the Earth, or how massive Noah's flood was, or whether Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob even existed at all. The modern study of history as we know it has only been around for a couple hundred years - it's pretty new as academic fields go. The questions of history we so often ask of ancient texts (like the bible) are completely anachronistic to their interpretation.

if we're going to take anything literally, especially something so old, diverse, and complex, we're going to have to ask deeper questions, spend more time studying, and perhaps admit we don't always know everything so concretely - even as we know more things, more thoroughly than we did before.

That's just the nature of literal truth and, I believe, what makes life exciting.

[Edited to add: Here's a great link with a brief interview with Michael Gungor, but, more importantly, lots of links to other things I only referenced in passing in the post above.]

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