Unless biblical literalism is challenged overtly in the Christian Church itself, it will, in my opinion, kill the Christian faith. It is not just a benign nuisance that afflicts Christianity at its edges, it is a mentality that renders the Christian faith unbelievable to an increasing number of the citizens of our world.
John Shelby Spong
Bishop John Shelby Spong did an invaluable service to the advancement of a progressive Christian movement by demonstrating, in numerous popular books, that a literal interpretation of the Bible is not tenable. When he states that a literal interpretation will kill faith, he also implies that a more vital Christianity lies in a more incisive understanding of the more meaningful aspects of biblical text. Sexism, homophobia and violence (as well as other social evils) have to be immediately rejected by contemporary readers as products of a specific time, culture and agenda. But Spong points to the fact that there is something remarkable contained in the Gospels that redeems the Bible and sets the stage for the possibility of a transformed life and society.
There is a new direction in Christian orientation based on Bishop Spong’s observations on literalism. That direction is inherent in a question that was shouted over and over again in a religious education classroom where I once taught: “If it didn’t happen, why is it in the Bible!?”
One teenage student began shouting this question at another who dared to assert that nothing in the Bible could have really happened. The stories defied science, her sense of reason and plain common sense. Indeed, two prominent archeologists, Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein, wrote The Bible Unearthed to demonstrate that archaeology cannot even support, and often confutes, the “historical” stories in the Bible.
If all of these Bible stories never happened, why would they be created and made the core of a major religion? To my students, this seemed like the most unlikely act of fraud that could have been committed. If it was in the Bible, it had to be true, because why would anybody make any of this stuff up? The student being challenged had no answer, but this becomes THE central question to be answered about the book. Answering this question allows one to move beyond stale literalism to challenging messages that provide meaning and direction to life.
What left religious education in the hands of fundamentalists was the inability of progressive educators to agree on the interpretations of symbols and allegories and come up with a consensus on what the big messages in a non-literal Bible might be. This should not be a hindrance, however, as we do not want to tell anyone what the Bible means. One path in a new de-literalized Christian education can be a greater focus on what stories and symbols can mean and a challenge to understand them. These symbolic stories, anecdotes and allegories form the core of the Christian teaching.
Spong was right when he said literalism will kill the Christian faith. Feminist theologian Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza wrote that when her Christian college students were finally shown serious discrepancies between the Gospels concerning central aspects of the Jesus story, “…their reaction was not so much to condemn the Bible as to condemn their parochial religious education for never mentioning the problem.” (1984, 30) If religious educators are looking for a way to alienate young people, providing them with material that they will find to be inaccurate is a certain way to do it. Two obstacles to deriving greater meaning from the Bible are orthodox literalism (Everything in the Bible is true!) and stale secularism (The Bible is nonsense and means nothing!). Christian religious education is at a crossroads and the next decisive step should be confidently taken to move past this Scylla and Charybdis and see that both of these attitudes comprising our religious culture war are wrong.
Yet, there is a dearth of works facilitating interpretations of Biblical stories and symbols because there is, ultimately, no way to prove that any interpretation is right along with no consensus as to the interpretative methodology to be employed to investigate the stories. Debunking literalism without being able to provide people with something meaningful to replace their lost literalist faith is like filling stone containers with water which never turns to wine. To debunk without further challenging someone to move toward something fulfilling is to invite an empty type of secularism.
The big caveat was expressed by Bible scholar and theologian Marcus Borg: “The primary limitation of a metaphorical approach is the danger that the imagination will roam too freely, producing uncontrolled, fanciful interpretations that have little or nothing to do with the actual text.” (2001, 43) Can criteria be established so that religious education can move from Bible thumping to Bible interpreting as a basis of encouraging each other to higher forms of behavior?
Language, when it developed, articulated events in the outer or perceived world, as our attempts to speak about our inner world are always metaphorical at best. We always employ symbols from the outer world to explain processes in our inner world. Looking inward, in the hope of changing oneself for the better, seems to be a common denominator of religions. Religious symbolism allows this to be done and provides a language for the examined life, the way mathematics is a language for understanding aspects of the outer world. Bible stories are often so outrageously bizarre because the author of the story seems to be playing with symbolism to attempt to convey complex inner secrets about ourselves.
Our educational system is meant to make us effective economic and not moral actors. We are not encouraged to look inward to challenge ourselves to become more empathetic, more humane, more capable of confronting and changing what we can see to be wrong and changing it in a non-violent way. How does a person reach the level of being where he/she finds a response that is better than what we usually feel like doing because what we are predisposed to do is often counterproductive to a higher law or purpose? The process involved in developing this greater level of humanity may be the subject of this “secret” language.
The criteria for a good symbolic interpretation will be parsimony (explaining the most with the least), coherence (making sure all the symbols involved add up to something meaningful) and relevance (can I use what the interpretation is saying?). To look at the interpretative process, we can take a look at an obvious Bible symbol: the number 40. In the Bible, the flood covered the Earth for 40 days, Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, the Israelites wandered 40 years before finding Canaan, Jesus fasted for 40 days before passing Satan’s temptations and beginning his ministry. Looking at the number 40, in the Bible and other traditions, the number may represent a period of transition, when a people or person endures through some period of time before a significant change occurs, like an incubation period.
As an experiment in non-literal Bible reading, I examined the story of Jesus’ temptations in the desert: “Satan as Trickster in the Desert”. ProgressiveChristianity.org : Satan as Trickster in the Desert: An Experiment in Non-literal Interpretation Here we have a number of symbols: 40, the desert, fasting, social isolation and Satan. The story becomes an allegory about positive inner change brought about through a process divorced from the human will. The temptations become a test which shows that a transition has occurred and made Jesus invulnerable to the promptings of what Satan represents. It is a story about a type of meaningful waiting that brings about inner change through a manner different from an act of human moral will.
We can also look at the story of changing water into wine to understand how meaningful and relevant interpretation can be accomplished. There is a wedding, the number 6, stone containers, water and wine. In the Gospel of John, Jesus does not fast in a desert but turns water into wine before beginning his teachings and ministry, but the message seems to be the same. Here is an examination of what turning water into wine might mean: ProgressiveChristianity.org : What IS a Theologoumenon and What DOES Changing Water into Wine Mean?
In Genesis it took 6 days to create the world before God rested, there were 6 steps leading to the throne of Solomon, there were six years of servitude in various stories of the Tanach (Old Testament) before freedom. Perhaps the number 6 represents a time of preparation before rest. Stone, in various types of allegorical literature, seems to be some type of truth one imposes on oneself, something outside of oneself that one wishes to adhere to. Water would seem to represent a cleansing. For six stone containers to be filled with water seems to mean an almost Piagetian leap from one stage to another is going to take place, and this sudden, unplanned for, leap is approximated by the paradoxical change of water into wine.
A wedding is where the masculine and feminine are united: the masculine representing a type of desire, the feminine representing a type of fulfilment (in the ancient world men were “active” and women were “passive”). Wine is the embodiment of a new type of being – drinking wine in moderation, one is changed for the better, becoming more joyous, forgiving, pro-social. All of this happens on the third day of a wedding, the number 3 representing a completion of a process (Jonah spent 3 days in a whale’s belly, Jesus spent 3 days in hell etc.) We therefore seem to have another symbolic story asserting the possibility of inner change and that before Jesus could enter the world and minister to others, a significant change happened which can be represented by filling six stone containers with water and allowing them to change to wine.
I do not expect anyone to necessarily accept my interpretations. I want, however, to offer that interpretations are not only possible but necessary if we want to save the Christian religion from the Bible-thumpers and literalists. Clearly much of the stuff in the Bible did not happen. We can misinterpret the Bible (literalism) or we can throw it away (secularism) or we can try to understand the message being conveyed in symbolic language (the only language possible to convey those truths).
The message offered is one of hope. Change is possible but it has to be done the right way. We do not have to wallow in anger, hatred, resentment, bitterness or a desire for retaliation. We do not have to be satisfied with what we were molded to be through circumstances. Even the wrongdoing of others does not have to result in negative or violent emotions from us. A key concept of the Gospels seems to be rebirth: new, pro-social behavior emerging from the mess we usually live with. This allows us to establish greater expectations for ourselves and others. This also demands greater patience with and tolerance for each other in each of our life journeys, as change becomes a gift to be received and not a choice to be made.
So, is the Bible just literature? Yes and no. It is a supercharged literature to facilitate inner change, a sacred literature with the highest purpose challenging ourselves and each other to rise higher and that there is a way to do this through a type of introspection and meaningful patience.
Borg, M. 2001. Reading the Bible again for the first time. San Francisco, CA: Harper
Duquesne, J. 1997. Jesus, an unconventional biography. Liguori, MO: Triumph Books
Fiorenza, E.S. 1984. Bread not stone. Boston, MA: Beacon Press
Previously Published on progressivechristianity.org