Do You Read The Bible Literally?
People on both sides of this issue ask this question as a sort of test to figure out whether you’re on the “right” side of things. I want to step back and ask an important question.
Are we talking about my literal as a 21st century Westerner who has a microwave oven and knows that the Earth goes around the Sun? Or, do you mean the literal of someone who lives 2,000-3,000 years ago on the other side of the world in an honor and shame culture in a pre-scientific age that had a very different view of the world?
It makes a difference which one we’re talking about, because if we read the Bible with one versus the other, we are going to come away with very different things.
The real problem
What ends up happening is that one set of people acknowledges that the original audience thought differently about many things than we do. So, they learn about how their world was different than ours. Then, they say that because things are different now, none of what they thought back then applies any more.
The other set tries to be “faithful” to what they read, but they neglect to study how the original audience was different than us. So, they end up taking everything out of context, and while they are “faithful” to the text, it is really their modern reading of it they are being faithful to rather than the real meaning.
The truth is that both groups have really only done half of what is needed. If we want to know how the Bible is supposed to be read today, we have to start by understanding what it meant to the original audience.
However, as much as literalists say they do this, if they start with their questions rather than the questions of the original audience, they have already gone wrong. To understand the Bible correctly, they must start by understanding the people and the culture of the times in which a particular letter or book was composed.
The other group does this, but they need to not stop at this point. Yes, things were different back then (and sometimes very different). But, that does not mean that it makes no sense today.
To translate the meaning into modern culture, we need to understand why they said the things they did (which goes beyond merely understanding what they said). That “why” is something that can then be translated into our culture.
Both groups have about half the problem solved, but if we want to get to a whole solution, we will need to take both steps. While that does involve more work, it is the only way to actually understand how anything we find in the Bible might actually apply in modern times.