Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Literal reading = serious reading?

One of the ideas I hear floating around is that in order to take the Bible seriously, it must be read literally. I don't usually hear stated just that way, but implied. Part of me really wants to laugh when I hear that way of thinking because I know it is not true and people really don't believe it (or at least they don't practice it!). Reading literally actually comes more from rational Enlightenment influences than from ancient Christian practice. In fact, from the early church onward those who really took the Bible seriously, read it looking for the spiritual meaning within. Later in Christian tradition there developed a four fold pattern for interpreting Scripture. It wasn't until Martin Luther and later Enlightenment thinking that really pushed some to believe only in the literally meaning of Scripture.
The real source of my laughter is that I can tell a literal reading of Scripture isn't followed by those I encounter who profess it. If it were true that people read the Bible literally and practiced is that people would greet me with a kiss (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14), would drink wine (1 Timothy 5:23 - people who usually advocate for literalism also advocate for abstinence with regard to alcohol), and would probably be blind (Matthew 5:29)!
Perhaps the biggest problem with the literalist reading of Scripture is that we become "information gatherers" instead of receivers of God's grace. We look for laws, rules, information, commands, specific individual promises to match our needs in the moment. Rather than Scripture being an object we figure out and control, our role should be receivers whose worldview is shaped by God's story in Scripture. That would take serious the Scripture's role in forming us and transforming us, not simply informing us.
Scripture: Jonah (It's only four chapters. You can do it!)
Some people question whether Jonah describes an actually historical (literal!) event. There is no evidence of a Nineveh conversion to worshiping the LORD as is described in this book. Yet there is nothing within the story of Jonah that suggest it be taken allegorically either. Jesus seems to have believed it actually happened (Matthew 12:41). Instead of looking for facts (was it a whale or a fish? How would someone survive in the belly of a fish?), how would the story of Jonah have challenged its readers originally? What does the book reveal (through Jonah) about Jewish attitudes of pagan, surrounding religions and people? What needed to happen to Jonah in order for him to recognize God's purpose? What might that say about the first reader's relationship with God and their world? How might they be challenged as was Jonah by this book's story that the people of Nineveh, even they, repented? How does Jonah's anger the plant reveal his lack of compassion and highlight God's compassion? How would you summarize Jonah's message? How might we live into that worldview? How is that different that the worldview of our culture?

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