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Things Episcopalians say (1): “Not literally.” Seriously?

In the first of what might become a series, I ask us to behold “things Episcopalians say.” These are some of our favorite slogans of self-understanding, frequently employed in the service of self-differentiation, sometimes in the service of self-congratulation.

We begin with what I regard as a beguiling, even promising, hermeneutical proposal: “We don’t take the Bible literally, but we do take it seriously.” There is a lot to like about this slogan. It tells us that there are indeed all sorts of ways a thoughtful Christian could engage the Bible without devolving into a naïve biblicism or a crass literalism. I confess that before I was aware that this was a slogan — or maybe before I had even heard the slogan (I can’t recall) — I frequently employed a variant to what I thought was good effect: “You don’t have to take the Bible literally to take it seriously.”

I got some mileage out of that one. It was punchy and clever, I thought, believing it original. Even better, it subtly put other Christians down while elevating me. It showed me to be the kind of thoughtful Christian I would like my fellow Christians to think I am. I thanked God that I was not like those literalists, but not in so many words.

Now, having heard the slogan from so many disparate quarters, I’ve grown a bit more wary of its pernicious appropriations and given up on it myself. For starters, in disclaiming “literalism,” we exclude ourselves from a club with no members. I don’t say that there isn’t such a thing as a literalist, only that there are very few indeed who claim the honorific. “Literalists,” like their kissing cousins “fundamentalists,” are benighted “others” who are frequently othered by people with, supposedly, an almost creedal commitment against othering. (Well, except for literalists and fundamentalists.)

Perhaps more importantly, “taking the Bible literally” could mean so many things that it is not clear that it means anything. There is no way to know what is being disclaimed. We don’t know if we are denying that the heavens and earth were formed in 144 hours followed by a nap, or that Jonah found the belly of a fish surprisingly conducive to the composition of religious poetry, or that Jesus itinerated among Galilean villages doing healings and exorcisms, or that we should really love our enemies. By not “taking the Bible literally,” we can get out of all of that and more besides, if we wish to.

If “Paul” commends criteria for presybters, bishops, and deacons (Titus 1; 1 Timothy 3), we can disregard them as the quaint, if unrealistic, piety of a different place and time, lest in insisting on them we might be accused of taking the Bible literally. In any case, if given a choice between flouting such regulations and being a literalist, the choice is apparently obvious to most. Ironically, sometimes it is evident that, by “not taking the Bible literally,” it is meant that Bible passages are read with especially rigorous attention to the social, historical, and literary contexts from which they emerged, which is, of course, arguably the most literal way a modern person could possibly read the Bible. It is almost literally impossible to be sure what “literally” means, other than that it is not a good thing to do.

That’s why, having dispensed with literalism, it would seem a good thing that we can “take the Bible seriously” instead. Perhaps “seriously” can fill the vacuum created by “not literally.” Perhaps, but I doubt it. After all, one wonders just how serious we can be if we have decided against “literally” before we start. Or how serious are we when “not literally” lurks as our close-to-hand diplomatic immunity in the face of the counter-cultural “strange new world of the Bible” (with apologies to Barth)?

Among the several problems that Episcopalians have with the Bible is that they have very few actual problems with the Bible. I don’t say that there are not problems with the Bible. A serious reader of the Bible, whether a literalist or not, will find a lifetime of problems in it — moral, historical, even theological — along with twice as much glory and wisdom. I just don’t meet many Episcopalians who actually have these problems. They have heard about the problems, like they have heard tell of Crusades and an Inquisition. They have “friends” with these problems. But what they don’t have is the sort of intimate acquaintance with the Bible themselves such that those problems can be their problems. Eschewing literalism saves you those troubles. And it spares one the sort of blessings — and dislocations — only found at Peniel.

The featured image Kate Bunker’s “#pasteups #literal Dickson shops” (2012). It is licensed under Creative Commons.


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