The way a whole lotta Christians like to interpret the bible.
The word literally has two definitions. And they contradict one another.
- Literally /'lɪd.ər.əl.li/ or /ˈlɪt.rəl.li/ adv. In a most basic and exact sense, without metaphor, allegory, exaggeration, nor distortion.
- 2. Used for emphasis or strong feeling, though not precisely true.
I know; plenty of people insist the second definition isn’t the proper definition, and anyone who uses the word like that is wrong. Problem is, words are not absolutes. I know; plenty of people wish they were, and insist they are. (It’s why people still buy the original edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary, instead of something more recent.)
But words aren’t defined by historical precedent—like laws, treaties, or biblical doctrines. They’re defined, and regularly redefined, by popular vote. It’s why we need to keep re-translating the bible; why we need to look up the original definitions of the King James Version’s words when we interpret that translation. Once enough people use a word “wrong,” the wrong definition evolves into another definition. (But if it makes you feel any better, the “right” one still comes first.)
Anyway. The reason I bring up the evolution of language, is because plenty of Christians insist they interpret the bible “literally.” By which they think they mean the first definition: In its most basic sense. In reality they mean the second definition: They interpret it seriously.
I remind you: The first definition means without metaphor, allegory, exaggeration, nor distortion. But the bible is full of metaphors, allegories, exaggerations, and distortions. You knew this. If you forgot, I’ll remind you.
- Hebrew poetry is full of metaphor and simile. “The L
ORDis my shepherd,” Ps 23.1obviously. Not a literal shepherd; like a shepherd. And the psalmist is like a sheep.
- Jesus’s parables are allegories. Certain prophetic demonstrations, like when Ezekiel built a little siege around a brick with a drawing of Jerusalem on it,
Ek 4.1-2are allegories. Apocalyptic visions are allegories. God used ’em all the time to grab our attention, and teach lessons. Again, not literal.
- Jesus himself exaggerated. Fr’instance:
Mark 9.42 KWL
- “Whoever trips up one of these little ones who trust me:
- It’d be even better if you tied a donkey wheel round his neck and threw him in the sea.”
- Anybody planning to drown kids to rescue them from false teachers? Nobody? Good. I’d be worried. Yet when certain interpreters come across exaggerations—like when David said he could fight a troop by himself and leap over a wall,
2Sa 22.30, Ps 18.29meaning one of those 30-foot city walls—I kid you not, they’ll claim he literally could. ’Cause some interpreters are just that dumb.
- If you’ve read the gospels, you’ll notice they don’t always sync up in the order of events. Fr’instance Matthew and Luke have a different order for Jesus’s temptations in the desert. For the authors, timeline didn’t necessarily matter: Sometimes they wanted to bunch Jesus’s teachings together. Or bunch his miracles together. Or show how the Pharisees were getting more and more peeved at him. For various reasons, they moved the Jesus-stories around. Not to decieve—but if timeline is really important to you (and it is to some Christians), you’re gonna find these alterations really irritating.
Evading the bible by claiming “Allegory!”
Now yeah, certain literalists will object to my saying not all the bible is to be taken literally. (Again, they mean “seriously,” but they’re gonna insist on saying “literally,” so I’ll just use their word. Bear with ’em.) The main reason they object is because people might use such teachings as an excuse to not follow the bible.
Now, they don’t need permission from me. (And won’t get it.) They’ll bend the bible all on their own. They already do. For various reasons, but the main one is they don’t like what it appears to teach, and have found an interpretation which they like much better, even though it’s obviously bogus.
Song of Songs is a good example. It’s a song, or series of songs, about romantic love—about a man and his woman, wanting to “get it on,” as Marvin Gaye once put it. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. But throughout Christian history, there have been various Christians who think there absolutely is something wrong with that, and were outraged the bible includes a sex book. Instead of removing it, they simply reinterpreted it top to bottom: It’s an allegory, they insist. It represents God’s love for Israel. Or Christ’s love for his church.
Christ’s love for his church? Then Christ wants to do some really intimate marital things to his church. If you really do apply the allegorical interpretation, Song of Songs turns into a creepy apocalyptic nightmare where Jesus really likes our rounded thighs.
The Sermon on the Mount is another case. Plenty of Christians don’t really feel like doing as Jesus teaches, so they claim, “Jesus was describing his kingdom.” (True.) “And Jesus’s kingdom isn’t yet here.” (Also true.) “And it’s not gonna be here till he returns.” (Well, partly true.) “Therefore we don’t have to worry about doing any of this stuff till he returns.” (Now wait a minute…)
Don’t like what his parables imply? Insist they imply other things. Don’t believe in supernatural gifts? Redefine them till they’re no longer supernatural. Don’t wanna follow any Old Testament commands? Claim they no longer count ’cause we’re under grace. Don’t wanna follow any New Testament commands? Wannabe “Christians” have invented all sorts of excuses for them too.
Take a Christian who wants to be promiscuous. As you know, the apostles kinda frown on that,
- Claims the apostles’ instructions were loose guidelines, not commands, ’cause we’re under grace.
- Claims Paul didn’t really write 1 Timothy; it’s a second-century letter by a Paul impersonator, and therefore doesn’t count as bible.
- Claims a third-century prude added the Greek word porneía into all the lists of vices.
- Claims porneía to mean “idolatrous pagan-temple sex,” and of course he doesn’t do that; he just has ordinary sex with lots of women… and the occasional man.
Seems way easier to just admit you’re picking and choosing which verses to follow, and which to ignore. We all do it. (I am so not saying we should. Only that we do.) But y’know, a lot of Christians would much rather be hypocrites, and find ourselves some loopholes.
How do you interpret the bible?
So I put together a quiz. It’s to give you a general idea about where you fall when it comes to interpreting the bible:
Conservativemeans you lean towards a more means-what-it-says, says-what-it-means interpretation of scripture. More literal—in the first sense of the word. Progressivemeans you likewise take the bible seriously, but you believe history is just as important, and you gotta interpret it through that lens. (Yeah, I know; some of you thought it meant “don’t believe the bible at all.” Those would be pagans. Progressives do so believe the bible; they just interpret it differently.) Moderatemeans you fall between one and the other, for various reasons. Sometimes they’re big on interpreting the bible historically… but after they do, they wind up with a whole lot of the same conclusions as your average conservative interpreter. (Like me.) Or they’re very conservative in the way they generally see the bible, but man alive do they make a lot of exceptions.
Anywho, pick the button which best reflects your view. The median view, “Don’t care” or “No idea,” has been pre-selected—and tallies as if you skipped that one. Which you can do, if you’re really hung up, but don’t skip too many. Pick a side, dangit!
Fill it out, then click “Your score is:” for your results.
|IDEA||RIGHT ON||MOSTLY AGREE||DON’T CARE||DOUBT IT||HECK NO||INVERSE IDEA|
|The bible has no errors. At all.||“Inerrancy” is a modern invention. Don’t use it to describe the bible.|
|The Holy Spirit sovereignly determined every word of the bible.||“Inspired” means God was on the authors’ minds… but the bible was written by humans.|
|The bible’s instructions are timeless, universal, and objective.||The bible was written for an ancient culture, and needs adaptation for our day.|
|We can deduce God’s systematic truth by studying the bible.||It’s not about imposing a theological system upon the bible; it’s about following God.|
|I don’t need study helps for the bible; the Holy Spirit tells me all I need to know.||I need to learn the historical context behind every passage.|
|God took six literal days to create earth.||Allegory: Represents God creating earth over time.|
|God wanted Joshua to wipe out the Canaanites.||Myth: Invented to justify genocide.|
|Elisha made an axehead float.||Myth: Cool story though.|
|Jesus threw demons out of the sick to cure them. ||Myth: People thought demons caused illness.|
|Jesus is returning to earth to physically rule it.||Allegory: We all go to heaven and stay there.|
|IDEA||DO IT||SOUNDS GOOD||NO IDEA||HOLD UP||HECK NO||INVERSE IDEA|
|Obeying the Ten Commandments.||Don’t need to; under grace.|
|Observing Sabbath. ||Don’t need to; under grace.|
|Kill magicians. ||Don’t need to; under grace.|
|Banning pork. ||What are you, crazy? Bacon’s awesome.|
|Banning homosexuality. ||Don’t need to; under grace.|
|Banning tattoos. ||Don’t need to; under grace.|
|Washing feet. ||Jesus never meant it literally.|
|Don’t eat food with blood in it. ||Go ahead and eat it; under grace.|
|Speaking in tongues. ||Tongues never happened, or ceased back in bible times.|
|Prophecy. ||Prophecy never happens, or ceased back in bible times.|
|HOW’D I DO?|
|Please make sure you’ve not selected “Don’t care” or “No idea” for everything. (You’ve gotta care a little.) Once you’ve completed the quiz, hit the “Your score” button and see how you did.|
Included in this page is a little bit of code which’ll hack your email, find out what church you go to, and email your results to your pastor. Betcha he’ll be mighty surprised. (K
If you’re not happy with your results, ’cause you were hoping to “win” some confirmation you’re conservative or progressive: It’s meant to give you a general idea. Not nail you down precisely. You want precision, I suppose I could write a 250-question test, then test it against a whole bunch of academics who consider themselves conservative and progressive, then calculate the margin of error, and there y’go. But nobody’s giving me a research grant, so I’ll pass.
In any event, you gotta admit: None of us interpret the bible all that literally. But hopefully we all take it seriously.