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Sunday School Myths: Literally Interpreting Everything Literally

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Slang Words

Every generation has their slang phrases and overused words. The internet tells me that in the 1960s some popular slangs were: “outta sight,” “righteous,” “groovy,” and “a gas.” Some of my favorites from the 1980s are “dweeb,” “fly,” and “gnarly.” During my time in youth ministry I have learned words such as “cringey,” “lit,” and the most recent “tea.”

One of the slang words that cropped up sometime during my generation was the word “literally.” The word itself is not slang, but how it came to be used turned it into one of those slang catchphrases. If you have ever seen the TV series Parks and Recreation, then you are familiar with how this word is used. Literally, one of the characters would literally say the word literally all of the time…literally (click on the link for a tutorial on how to use the word “literally”).

The expression is meant to communicate emphasis through exaggeration. For example, if you tried a fantastic cake for the very first time, you might compliment the baker by saying, “This is literally the best cake I have ever had.” Or, if you were really tired you might say, “I am literally exhausted.” The problem with this particular catchphrase is that the real meaning of the word was lost because literally everything was being exaggerated. People who were hungry were not literally starving. People who had a fantastic time did not literally have the best time of their entire life. People who were angry were not literly going to lose it (whatever “it” would be).

Some things that are true are actually not best described literally.

The Superior Christian’s Slang

I have been around enough Christian subcultures (different denominations, churches, Christians schools, Christian friends, authors, etc.) to pick up on some Christian “buzz words.” One of the things I have picked up around Christians circles is the idea that the Bible should be interpreted literally. People saying things like, “I believe in the literal truth of the Bible,” or “I interpret the Bible to mean what it literally says.” What they usually mean is that they believe the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God, and they want to have the sort of faith that “takes God at His Word.” They also usually mean that they believe there is a such thing as Truth that can be absolutely known as opposed to relatively.

I too affirm these things. I believe the Scriptures are the inspired revelation of the one true Creator God. The Scriptures are the revelation of God to Israel and through Israel to the world as Israel partnered with God in His redemptive plan and purpose that culminated in the Messiah—Jesus. I believe in Truth, and I believe we should have the sort of faith that takes God at His word.

The Problem?

So what’s the problem? First, I think some people, possibly unknowingly, begin to slip into a self-righteous arrogance. It can sometimes be like some sort of spiritual competition to see who upholds the Bible to a higher place.  I know this is true because mudslinging sometimes becomes part of these interactions. “You just want to make the Bible palatable,” “They just water down the truth,” or “That’s heresy!” I know most people are well intentioned and they want to preserve the authority of God’s Word. However, we need to remember that was also the original intention of the Scribes (who were experts in the Holy Scriptures) and Pharisees (who wanted to strictly adhere to covenant faithfulness/doctrinal issues).  Sometimes a motive check is in order.

Secondly, there are some views on how to interpret the Scriptures that flatten the mystery and beauty of what the Bible actually is. It is not a manual for life with step-by-step instructions. It is not a text book. It is not minutes from a meeting. It is also not a list of rules and regulations. The Bible is a collection of 66 books that were written over the span of about 1500 years. This collection of writings is a literary masterpiece that includes poetry, narrative, and history. Literary devices like acrostics (Psalm 119 is a Hebrew alphabet acrostic poem), hyperboles, metaphors, parallelisms, figures of speech, apocryphal images, and so much more are woven throughout. Interpreting a poem literally subverts the beauty of the literary form.

Old Testament scholar John Walton captures what I am trying to communicate so well, that I will quote him at length:

“…the Bible is therefor for us but was not written to us. To fully comprehend the way that it is for us, we have to do whatever it takes to join the author’s implied audience. In that cultural and literary context we will find the authoritative teaching of the text. …And I am committed to the face value of the text, as long as ‘face value’ is defined by what the author intended to communicate. But I am also suspicious of the text’s ‘face value’ if it is defined by a flat, uninformed reading.”[1]

In other words, we need to recognize that the Bible was written to a people from a different time in history, in a different cultural context, a different geographical region, and who spoke a different language. We also need to recognize the genre of the particular text we are reading. We must be careful to not impose our 21st Century, American presuppositions on the text.

So You’re Saying I Have To Be A Scholar?  

So, you’re telling me that I need to take a theology course, a Hebrew course, a Greek course… basically, I need to have a master’s degree to approach the Bible? No. I simply think it is important to recognize the beauty and mystery of what the Bible is. I think it is important to be humble. I would also recommend these resources or tips:

  1. Prescriptive or Descriptive: Another thing to keep in mind is that there are some things in the Bible that are descriptive. The text simply describes what happened, or how people interacted in a certain cultural context. There are other places where the text prescribes truths that transcend time and culture. Sometimes the difference is obvious. Other times there is great debate on whether something is descriptive or prescriptive. I would encourage humility and discernment.

  2. Study Bible: Study Bibles are great resources. I’d recommend getting a translation that you can understand. Again, the more “word-for-word” translations are not necessarily superior. For example, the KJV often uses the word “man” to communicate “mankind,” whereas the NIV may use the term “humanity.” Humanity is actually more helpful of a translation if you want to understand the author’s intent.

  3. The Bible Project: The Bible Project has extremely high quality, animated videos covering the big picture themes of every book of the Bible. It also offers word study videos on some key words in the Bible. This is one of my favorite resources I have ever come across. The content is done by a seminary professor, but it is communicated in a way that makes sense to anyone.

  4. The Jesus I Never Knew: Philip Yancey’s book, The Jesus I Never Knew, was extremely formative in helping me understand the Jewish cultural context of Jesus’ day. It is a longer book, but it is a great resource for understanding the New Testament.

  5. Blueletterbible.org: Blue Letter Bible has a lot features for studying a particular passage. You can compare translations, and do a quick word study on the meaning of the original Greek or Hebrew.

  6. IVP Dictionary Series: InterVarsity Press has a dictionary series that is really helpful for Bible study. There are topical article entries that are comprehensively explored. My favorite is the IVP Dictionary of Biblical Theology. So, for example, I could read the article on “sin” to study what the overarching, biblical theology of “sin” is in the Old and New Testaments. These are expensive resources, but your local library may have a couple or even the whole set.

  7. Follow A Chronological Reading Plan: Our Bibles are not laid out in chronological order. They are structured according to genre: Law, Historical Books, Wisdom Literature, Prophecy, Gospel, Historical, Epistles, and Prophecy/Apocryphal Writings. There are chronological study Bibles, but you could also find a chronological reading plan online.

[1] Walton, J. H. (2017). Old Testament Theology for Christians. (pg. 5 & 9)

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