For many people, the term “biblical literalism” implies someone who, at least cognitively, lives in the dark ages, envisions complete enmity between science and religion, and who has failed to adapt their outdated religious views to contemporary culture. In some circles, being called a biblical literalist is about the worst thing you could say about someone. You may as well have insulted their mother. For others, though, the term is a welcome label and they wear it gladly.
The problem is that the term “biblical literalism” is often used without clarification and without definition. As a result, saying someone is a biblical literalist doesn’t actually mean much of anything at all anymore. The problem is further exacerbated in that too many people use the term as a “waste-basket” (i.e., catch-all) term to refer to anyone who upholds any part of the Bible as being true, but especially the parts with which they themselves disagree. For example, opponents of gay marriage are often derogatorily labeled “biblical literalists.” The implication usually is that even if the Bible does not allow for homosexuality, then Christians should simply adapt their understanding of the Bible to fit better with our modern culture. They should chuck aside their “literal” interpretation and adopt a more widely accepted view. This, in fact, was precisely the argument made in a recent NYTimes column.
The problem with calling someone a biblical literalist in a derogatory fashion, and just because their views are unpopular, lies in that there is simply no necessary connection between the number of people who believe something and whether or not that thing is actually true. In other words, something could be true even if no one believed it. Consensus and truthfulness have zero necessary correlations. Many a mob has been wildly wrong. And so, when people toss around the term “biblical literalist” in a thoughtless manner and use it to mean that someone’s beliefs are archaic, what they’re really doing is trying to paint them into a dark corner of anti-intellectualism. The term, used this way, is simply a red herring meant to shut down dialogue. The irony in this is of course that nothing is more anti-intellectual than an unwillingness to engage in honest debate and dialogue.
A better way to understand biblical literalism is to understand the Bible as containing a wide array of types of literature and the most faithful interpretation takes each type or genre on its own terms. For example, a literal understanding of Psalm 98:8, which says “let the rivers clap their hands,” does not result in the necessity of rivers actually having hands. Such an interpretation would be nonsense. Rather, it is evident that the writer is using figurative language because the genre in question is Hebraic poetry.
When Sylvia Plath says in her poem Metaphors, “I’m an…elephant,” she doesn’t mean that she’s actually a pachyderm. Her poem is about pregnancy, and well, its fairly easy to understand what she’s getting at. A person who wishes to interpret Plath’s poem most faithfully then must understand what she, as the author, intended to say, and that means understanding that she was talking about what it feels like to be pregnant. Importantly, those who have been pregnant would likely agree that Plath is teaching something true through her use of metaphors. In other words, figurative language does not imply the absence of truth.
This task of discerning the figurative speech and its intended referent is admittedly easier in some texts than in others. We don’t have to do too much investigative work to figure out what Plath is getting at. The same is true with the Psalms because the Psalms are entirely poetic. But some books mix genres, such as the Gospels, which contain a good bit of historical narrative, metaphors, and symbolic language.
Biblical literalism, properly understood, actually has nothing to do with any particular conclusions about the meaning of a text. Instead, it ought to refer to a method of reading the Bible that is in concert with the way we read everything else that is written. Biblical literalism is no more of an anomaly than New York Times literalism or Earnest Hemmingway literalism, all of which simply mean that we read things according to the type of literature they are and interpret them on that basis. To read the Bible literally is to take those portions that use literal language at face value according to its genre, and to likewise respect the use of figurative language, all the while understanding that even figurative speech can be used to teach important truths. In no field of knowledge, including biblical studies, does literalism mean interpreting a text to say something that it doesn’t say. There are biblical literalists and critics of biblical literalist alike who would be well-served in learning this distinction.