Saturday, August 18, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 8

Let's take a closer look at how a literalist reads the Bible, even when in the deconstruction phase of faith.

In February of 2004, I wrote an email to Dr. Dewey when I first entered the Pentateuch class (taught by a Presbyterian professor). That email does a good job of expressing my thinking at the time. I've quoted it below.

In another post, I'll share part of the response from Dr. Dewey. His way of interacting with what troubled me in the Bible was startling to me, and the beginning of a new way of reading the Bible.

I'll also share how my approach to Scripture has since shifted. There are methods of reading and interpreting the Bible that don't rely on a literalist mindset. Literalism plagues both believers and ex-believers. It's used both to support the accuracy of the Bible and to discredit it.

For instance, I remember one ex-evangelical saying on a forum that he remembers thinking when he was a Christian, that if he could just sit down for two hours with an unbeliever, and then could patiently walk that person through the Bible, by the end, the person would become a Christian. He could achieve a coherent reading of the meaning of Scripture that would "prove" the truth of the Bible and Christianity.

After he walked away from faith, he discovered that he had a similar feeling: that given two hours with a Christian, he could walk that person through the Scriptures showing the inconsistencies and problems with the text and by the end, the person would leave the faith. In posting these two similar accounts of his perceptions about how to relate to the Bible, he realized he had not changed his approach to Christianity at all, just his conclusions. His story describes well how literalism holds us (Christian and ex-Christian) hostage - we are beholden not so much to conclusions, but methods. Those methods lead us in circles.

I entered graduate school hoping to find a way to transcend the literalist tendency in myself. Unfortunately, my Pentateuch class had plugged me right back into that thinking and all the problems that came with it.
I'm stomping around my kitchen after tonight's class about the Pentateuch and I kept thinking one good conversation over a beer with you might clear things up. So I decided to type my rant out and send it as a kind of cyber prayer to you, my "professor /priest."

Anyway, we got into whether there is enough credible evidence for the exodus to verify it as a historical event. Clearly there isn't enough evidence to prove it happened. But there is also an absence of disproving evidence as well (which in the circles I come from is some sort of validation for the historical fact of the exodus event...). But what happened in class tonight really got to me.

Dr. Melcher pointed out that when we try to establish the exodus as a historical event by examining each of its details for historical credibility, we are laying a modern template over an ancient text and asking of it what it wasn't intended to deliver. The ancient writers weren't concerned with the degree of historical accuracy that we are today. They wanted to package and deliver theological truth in a narrative that may or may not have happened quite as they described it. So far, I understand. But then she went further to say that we can glean spiritual truth from the story regardless of its historical veracity. The discussion even went so far as to affirm that God delivers spiritual truth through it whether or not the exodus actually happened.

This is when I started to get muddled. I asked her if the Jews and Christians of history didn't in fact believe that God actually did those miracles and saved the Jews from the Egyptians in that way. She said that they did but that that wasn't the primary point of the story. The theological truth was more important still. Which truth?, I asked. "Well, the fact of God's redemption. God has worked as redeemer in many of our lives which validates that truth in the story."

Dr. Dewey, this is when I feel crazy. I want to stand up in class and say: What on earth are you talking about? If we can't verify whether or not God actually split the Red Sea (or the Reed Sea or the sand bar or whatever) to save the Israelites, if we don't know if the Israelites were ever slaves and then fled Egypt, if we can't verify the story factually, how can we possibly know if "God" is redeeming us "metaphorically" or "spiritually" in our lives today? And what good is that "truth" anyway? Are these "beautiful ideas" sort of like the Greek ideals? Or is redemption (by God?) real? If it's real, how would we know it? Weren't these "miracles of old" God's evidence of his redeeming power for another age? And aren't we now stumped as to how to know or prove anything about God? And what good is redemption metaphorically anyway? What am I being redeemed of? From?

But worse than all of that - whether or not the exodus really happened doesn't matter to me one way or the other. The idea that either in reality or metaphorically God would kill the first borns of all the Egyptians, would wipe them out playing "tribal god" to the Israelites as the means of delivering a message of redemption to believers for all ages, so sickens me I can't make heads or tails of what the powerful spiritual truth ought to be. I can't bear to think of God this way. I'm not moved. I'm not drawn into deeper awareness of God or redemption or spiritual truth.

Instead, I'm left horrified by both the potential reality and/or the metaphor.

So what the hell is wrong with me?

It's times like these that I'm convinced I've lost all faith in God or contact with anything invisible or spiritual. I feel like a material girl in a material world. If I can see the Bible as ancient literature that is both beautiful and horrifying, interesting and revealing (about peoples and times and religion from another era), I'm okay with it. I actually enjoy it. But the moment someone tells me that there is rich spiritual truth in a story for me today that probably doesn't represent historical reality, and the metaphor I'm supposed to appreciate means I'm endorsing partiality on God's side with a capital P, well, I'm lost. The Bible becomes a source of real angst, anger and disappointment.


Is this all because I used to be a literalist? :-(
In rereading the email, it's satisfying to think that I wouldn't write the same one today. On the other hand, I stand by the challenges to literalism that this email raises. So before I post the response from my professor, I'd love to hear what you think.

If the Bible depicts events that we can't be certain happened, of what value is the theological message? Are we dependent on the historical validation of our theological truths? Or is redemption something we experience only on a metaphysical level (the biblical narratives serve as metaphor for that inner salvation/liberation from sin, not as indications of God's real time acts of liberation/redemption in history)? On what basis can we know that that redemption/salvation/liberation is real, if we are depending on metaphorical narratives and not verifiable evidence of God's activity?

If we do side with the historicity of events like the Exodus, what do we do with the summary judgment leveled at all classes of society, not just at the architects of the evil? How does that comport with our ideas of a powerful, loving, saving God? Does this text teach us that God prefers "my group" over other groups? If so, is it moral to side with a God who demonstrates a willingness to kill, exterminate, or do violence against those who oppose God? (These are the kinds of questions many ask who are in the process of deconstruction.)

Or, finally, are there other ways to read this passage (and others like it) that frees it from these burdens while allowing faith to be both realistic and reinforced?


Elleann said...

I look forward to hearing you and your professor's comments! :-) I haven't voluntarily read the Bible in many months, simply because I can't reconcile the bits that make sense with the bits that don't, so I avoid it altogether.

My own journey away from literalism began when I started re-examining what the bible had to say about homosexuality, which as an evangelical Christian I had unthinkingly accepted for years was 'a sin'. The more I read and researched, the more I started suspecting that the church had gotten things badly wrong in this regard (although this process was itself fraught with doubt and fear as I began to embrace and accept such 'heretical' ideas!)

This led to an increase in doubt regarding how the Church has interpreted the bible over the years, which brought many other things into question. From there, the doubt shift to the veracity of Scripture itself: how did all these different books came to be written, and then accepted by christians as 'The Bible'. Only then did I start seeing the inaccuracies and inconsistencies etc. While I couild accept the Bible as ancient human writings, it got to the point where the Bible carried no weight at all for me when it came to matters of faith.

This, coupled with my personal lack of *experience* of God (and I use the word very warily here, lol!), led me to the point where it seriously felt as if God and Christianity was just a big cultural, societal tradition that I, in my unthinking ignorance, had bought into years ago. Not true, none of it.

And I grieved for that loss.

But now I'm finding that the process continues. Maybe there IS *God* beyond the loss of my evangelical fundamentalist *God*. And maybe there is a way to read Scripture so that it adds to faith rather than taking away from it.

Sentient Marrow said...

And, for me, I guess I go what might be a more Eastern 0rthodox route and figure that somethings are mystery and because I am not God I can't understand them. I can understand your questioning because certain parts of the Bible do lend themselves to plenty of questions.

musing said...

Julie, I’m very interested in your answer to the question >>>are there other ways to read this passage (and others like it) that frees it from these burdens while allowing faith to be both realistic and reinforced?<<<

After my deconversion, I've been able to maintain a general spirituality, but I've not found a way to maintain a particular Christian faith.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

julieunplugged said...

figure that somethings are mystery and because I am not God I can't understand them.

This works for me if we're talking about things that have been left mysterious... God's make-up (gender, spirit, force), for instance.

But when we are given theological conclusions drawn from specific texts in the Bible, I can't simply say that the texts are not meant to be understood because too many theologians and clerics have made meanings from them, meanings we are supposed to accept, adopt or believe.

I do like the idea of mystery (and perhaps I'll get to talk more about mystery in a future post). I don't like to apply it to theological conclusions that are readily intelligible, yet inconsistent with what is God's nature according to other passages and other texts.

I don't expect perfect reconciliation either. But I do expect mystery to mean less absolute claims when looking at the myriad ways ancients have chosen to describe their encounters with God.

Dave said...

The biblical texts present some very stout challenges - they are not to be taken lightly, but I think we are at a point where we can no longer seriously take them literally either. They exist as a deeply formative influence on our psyche (both individual and collective) and need to be read and discerned as such - which is where I see a post-critical hermeneutic as basically essential, since without it we are still left in the thrall of literalist/traditionalist interpretations that increasingly steer their adherents in the direction of behavioral and even legislative control over others. (As well as the cognitive and intellectual difficulties that you have so vividly described in your series.)

In stories like Noah, the Exodus and to an extent, even the New Testament, we have to continually come to grips with the role that "terror" played and still plays in impressing the "idea of God" upon us. These stories made it into the canon because they effectively scared the hell out of their readers! I think their power rests largely in their ability to approximate or even stir up in the moment the kind of dread that we experience in the critical moments of life - whether our safety or existence is threatened, our nearest relationships are jeopardized, our future plans and legacy to succeeding generations are cast in doubt... These fear-inducing narratives remind us of the impermanence of life and also have the effect of fostering both dependence on the religious social and power structure and a tighter bond with the communities that form around them. Their drawback is that once people wake up to and eventually transcend the coercive tactics used, it's hard to recapture the respect that we once held for these venerable traditions. And it's hard to not have a personal falling-out with those who continue to perpetuate the "old" hermeneutics when one "knows" that that interpretation is no longer "really" valid.

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

I moved away from a more literal approach to the Bible as I began to understand the meaning and implications of myths and how myth was the primary language of the ancient world...Personally, I find a metaphorical approach more satisfying because it is more open ended and thus more "potentially personal" because interpretation is not subject to an absolute answer which may be difficult to reconcile with one's experience ...thus...I suspect the primary problem for a lot of folks might be that they can't handle the open ended implications of myths and metaphors. In other words, it's a psychological/sociological issue which cannot be easily reconciled intellectually...I hope this makes sense???...Just thinking out loud...Appreciate your ongoing candor and ponderings...

julieunplugged said...

Dave, quit reading my notes for the next installment. :) You have hit on one of the themes I will highlight in part 9 - who is God according to the ancients? How does that picture differ from our conceptions of God today?

The idea of terror (fear) is one that we have a much more difficult time grasping in our middle class comforts than in the ancient world where a wrong step could lead to disaster. Bonhoeffer seemed to grasp that these fear tactics (as you call them) are mostly obsolete for modern people.

I'll discuss more of this using some of Dr. Dewey's comments in part 9. He addresses this very issue!

julieunplugged said...

Bill, I agree with you that a metaphorical approach can lead to a too open-ended feel for many of us (particularly from the ex-fundamentalist camp). One of the dangers of metaphor, though, is that we can also be guilty of laying our desires and expectations onto the text and coerce the texts to say things they aren't saying. This is one of the critiques of a metaphorical approach and I tend to agree with it.

For the stories to have value apart from a literal reading (that is then interpreted and applied according to preconceived theological ideas), we have to start from a different place. A metaphorical reading can't be an alternative to literalism as much as a deeper reading (not necessarily more accurate, but more thoughtful and open-ended - as you say).

I'll explain more in the next installment.

R. Michael said...

apologize in advance for being so introspective on this post, but here goes...

I read this with great interest as I have been having some discussions about this subject with a good friend of mine who is a biblical scholar and teaches OT at a local university. I remember quite timidly telling him that I did not believe that the Genesis account of creation was literally true and his response was... "of course it's not!"

Only in the last few hundred years have we been interpreting the Bible literally...the ancients would have thought our modern approach completely absurd. These narratives were written in an attempt to understand the nature of God juxtaposed with the realities around them. The Bible was not written for us to pick apart like a dissection in a high school biology class.

The problem that I see with abandoning literalism is that I feel like Velma from Scooby Doo and (predictably) I have lost my glasses. However, I realize that the glasses themselves also left me with a distorted view and I can no longer keep them on which makes everything appear fuzzy...maybe this is my new reality. it doesn't feel right but I don't know of another way to view it.

Julie, did the abandoning of literalism feel similarly to you or did it just make you more frustrated?

julieunplugged said...

Julie, did the abandoning of literalism feel similarly to you or did it just make you more frustrated?

I was very frustrated right away and then couldn't figure out what else to do with the texts. It seemed logical to just ditch them all together. If they were myth, then what relevance could old mythology from another time and place so removed from mine have to do with my life?

One of the difficulties with literalism is that part of its "propaganda" package (and all perspectives have propaganda - I mean that term with the best connotation possible) is that if we see the texts as anything less than literal history, they have no point and undermine the faith to the point of ruining it. It's interesting that Dave brought up terror as a motivator in the original narratives.

Our modern narrative also holds a kind of modern terror - if this isn't real history, then it's irrelevant and faith is dead. Funny how gripping that vision is for those of us coming from literalism.

So yes, initially, terrifying. Later, fuzzy. I liked your analogy to Scooby Doo.

I'll talk more about this in part 9.

Tim Chambers said...

This is very much an issue I've looked at in my twenty years as a believer in Jesus, having gone through plenty of phases: a literalist/fundamentalist phase, an evangelical/protestant phase and now a post-protestant emergent one.

Throughout that time - even in the early phases - the historicity of many zones of the Bible seemed weak and or impossible. A fact that to varying degrees worried me about the whole structure of "inerrency" that was always tought to me as an immutable fact of the faith.

(that Scripture itself doesn't claim for itself)

Lately I've taken a somewhat

I've found myself facinated by C.S. Lewis's views:

In one of his letters he wrote:

"I am myself a little uneasy about the question you raise: there seems to be an almost equal objection to the position taken up in my footnote and to its alternative of attributing the same kind and degree of historicity to all books of the Bible. You see, the question about Jonah and the great fish does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation.

In what sense does the Bible 'present' the Jonah story "as historical"? Of course it doesn’t say, 'This is fiction,' but then neither does our Lord say that the Unjust Judge, Good Samaritan, or Prodigal Son are fiction (I would put Esther in the same category as Jonah for the same reason). How does a denial, a doubt, of their historicity lead logically to a similar denial of New Testament miracles? Supposing (as I think is the case), that sound critical reading revealed different kinds of narrative in the Bible, surely it would be illogical to suppose that these different kinds should all be read in the same way?

This is not a 'rationalistic approach' to miracles. Where I doubt the historicity of an Old Testament narrative I never do so on the ground that the miraculous as such is incredible.

Nor does it deny a unique sort of inspiration: allegory, parable, romance, and lyric might be inspired as well as chronicle."

In essence it is saying don't read the Bible as if it were a modern book with modern assumptions. Just like you shouldn't read the text of an Opera or a sitcom script, or a Sci-fi as if it were a historical non-fiction documentary.

It's possible that much of the Bible would actually be a literary genre that we don't have a classification for...

Ampersand said...

As an ex-literalist in limbo, I anxiously await the next installment.

This is such a great series. A testament to its greatness is the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual agnst it evokes in me as I read it. It is so very familiar, but with your own unique fingerprints all over it, my friend.

mariam said...


Coming to the Bible as somewhat of an outsider there is not really anything that I feel I have to believe, literally or in any other way. I chose Christianity as a philosophical framework and I can also choose the version of Christianity which makes the most sense to me.

IN terms of those "tough" passages in the bible, there are a lot of different ways of viewing them - but almost never literally. How I see the Bible in general is that it provides insight in how people who shared my faith, and its precursor, Judaism, viewed their relationship with God over the centuries - at least up to 2000 years ago. The understanding of that relationship evolves, and I would argue that it is us and not God who is evolving. God is watching and waiting, sometimes giving us a nudge. What we see in the Bible is a God that made sense to the people at that time. Sometimes the stories still make sense to us now and sometimes we would have to be an ancient Hebrew to "get it".

Another way to view the story of the Jews escaping from the Egyptians is as a metaphor. We are the Egyptians and the Jews are our better selves - the people we would be if we would allow God to transform us. Instead we remain captive to our baser selves, constantly ignoring God's call and warnings to let that Godlike part of ourselves be free to live and love and create. For that we suffer the consequences.

A third way of viewing scripture is that sometimes we can gain a personal understanding from a passage of text that previously eluded us. I may have told this story before, but I don't think here. In a very traumatic period of my life I was struggling with my relationship with my daughter. My daughter was spectacularly self-destructive and relentlessly suicidal. I was constantly checking her room for sharps, poisons, pills, ropes and bungie cords. I was terrified to let her out of my sight. I barely slept. I dragged her to therapy, I read the books she was supposed to read, I made up affirmations and left them in her room, I ate for her. I even thought that if she succeeded in killing herself I would have to follow suit because I couldn't bear to think of her on the "other side" all alone. Now I can see how unhealthy this was for both of us but at the time I was terrified and just holding on to her for dear life. I felt that I was the only person fighting to keep her alive and that if I let go she would plunge to her death. Her therapists and my counsellor tried to pry my fingers open but I just couldn't understand what they were trying to tell me. This was close to the time that I had started using the Anglican daily offices online for prayer. One night when I was desperately praying for my daughter's life the passage of scripture was the story of Abraham and Isaac and how Abraham had prepared to make a sacrifice of his son. Now I had always thought that a horrible story - how could a loving God ask such a terrible thing of a parent, even if later He said "It's Ok. Just joking". But that night it was almost as if there was a burning bush in the room and I suddenly knew what that passage meant. I gave my daughter over to God that night, knowing that she was His child also and infinitely loved and that whatever happened God would take care of her - either in this world or the next. It was the biggest leap of faith and trust I have ever made. There are lots of passages like that where they only make sense to you at a certain point in your life (and sometimes if you are lucky they never have to make sense :)

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for this wonderful post, and for your comment on my blog (where I've replied in more detail) at

For those wrestling with these issues and seeking a solidly Christian outlook that is unapologetic about the fact that the Bible cannot simply be taken literally, I recommend Keith Ward's book What The Bible Really Teaches. I found it incredibly helpful in enabling me to stop apologizing for my viewpoint, as though the self proclaimed Biblical literalists were in actual fact taking the Bible literally in a consistent way, and were thus 'better Christians' than I was. The truth is that claims to take the Bible literally and believe it all are at best an advertising strategy and at worst an outright deception.

I have reached the point where I can say "I am a Christian" and "I don't agree with everything that is in the Bible" without cringing. All literalism is selective literalism. In my opinion, it is better to be honest about not believing everything literally than to deceive oneself through selective reading that one is doing so, when that isn't in fact the case.

R. Michael said...


I have been thinking about your question "If the Bible depicts events that we can't be certain happened, of what value is the theological message?" This is difficult to answer but I think anyone who reads the Bible comes away with something valuable even if the individual parts seem incongruent. What is it in us that when we read the text strikes a chord that does not seem to happen with other texts? It is our presuppositions that this is "the word of God" or is it something else? Is it the beauty and the "truthiness" of the words of Jesus?...I think that is part of it. Hope part 9 (or later parts address this)