The dangers of a literalist theology

I received an email this afternoon concerning the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS/L)–a terrorist group committed to the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. The author concluded that ISIS/L’s literal interpretation of the Qu’ran was necessarily connected to their violent–even barbarous–methodology. Implied in the comment was a value judgment about people who take religious texts “literally.”

It put me to mind of an exchange between Rev. Canon Sam Wells and a UCC campus minister at a meeting I attended. Wells put forward a definition of Christian–for the purpose of religious life at Duke University–that connected to affirming the ecumenical creeds of the church, especially the Apostles’ Creed. The immediate reply from the UCC minister was to inquire whether a “literal” interpretation was required. After all, he argued, is it not still an affirmation of the creed to hold that Jesus was raised metaphorically. Well’s rejoinder was beautiful: “I would hate to think that after you die, you’d be raised as a metaphor.”

A critique of Biblical literalism is, at times, appropriate. However, progressives who universally condemn a literal reading of the Scripture show themselves to be as lacking in nuance as their fundamentalist friends.

The Scripture has to be interpreted in light of its genre. To read Genesis as modern history ignores the intellectual and cognitive chasm that exists between modern scientific description and ancient creation mythology. It is only a mistake to read something ‘literally’ when such a reading is unwarranted by the biblical evidence. Liberals often assume that the details in the Bible are simply an appendage to the spiritual reality that is testified to and that shifts and changes over time. Conservatives look to the Bible as an evidentiary record that establishes and buttresses their theological conclusions. The reality is somewhere in between.

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