I’m fairly certain the least consistently redeemed aspect of my personality is the part of me that feels a compulsion to correct things–primarily people’s grammar, spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, and general word usage.

Example: recently a professional peer of mine sent me some glowing feedback, at the end of which she said, “you have literally gifted us your pearl of great price.” As soon as I read it, I had an internal clash of emotions. The better part of me felt awed at her kind and affirming words, grateful if even a part of them were actually true, and humbled that she felt the way she described. But then the other part of me said to the rest of me, “Augh! Literally? I haven’t literally given anyone a pearl–greatly priced or otherwise!” I do have this really pretty black pearl which I pulled out of an oyster tank at the Norwalk Oyster Festival in 1996, but that was only $15, and I don’t think there’s enough of it to go around.

At that point it became pretty clear to me that no matter how sincere she was, the objective truth of her glowing accolades for me might only be skin deep and I am a horrible person.

Be that as it may, one of the biggest word usage peeves I have is the non-literal use of the word literally. I therefore have a really conflicted relationship with using it to refer to how I (or anyone) reads, understands, and interprets the Bible. I have lived, worshiped, and worked with people who call themselves Christians who say with pride that they take the Bible literally. I have also lived, worshiped, and worked with people who call themselves Christians who say with pride that they don’t take the Bible literally. I suspect both sorts of self-identifying Christians (including myself, at one time or another–maybe recently) have also, more or less consciously or overtly, assumed that those people at the other end of the Scriptural literalness spectrum may not really be Christians, or at least not very good ones.

This leaves me and I suppose others like me in something of a predicament if we are trying to talk about the way we read and understand the Bible. I mean…I don’t have a word for it. I believe the Bible is inspired by God unlike any other book is or isn’t inspired. I even believe the specific words used in the original writing of the original books of the Bible are inspired (though I don’t believe God put people into a trance or in any kind of automatic writing as part of the process). Intervening millennia, manuscript fragments and/or variants, and countless translations notwithstanding, I believe that we can still know true things about the real God and about the state of humanity from the Bible that we can’t learn as truly and as thoroughly anywhere else. Tell me I have blind faith, and you may be right, but that faith has been tested in many areas–including in taking the Bible seriously as an authority over my life–and still holds up, even when some of the times I didn’t want it to.

But I can’t literally say I take the Bible literally. Do I believe Jesus’ miracles literally happened? Yes, I do. Do I believe Moses and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and that said Sea was something more than a puddle? Yep. Do I believe Noah’s flood covered the entire globe? I’m agnostic about that one. I think it could have. I don’t think it has to have, in order for the story to have meaning in both human history and my own life, or for it to tell us something about the progression of God’s relationship with humanity. Do I believe the world and the universe were made in seven 24-Earth-hour literal days? I mean, God could have done it that way, but no, I do not believe He did.

So how do I (or how does anyone with a similar perspective to mine) decide which parts to take truly literally, and which parts not to? How do we decide which rules and laws recorded in the 66 books of this sometimes daunting tome are still applicable to life now, and which ones no longer are? Isn’t it intellectually inconsistent (and maybe reflects inconsistent principles) to pick and choose?


Here’s the thing, though. We all pick and choose. No one is fully consistent–not the most literal reader of the Bible, and not the least. It would take too much time to give examples, but please trust me on this one. I’ve seen it. Those of us in the middle may be in the most danger of all of inconsistency–but maybe (not necessarily, but one would hope) we have some other ways of “getting at” what we’re meant to “get out of” Scripture that might be more accessible to us than if we were bound by the literal versus non-literal dichotomy. I won’t claim that I have “the right” understanding or interpretation of anything in the Bible (although I certainly try to), but I will tell you that there are two main approaches that help it make sense to me, and actually help me to love that Book, even when I am seriously not loving a particular segment I’m reading at any given moment.

The first approach is to try not to think of it as a Book that fits into any one genre of writing that we as humans generally have. I have another entire post (maybe rant) about that, but for the moment let’s just say that although I believe the Bible is a very unique unity in itself, it is full of numerous genres, some of which we don’t even have anything like, anymore. The biblical genres that match ones we do still have 2000 years after the last bit of it was written, aren’t quite like the way we write those genres now. If I can come to the Bible with an open mind, instead of demanding that it fill my expectations as A History Book, or A Rule Book, or A Science Book, or A Storybook–if I can let it be itself–let it self-identify, as it were–I think I am able to get a better sense of what any given part of it is about or for. At the same time, if I can recognize that it has elements of all those genres, and let those genres be their genres, I come closer to understanding the words and why they’re being used the way they are in any given section. Because (big surprise!), I believe the genres were inspired by God, too.

The other approach that helps me is approaching God. If the Bible really is God’s book, then God must want me to meet Him through it–otherwise, why go to the trouble of inspiring it? If I come at the Bible as a way to grow closer to God, open not just to what the book itself says, but to what God wants to say to me through it–if I ask Him, well, I may still not always get it right, but based on my experience, it seems like I’m more likely to “hear” from God Himself, in what I read, and from there in many other moments of my day.

After all that, I’m still not sure there’s one word to sum up my approach to, or understanding and experience of, the Bible. Maybe you could say I understand the Bible “literarily.” That’s probably not quite right, either, but it seems like it would be easier to have a conversation around what I mean. Or maybe you could say I understand it as an important message from Someone who loves me, and who–partly because of the message in this book–I am growing to love, too.

Published by Jennwith2ns

Jesus person. Wife and step-mom. Daughter, sister, auntie, friend. Collector of stories: mine, yours, tangible, not... Pastor of Central Baptist Church, founder and spiritual director at The Pilgrimage, and author of Trees In The Pavement and Favored One.

3 thoughts on “Literally

  1. This topic has soooooo been on my mind. If I miss the boat on this one, it would probably be to the extreme of being overly suspicious of events having literally happened. One of the things I feel pretty intensely about is that those on the other extreme tend to accuse me of having not having an elevated enough view of scripture. I spent a while (a long time!) thinking that asssuming a thing literally happened is actually the lower version of scripture.
    At this point, I am thinking that we trivialize biblical truth when we get overly hung up on the question of whether or not it happened; this question just isn’t that important to me.

    1. I honestly think it depends on the thing. (I mean, I think the literalness of the resurrection is far more important than the literalness of a worldwide flood. I believe one did happen and the other certainly could have.) I think the difference in discerning, for me, comes from looking at the stories from a literary perspective (what is the writer trying to accomplish/communicate on the basis of the chosen genre) and what sense God is trying to communicate to me through that same passage/story. What that is might not be the same thing every time, but I do think it’s always consistent with the text and the overall themes of the smaller book it’s in, and the Bible as a whole. I tend to “skew” and or “shorthand” to literal when I’m talking/teaching about any given story, because I do think it honors the story and the teller–but I do that when talking about literature generally (even when it’s fiction), as a student of it, so you can do with that what you will. 😊

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