Taking the Bible Literally and not Literarily

The Bible is not so much a book as it is a collection of books. This may be common in our approach, however there are times we forget. And like many collections of books that reside on a book self, the Bible has a number of different types or genres of books. There are books of poetry. There are books of sermons. There are letters and the genre called “apocalyptic.” These different types of books require a different set of eyes to read. For instance, if you sit down to read a children’s book (say the Giving Tree) you are going to view this book differently than if were to sit and read a murder mystery. Each genre requires a different set of eyes, and yet we often read the Bible with the same and single set of eyes.

The Bible is many books not one. Photo by  Dmitrij Paskevic  on  Unsplash

The Bible is many books not one. Photo by Dmitrij Paskevic on Unsplash

To put it another way, too often we take the Bible literally when we should be taking it literarily.   

Even though there is a journey and exploration in both types of books, we do not read “Oh The Places You Will God” as a travel guide. Just because the Bible has some moral or ethical guidelines, does not mean that the Bible is to be read as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” We need to take seriously the literarily role of the Bible or we will be able to quote the Bible but not live Biblical lives.

The Bible can be difficult to understand, not because we are moronic but that we often approach it like a “users guide” when it is much more than that. Here is a simple example to consider.

It makes sense to read the story of creation in Genesis first. It is at the beginning of the Bible and it is about the creation of the universe. Sophisticated readers will see that Genesis 1 is a poem and read it as a poem and not as modern science. We approach Genesis 1 with the eyes of poetry and not the eyes of historical fact.

What about a slightly more complicated example?

The stories of God liberating the enslaved people through Moses and company were not written down until the 5th centuries BCE. The Exodus story is written down at the time when the people of God were conquered by the Babylonians and sent into exile. Who cares? It matters because the story of Exodus is set at a time prior to the Babylonian exile but is speaking to the people who are in exile. The Exodus is a story set in the past but is speaking to and about the present.

If you have ever read Science-Fiction you get this. Science-Fiction is set in the future, but is addressing questions and the situation of the present. We do not watch or read Star Wars as what the future really looks like, but rather we use the story of Star Wars to address or raise the current questions.

The Bible is full of beauty, wonder and love, so lets stop taking it literally and consider it literarily.

Rabbi Akiva and His Questions

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Rabbi Akiva was walking home one night on the same path he always traveled, except that this night was incredibly foggy and he missed his usual turn off the path.

Soon he encounters a massive fortress.

At the gate the Rabbi hears the voice of a guard yelling to him from the wall, “Who are you and why are you here?”

Upon hearing those words, the Rabbi asks: “How much are you paid for your work?

“Two shekels a day,” the guard responded.

Rabbi Akiva then looks up at the guard and says, “I will pay you twice that if you follow me to my home and ask me those very same questions every single morning.”

Three Monks and One Sees

Benedicta Ward’s book has this story:

There were three friends, serious men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men who were at odds, as it is written, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matt. 5:9). The second chose to visit the sick. The third chose to go away to be quiet in solitude. Now the first, toiling among contentions, was not able to settle all quarrels and, overcome with weariness, he went to him who tended the sick, and found hims also failing in spirit and unable to carry out his purpose. So the two went away to see hims who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles. They asked him to tell them how he himself had fared. He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, ‘Look at the water.’ and it was murky. After a little while he said again, ‘See now, how clear the water has become.’ As they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. They he said to them, ‘So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd; because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults.’

Today there are two major camps in the UMC. One claims the importance of peacemaking (Conservatives) while others are claiming the importance of tending to the sick (Liberals). Both camps have a good and Biblical claim on their task, and both are making good on the call. However, we now find ourselves in a bind where both camps are failing in spirit and there is such a turbulence in the Church. Neither camp sees the value of being quiet and still. Both camps are righteous in their cause and pouring water out, baptizing the work they do. Neither camp can see, as they churn up water, that we are drowning.

Photo by  Haley Phelps  on  Unsplash

The flailing and hand waving and crying out all is in an effort to ensure we can all stay a float through these troubled waters. It is the wisdom of the third monk that we need. The one who elevates silence, stillness, patience. Of course we do not give any merit to such posturing as it is seen as irrelevant and useless (all the while forgetting that Nouwen cautions us to the temptation of relevancy and that prayer is being “useless”).

And so what is the local church and church leader to do? How can we harness the wisdom of the third monk? Perhaps we can at least recall Soren Kierkegaard, who said, “Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”

Church leaders, there is nothing wrong with the wisdom of the third monk. There is nothing wrong with stillness, waiting and trusting. There is nothing wrong with not doing “something”. There is nothing wrong with trusting in the buoyancy of God.

Is that not our call?

Living My Future Self Now

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There are many self-help and self-improvement advocates out there lauding the ways we can live our best life now. I don’t know about any of that, but what I do know is that we can live our future selves right now. At least in one way - forgiveness.

Think back to when you were a child and made a mistake that you have some amount of shame or embarrassment about. Many times we look at that act and forgive ourselves because we were just “dumb kids” doing things we did not think through very well. We can be quick to forgive children because children often do not know any better.

As you think of that memory and extend kindness and forgiveness to your past self, take note. Because your future self will be as forgiving to your present self, in the same way that your present self is forgiving my past self.

When you were younger you might have even thought that your future self would forgive your actions/behavior. And so, forgiving your past self in the present means you are living you (previous) future self now.

All of this to say that your future self will be as forgiving to your present self as you are presently forgiving your past self. And so give yourself a break and know you can live your future self right now by forgiving present self.