How is the Bible useful if I cannot take it literally?

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A better way than literal reading ...

"This Book from the first word to the last is the authentic Word of God. All other claims are false!" Ex:34:27: And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.

Seeing this verse in this context was a pleasant surprise for me because in the past I just marched right past it. Pleasant to me because I am understanding that the LORD wants his words written to become a means of communicating the tenor of his words.

Tenor for me means that the written words of God are to be read and understood in context of the spirit of the law more than the letter of the law.

Deut:28:58: If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, THE LORD THY GOD;

De:28:61: Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, them will the LORD bring upon thee, until thou be destroyed.

The context of Deut 28 is a promise that if Israel is obedient they shall be blessed temporally and spiritually. If disobedient they shall be cursed, smitten and destroyed. The assertion of the idea of fearing God or God's name has resulted in a myriad of literalist constructs that address redefining "fear" in a historical context that equates fear with love toward God.

Whether they admit it or not, those who make that equation depart from absolute literalist interpretation but do so wisely, recognizing that literal translation of words from one ancient language to modern English can be hazardous.

For me then the usefulness of Deut 28:58 lies in understanding the promise of temporal and spiritual blessing rather than the literalist meaning which in reality proposed a God of extortion who says "do things my way or I'll whack you!"

The Isaiah quotes from Chapters 43 - 47 appear to assert for Boanerges that God is The One. Beside God there is no other. God is the author of our existence

I personally think that Job 40 and 41 - which include a rebuking of the attempts by Job's critics' to define Job's religious fallibility - and Proverbs 8: 22-36 are a much more powerful assertion of God as the source than are the Isaiah passages.

Neither the Isaiah verses nor the Job and Proverbs verses assert that God expects a Letter-of-the-Law approach to life.

Luke 8:11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.

To me this verse is Jesus telling me that whether one reads "word" as scripture or Jesus himself, the essence is that the seed is personal knowledge ... a seed planted by Jesus and/or available to be found for planting from scripture.

The seed/word is a personal knowledge of one's relationship to God and comprehension of how each child of God fits into the scheme of mortal existence. This could be used to define what it means to be born-again as well. Do we not speak of the same thing from two different but ultimately harmonious perceptions?

That personal inner knowledge is vulnerable to being lost - not because some "devil" comes and "steals" something that is thriving within - but because inner knowledge is something not static; something continually responding to the experiences of life.

The inner seed grows and develops according to it's nourishment; a consumption that includes some outward things (temptations to actions and ideas) that Jesus said elsewhere could defile one within.

Rev:22:18-9 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

If one uses this verse to justify an inerrant Bible with correct but inflexible religious formula, then I can only say that I do not read it and reach the same conclusion.

Relating the Revelations quote to the previous Luke quote, this "book of life' is truly a book of life that contains the "seed" which should be planted within. Tampering with the book is severely condemned and in the light of the Bible's containing - as Exodus reads above - the tenor of God's words, most certainly would we hope that over the course of the past 2000 years someone did not alter or change the text in any way.

I disagree with any implication that this Revelations quote forbids me from trying to understand Revelations according to how I understand life. If so forbidden, then most certainly we would have a scriptural source elsewhere in the Bible that explicitly and specifically defines all meanings as the official formula by which any exploration of scripture and doctrine is based.


“This older way of seeing the Bible has been called ‘natural literalism.’ In a state of natural literalism, the Bible is read and accepted literally without effort. Because someone in this state has no reason to think differently, a literal reading of the Bible poses no problems.

Natural literalism is quite different from ‘conscious literalism,’ a modern form of literalism that has become aware of problems posed by a literal reading of the Bible but insists upon it nevertheless.

Whereas natural literalism is effortless, conscious literalism is effortful. It requires ‘faith’ understood as believing things hard to believe. But natural literalism does not insist upon literal interpretation. Rather, it takes it for granted and it does not require ‘faith’ to do so.

My family and congregation were not fundamentalists. Rather, we were natural literalists, though we favored what we might call “soft literalism.’

We did not, for example, insist upon reading the Genesis stories of creation literally. It was fine to see the six days of creation as six geological epochs. We did not have to deny the existence of dinosaurs or the fossil record. But as ‘soft literalists, we took it for granted that the most important events in the Bible happened pretty much as they are reported. That at the time of the exodus the sea really did part to allow the ancient Hebrews to pass through. That Jesus really was born of a virgin really did walk on the water, really did multiply loaves, and so forth.

This is what I mean by ‘soft literalism’: taking it for granted that the most central events reported in the Bible really happened. This older way of seeing the Bible went with an older way of seeing Christianity.

The reason for the connection is obvious: the Bible has been the foundational for Christianity throughout the centuries. How one sees the Bible and how one sees Christianity go hand in hand.”

The above paragraphs are in the introductory writings to READING THE BIBLE AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME, by Marcus J. Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University.


Dr. Borg’s writing represents the “historical-metaphorical” side of the on-going debate with those who insist on a “literal-factual” way of reading the Bible. His stated intent is to offer a persuasive way of seeing and reading scriptures that “takes the Bible seriously without taking it literally.”

Using four formal statements to describe who we have become, Dr. Borg points out how our cultural context cannot be ignored as more and more of us find the older way of looking at the Bible less and less persuasive:

We are aware of religious pluralism.
We are aware of historical and cultural relativity.
We are modern people.
We live on the boundary of post-modernity.

Expounding on those statements, Dr. Borg writes to persuade that his way of seeing and reading the Bible would lead to a way of being Christian that has very little to do with believing:

“Being Christian, I will argue, is not about believing in the Bible or about believing in Christianity. Rather, it is about a deepening relationship with the God to whom the Bible points, lived within the Christian tradition as a sacrament of the sacred.”

Part One contains foundations of concepts upon which the subsequent “Reading again” presentations will be based. We are asked to look at the Bible as:
a human response to God,
as Sacred Scripture,
as Sacrament of the Sacred,
and as The Word of God,
as History and Metaphor,
and as stories about the Divine-Human Relationship.

Dr. Borg then asks that as readers of the Bible, we move from precritical naiveté through critical thinking to post critical naiveté. These jargon-like phrases identify ways of perception that recognizes our own experience.

Precritical naiveté is described as “an early childhood state in which we take it for granted that whatever the significant authority figures in our lives tell us to be true is indeed true.”

Critical thinking begins in late childhood and early adolescence. “We sift through what we learned as children to see how much of it we should keep."

Postcritical naiveté is "the ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality."

Part Two is a rereading, using the book’s outlined perspectives, of The Hebrew Bible. Dr. Borg chooses to refer to what Christians consider the Old Testament as The Hebrew Bible for two reasons: The first reason is respect for Judaism for whom the Hebrew Bible is THE BIBLE, not “The Old Testament.” The second reason given is that for many Christian readers, the adjective “Old” implies outmoded or superceded – as if the “New” Testament were intended to replace the “Old” Testament.

Part Three is a rereading, using again Dr. Borg’s outlined perspectives, of the New Testament. Prepared by the foundations offered in Part One, I found Parts Two and Three well worth reading.

Marcus Borg’s tone in writing is moderate and reasonable. In contrast with Bishop Spong’s shrill and radical attempt to “rescue the Bible from the Fundamentalists”, Dr. Borg offers foundational wisdom with which Christians can remain Bible-based, utilizing scripture in ways fully meaningful in our post-modern context.

How is the Bible useful if I cannot take it literally?

We live an existence governed by the perceptions of our five senses. We have come to understand that our brains function from both a left and right side. The left-brain is primarily an interpreter of facts – an encyclopedia of personally acquired knowledge and experience. The right brain, the creative and imaginative side, is the source of our music, poetry and inventions.
Both sides of our brains reside in the same cranium and it makes sense that the intent of the Creator is that the two aspects are to be harmonized in use. Through our senses, facts and experience are admitted into our thinking, ordered and collated on the left side of our brain and then conceptualized and understood on the right side.
Furthermore, I'm not aware of any writing, sacred or secular, that advises us to emphasize one side at the expense of the other.
Balance and harmony of perception seems the path of our spiritual and physical evolution to wisdom and a higher spiritual plane.
Jesus’ criticisms of the priestly class are a part of New Testament scripture. He was at times quite caustic, indignant and outrageous in his effort to deal with a society in which the literal interpretation of scripture had gone to the extreme.
The letter of the Law was the basis for social behavior and decision-making. The spirit of the Law, despite the presence of scripture, tradition and history, was not. Fear of the priesthood was the basis for acceptance and validation and an impetus for feeling fear of both the priesthood and one's peers or neighbors.
The letter and spirit of the Law were not balanced. Left brain thinking with its collection of facts assembled into a knowledge of the "world as it is" almost totally overruled the wisdom that is formed in the right brain based on a creative compiling of facts contained in the left: "the world as it ought to be; the world intended by God."
Jesus did not come to write new laws or overthrow old ones. Rather to teach again the need for wisdom and understanding regarding the laws of a God who had been reduced to two-dimensional form: a judgmental divinity who was either pleased or displeased.
We are equipped to see in three dimensions: height, width and depth. Without three-dimensional vision, we see only a square instead of a box and a circle instead of a sphere.
There are also three dimensions to our knowledge of God. The missing dimension of the God of Israel seemed to be the wisdom that exists on the side of common sense; a repressed spirit of the law that comes only from understanding God as God is in experience.
Knowledge of the scriptures isn't enough. Knowing the laws and commandments without grasping the divine or spiritual intent is not enough. The third dimension is how Peter describes what the scriptures are.
"For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost."
If scripture was written in that manner, then left-brain logic dictates that scripture ought to be read that same way. The same left-brain logic suggests that a prompting more fully moves through the mind via the creative and imaginative side -- the right brain side.
Left-brain thinking turns on the spirit receiver by its ability to read words, remember definitions, remember stories and remember personal life incidents. Right brain thinking activates the more spiritually creative aspect of thinking that senses the will and influence of ideas both higher and deeper in the mind.
To live entirely with an emphasis on left-brain thinking makes us no more human than a computer, which amasses knowledge and acts only according to facts in the database.
To live entirely with an emphasis on right brain thinking causes us to live in a world of fantasy, wishful thinking, and imaginary states where the practical application toward bringing wishes to reality is missing. Right brain conceives the wish, but left-brain has the resources to realize the wish.
It makes no sense that God would speak to man solely through left-side, logical, law-based thinking. Nor is it sensible that God would speak to man solely through right side thinking where ideas would remain only in a conceptual state without the will and knowledge to action. The implication is that God speaks to man through a mind balanced with knowledge and wisdom.
It has been said that the major weakness of Christianity is that while its Founder did all that He did using the Law as reference material to teach and point toward God, Christianity uses the scripture as Law first, spirit second and points not at God but at the Founder.
Do we lazily resort to a literal interpretation of the scripture and rely on left-brain-dominated blindness by acting only as the words are literally written? Do we think then that we have no need that they be placed in a context of spiritual feeling and understanding?
Or do we lazily reside in a fantasy world with a right-brain-dominated weakness of wishful trusting that if we "believe" in Jesus we are fulfilling God's intent in giving us life and opportunity? Do we restrict ourselves to merely looking and pointing at Jesus instead of looking where He looked and pointing where He pointed?
"Lazy" is appropriate here. Are we mostly interested in learning only that which we are commanded to "do", that which we need to "obey" and that which we "shouldn't do"?
I have at times in my life been a piano teacher. Worrying about jots and tittles to excess is like being able to play music only by reading notes and counting the rhythm loudly inside our heads as we try to hit the notes as dictated by our loud inner counting. We have no true feeling for the music itself, the phrasing and the flow.
It is very unlikely, playing music in that manner, that we will be captured by the fullness of the musical piece nor carried to a higher plane as the music actually communicates its mood and feeling. Such playing is dominated by left-brain thinking and, although mechanically a player can become very skilled, not only does the music remain mechanical in sound, as if played by a computer, but it is unlikely such a player will ever successfully understand or interpret what he plays, let alone create his own music.
Left-brained musicians did not create Christian hymns and lyrics.

The American Christian is a journal based in Bay Center, Washington.
Copyright 2005 Swandeer Productions
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The American Christian is a journal based in Bay Center, Washington. 
Copyright 2005-2009 The SwanDeer Project
Send all e-mail to aruger at gmail dot com