Literalism as Dry Docking

God's Word drydockedI photoshopped this photo to go with my metaphor below about: literalism, “God’s Word” and drydocks.  My metaphorical story was ‘inspired’ by my recent visit to a few Christian blogs where the authors railed against anyone seeing Bible stories as anything but literally true.  Treating this distorted way of thinking is a critical starting point to improving the Christianity of many believers.  I generated this story in a reply on those Christian blogs — I  thought some of you may enjoy seeing it:


The people who originally told stories about Noah-and-the-Ark, Jonah-and-the-Whale, and Adam-and-Eve would probably laugh uproariously if they saw how literalist have become so serious about something they merely used to get ideas across. My goodness. Or maybe they’d be happy that their tale was so persuasive. But it does makes me wonder if literalist have never made up stories for their children, or sat around campfires telling tales or ever authored a work of fiction. Or if they have, are they so Bible-Bible-Bible drenched, they can’t think straight?

Many Christians agree strongly with what I have just written — many. But many conservatives and Evangelicals dismiss such believers as “not real Christians” or “Christians deluded by ‘false teachers’ or Satan himself.”

Yet there is good reason for these literalist-Christians to fear taking a metaphorical view toward many of the Bible stories. For it would certainly weakens all sorts of anchors in meaning which literalists use to hold their boats tight against storm in their lives. Most likely those security ropes served them well in the past and even presently. Beliefs, even when false, can be very useful. But beliefs can outlive their usefulness. Sometimes people stay huddled under desks even after the storm has passed and miss out on sailing trips on beautiful seas. And don’t realize that hiding may not be necessary and if you retool your ship properly for storms you may not need to live in drydock.

Literalist Christians will of course disagree with my analogy. In fact, if skillful, they should be able to use my analogy to make their own point — thus the power of analogies. Likewise, we have all sorts of Christians using Bible stories differently than each other in order to make God speak their message — using “God” as a sock puppet.

Understanding stories, analogies, metaphors and such is a huge step needed for conservative Christians to begin seeing through their parochial black-and-white world.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “Literalism as Dry Docking

  1. It’s not just conservative Christians – many people with black and white world views (religious or otherwise) have trouble accepting that a story can be true without having literally happened.

  2. @Lydia: I agree — myself included, often.

  3. rautakyy

    One conservative Christian once told me, he did not like to read any fictional stories. I guess he honestly thought the Bible is absolutely true from top to bottom. It struck me as rather one track minded. It reminded me of the Thomas of Aquinas: “I fear the man of a single book”.

    I am not trying to generalize, it was just this one guy, but I wonder, if it was indicative of some sort of wider phenomenon of rigid thinking.

    I think the literalism is more like a reaction to the diminishing amount of absolute truths in the alledged one and only written down communication between humankind and the creator of the universe. A reaction to the fact that things former generations held as true at face value, wich science has reduced to metaphors. If Noahs flood was a mere metaphor, then are the virgin birth, or even resurrection of Jesus not just mere metaphors as well, if put under the same scrutany? It is conservatism out of ignorance, but also of choise.

  4. Actually, @rautakyy, my very religious and conservative mother-in-law has the same opinion of fiction! She thinks it’s at best a waste of time and at worst evil. She even has a problem with Christian fiction like “Perelandra” or “The Shack.”

    What an odd world we live in.

  5. Ian

    There is a lot of Christian backlash against fiction, and a distinct lack of ability among some to distinguish it from fact. So you have Harry Potter teaching children to summon demons, or Batman being a ‘dark force’ responsible for both the death of Heath Ledger and the Aurora shooting.

    I’ve also had a fundamentalist argue that the parables of Jesus were not fiction. Because the bible clearly records Jesus as saying things like “There was a certain man…” and if there wasn’t, in fact, such a man, then Jesus would be lying.

    So I think the distrust of fiction does run deep in the ultra-conservative wing of Christianity.

    I think if your whole worldview is fiction, and you’re regularly making stuff up, then it is probably wise to discourage your flock from getting too sophisticated about differentiating fact from fiction.

  6. I agree with you there, Ian.

    I also think it’s easier to control people if you limit their access to the outside world. It’s much easier to demonize other groups (or even just to think they’re all ignorant/fallen/depraved/misled) if you never get to know members of that group as individuals.

    This is definitely not confined to Christianity or fundamentalism, though. It happens in all sorts of contexts.

  7. We’re social animals and we instinctively connect with stories to the point that we visualise them as if they were real. My son neatly illustrated this today.

    He wanted to go on the computer to play on a website, where he has a sort of virtual pet. He said his pet was probably wondering where he’d got to, so I pointed out that his pet wasn’t real. He impatiently insisted that he knew that, but he would still be wondering. It took a while to untangle all his thoughts, but in essence, he knew that his pet was just a load of code, but because it behaved like it was alive, he treated it like it was alive.

    That’s relatively harmless and he’ll grow out of it, but I think something similar happens when we read stories like the ones you mention above. We visualise them, imagine them as if they’re real, and that makes it hard to accept that they might not be. When the context’s religion, and getting it wrong might have eternal consequences, there’s a temptation to cling all the tighter to the literal version. Or that’s what I think,

  8. CRL

    My interpretation is a little bit different.

    I think people may cling to literal interpretations of the Bible because they need evidence that God has interfered in the world. After all, we live in a world where such evidence is clearly lacking. If God breaks His own rules, He does so while well cloaked in chance and human action. Yet, in the Bible, we see an active God who parts seas, burns bushes, turns water to wine, and reanimates corpses. I was pretty young when I realized that miracles pretty much stopped happening around the time cameras became ubiquitous—there went my belief in a micromanaging God and the biblical literalism taught in primary school, when children are thought to be too young to understand the concept of a true and false story.

    But I imagine other people made the same realization, and drew a different conclusion: that there must be either a micromanaging God or no God. The latter possibility is excluded, as they “know” that there must be a God. So a micromanaging God must exist, so we must find evidence for Him. So they turn to the Bible, a book full of miracles that they have been told is true, and interpret it such that all the miracles are true.

    A God who does not act in the world is easily Russel’s teapotted out of existence. A God who acts is provable, if one interpets the Bible literally.

  9. @ Ian,
    Indeed. “discourage your flock from getting too sophisticated about differentiating fact from fiction.” is a very wise thing. Nicely said.

    @ Recovery,
    Agreed, but not just for “eternal consequences”, I think most religious folks do their religion for hopes of here-and-now benefits — status, luck, acceptance …
    BTW, great story about your son. I did a similar one here about my son and the toothfairy.

    @ CRL,
    Very nice: the obsession with a literal Bible is perhaps like those girls obsessed with cheap love romance novels since they don’t see real evidence that perfect relationships exist. The brain is bad at separating fact and fiction — it takes training, and that is hard work.

  10. Peacer

    Hey, ever get the idea we are the virtual pets in a bigger version of that computer game? We’re wondering where the “owner” got to…lol. Just some fun. I loved the story from “Recovering” as well. 😉

  11. associatedluke

    GREAT POST! Recently came across the same thing in my setting. Overheard some peeps at a cafe talking about my church and a lecture series we have. One commented to the other, “Well, the lecture series that they hold are great but they treat the bible like it’s just a book of stories.”

    I was shocked. It IS a collection of stories…. hence the name BIBLE. Ugh. I’m baffled.

  12. @ Luke,
    Great story — perfect example of the various ways people hold the anthology. It must be fantastic to be a fly on the wall and know how Evangelicals and others talk behind your back. Do you ever get half smiles when you introduce yourself to some folks? To them, you might as well be Mormons, Scientologists or Catholics — but at least you aren’t Atheists! 😉

  13. associatedluke

    Yeah… you say that and just today I get an email saying how “Your worse than the atheists. You’re preaching a false gospel… your wolves in sheeps clothing… You can fool [the local newspaper] but you can’t fool me!”

    Yay literalness. At least insult us with proper grammar.

    Thanks for sending them our way through karma or coincidence or whatever…. 😛

  14. I so agree, Sabio. Fundamental mindsets rob people of the wonder of varying perspectives, not to mention truth.

  15. Soe

    @sabio, “hiding may not be necessary and if you retool your ship properly for storms you may not need to live in drydock” good one! The mind indeed is a flexible tool. I’m currently in the middle of a book called “Moonwalking with Einstein”, and your retooling analogy also brings to mind tricks of the mentalist’s trade.

    @rautakky the virgin birth prophecy of in the old testament is believed to be a result of the corrupted Greek translation from Hebrew.

    Here is an interesting account for comparison of the birth of the would-be buddha. The legend varies in detail with culture/tradition though the main theme of a spiritual being choosing his birth in a womb stays. Interesting that details of whether the mother had any prior intimacy with the father were left out but how the dream then states that the celestial beings washed her of “human stain”. This could have been a common belief at that time of holy persons, as the leader of the Jains, Mahāvīra, older than the buddha, also was attributed to similar birth legends.
    It is even possible, such stories were utilised, by early buddhists at that time to get people compare the teachings of these two teachers.

  16. Yes! The bible reads so well and, sometimes persuasively, as analogy. As literal fact, it’s either the IRS code or indistinguishable from speculative fiction (not a thing you want for your holy text).

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