Tag Archives: symbolism

The Danger of Biblical Literalism

Bishop John Shelby Spong in “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism” has argued forcefully that Biblical literalism is a fundamental threat to Christianity.  This notion is anti-thetical to everything I was taught in my youth but now as I age I find it weighing on me to join Spong…and others…in weighing in with my two cents.  Biblical literalism reflects the sin of misplaced concreteness, mistaking the symbol for the thing which it represents.  Thus the Bible, certainly Holy Writ, becomes a barrier to hearing what the various people contributing to the Bible were trying to say as well as the One we credit with writing the Bible in the first place.  The bible is used to avoid the Bible just as god is used to avoid God, and our grasp of who we are is used to avoid the inner essence, i.e. experience, of who we are.  Our culture teaches us to live on the surface, to look no deeper than the surface, and this mandate applies also to religion even though it is so convenient to think otherwise.  It is convenient, and often fashionable to subscribe to “easy believism” that doesn’t cost anything substantial yet will provide in religion a social accoutrement that many of us find necessary, much like a nice suit of clothes. It is another thing to “have religion” that penetrates into the very depths of our being, shakes us to the core, challenges our preconceptions, and brings us to the point where we can but “glory, bow, and tremble.”  Meaningful religion, in short, brings us face to face with our human-ness, including our mortality. This “easy believism” is now egregiously manifest in our culture with the throngs of conservative Christians who have pledged their troth to a political leader who is the antitheses of everything Jesus stood for.  Yes, cursed like Trump with the same inability to acknowledge fault, they “stand by their man” even as his perfidy and moral obtuseness becomes more obvious; for, to do otherwise would be to acknowledge, “Oh, well maybe God wasn’t leading me to support him.  Maybe it was just my own personal lust for power and glory.”

I want to share here the wisdom of two 20th century religious scholars who grasped this phenomenon of bibliolatry.  The first, Jacques Ellul wrote in “The Judgement of Jonah”:

…Thus obedience to the letter of scripture can be obedience to Satan if the text serves to bring about isolation and independence in relation to the one who has inspired it.  It can be a means of self-affirmation over against God in in repression of his truth and his will.  The biblical text, and obedience to it, do not guarantee anything.  They may be the best means of not hearing God speak.  (Ellul here points out that the Pharisees were) authentic believers, faithful adherents of scripture, and rich in good works and piety.  In reality everything depends on our attitude to the text of the scripture.  If I seize it, use it, and exploit it to my own ends...then I am obeying Satan under the cover of what the Bible says.

The following is an excerpt from a book about Paul Tillich, one of the most prominent American theologians of the 20th century who clearly understood bibliolatry, presenting it as taking what is merely a symbol for the “thing-in-itself.”  Here a Tillich scholar explains bibliolatry in terms of taking a “religious symbol” literally and thereby disallowing it to reveal its inner value:

The problem for all symbols, but especially for religious symbols, is that they often tend to become identified completely with that which they symbolize. In so doing they have a tendency to supplant their referents. The problem is heightened by the nature of the dual task of religious symbols, which must express not only ultimate reality but also the character of the material that serves as the symbol. The symbol must not be transparent, losing all its self-identity; instead, it must be translucent, maintaining its own character but revealing light from another source. When religious symbols become confused with the reality they represent, they become idolatrous and demonic, for idolatry is nothing other than making symbols of the holy absolute and identical with the absolute itself.” {Donald W. Musser, Joseph L. Price, *Tillich* (Abingdon Pillars of Theology)}

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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