I had a New Testament/Early Church professor in seminary who was notorious for saying, "It's more complicated than that." Usually, but not always, he was right about that.
My church's adult forum book discussion group has decided to read a book entitled The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book by Timothy Beal. Beal is apparently one of those whom I call Neo-Evangelicals like Rachel Evans, Rob Bell, and others. Some might refer to this sub-group of American Christianity as the Emergent Church movement, and perhaps some of those people might actually identify as such, but I do not think that is a clean descriptor. The Emergent Church movement is more of what I call Generation X in ecclesial form. It is simply the attitudes of the MTV generation that can't be bothered to actually get off their duff and constructively engage civic society. They would just as soon drop out and do their own rebellious thing. In the Emergent Church, it's just going off and doing church on Gen X terms.
To be fair, I do not think people like Rachel Evans, with whom I rarely agree on anything, are really Emergent Church types. I know plenty who would identify with the Emergent Church that are as "culture war" conservative Protestants as can be. As such, I label this group Neo-Evangelicals.Neo-Evangelicals are those people who are trying hard to be theologically hip and distance themselves from the Culture War Neo-Con Evangelical crowd. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. I am not identify as an Evangelical for several reasons; so, I have some sympathy for them there.
Frankly, those Neo-Evangelical people whom I describe really irritate me because they want to cling to their Evangelical roots but won't simply come out of the theological closet and simply admit that they are just Liberal Protestants, often with an ax to grind against their theological roots. I would personally have a lot more respect for people like Rob Bell (though I would not agree with him on much) if they were just honest about the fact that a lot of what they are saying is, in fact, not new or novel theological discourse but simply a flashy (and often watered down) repackaging of most of the arguments of Christian liberalism from the 19th Century against various forms of Christian conservatism and/or fundamentalism of the era.
To be fair, I am only 3 chapters into Beal's book, but I have to admit at this point that I don't like where I think he's going. It appears to be nothing really new. In fact, it is simply another recapitulated version of some of the fluffy works of the Love Wins genre of Neo-Evangelical Christian writing that lacks any robust discourse. I suppose I should not be surprised, given the writers' and intended audience's generational penchant for 5 to 10 second attention spans. In a generation that was never exposed to learning Latin or formal logic and rhetoric, I cannot say I am surprised at their general lack of logical argumentation when it comes to theological discourse. One has to look no further than the 2nd Presidential Debate last night with its scripted questions, talking points, and emotive appeals to realize that the world we live in has no time or training to actually debate, but wants zinger sound bytes and simplistic discourse that can sent in tweet form.
With all that background, I come to the point of this blog entry. I ran into it online a couple of times today in conversations. It was also hinted at a bit in a veiled sort of way in the Presidential debate last night. Certainly it is at the center of the book I am currently reading. It can be summed up in this question: Do you take the Bible literally?
I hate getting sucked into those conversations about taking the Bible 'literally' or not because it usually comes up in a conversation that is framed in such a way as to make "those people" who might take the Bible literally (whatever is meant by that) as ignorant Christians who are two steps away from burning people at the stake for thinking that the world is not flat. I do not respond well to snotty theological elitism, and that question always smacks of that.
What do people mean precisely when they ask whether I take the Bible literally? The argument is always presented as a black/white literalist/metaphorical thing, and that is not helpful. Some things in the Bible you have to take literally on some level like Jesus was born, taught, and died on the cross. Perhaps there are other levels of metaphorical discourse on those events that one can add and reflect on but that does not change the fact that some things have to be taken literally from the Bible, or else the metaphorical layers are nonsense. If Jesus did not literally live, then say what you will about the Resurrection, it does not mean anything if it is a fictitious part of a fiction made up to delude people.
Likewise, other things like Jesus saying "I am the Vine" are things that you have to take metaphorically (or at least in some non-literal way). Unless you are insane and think that Jesus was literally a vine growing on the ground in some vineyard in Palestine in the 1st century, there is no literal manner in which one can interpret that teaching.
The Bible is not an interpretive either/or that one can take 100% literally or 100% metaphorically. Even the literal minded readers of Scripture take some things metaphorically, and even the metaphorically inclined readers of Scripture have to take some things literally. The Gospel Coalition put out a good piece on that today. Surprisingly, they took a page from none other than St. Augustine of Hippo. Note the categories of interpretation at the end of that article. That's straight out of Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana.
Is it a crime to be too literal? No. Is it a crime to be too metaphorical? No.
St. Augustine gives us a good rule of thumb for bible interpretation:
"Whoever thinks he understands divine scripture or any part of it, but whose interpretation does not build up the twofold love of God and neighbor, has not really understood it. Whoever has drawn from scripture an interpretation that does fortify this love, but who is later proven not to have found the meaning intended by the author of the passage, is deceived to be sure, but not in a harmful way, and he is guilty of no untruth at all."
St. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana