Books & Culture's John Wilson writes in the Wall Street Journal this morning that no one reads the Bible literally, or—at least—no one reads the Old Testament that way. He says that,
. . . an alarm should sound whenever the word "literal" is used in this context, whether as a badge of pride ("I just believe in reading the Bible literally") or as a hint that low-browed fundamentalists are lurking nearby. No one—no one—reads the Bible literally. But some readers are more attentive, more faithful, more imaginative and more persuasive than others.
The very idea of "reading literally" is itself a confusing dilemma. I don't mean this in a postmodern way, that texts have no meaning apart from their embodied reading. But literal is still place- and time-bound, what Biblical scholars talk about as the discipline of hermeneutics.
The literal Bible reading of, say, a 21st-century Canadian is a very different literal reading than one by a 15th-century Iberian Benedictine living in the midst of the reconquista, or—more to the point—a reading by the covenant people who were the original audience of controversial and confusing books like Genesis.
Literal reading without knowledge of context and audience is not literal, it's just ignorant.
Genesis gets Christians in a lot of hot water because some big questions are at stake in the creation myths. Was there a literal fall from grace? Or was there a literal and historical Adam?
But other books have some disturbing issues for Christians too. Hazard a read through the book of Joshua, and you might have some empathy for the late Enlightenment writing out the angry warrior of the Old Testament. Even more chilling, so-called literal readings of Joshua during the Nixon administration worked to cultivate a Christian theology of espionage.
In paradoxical irony, I recently had a conversation with a senior scholar who left Calvin College—the same school Wilson uses in his example—for a failure to take the Bible seriously. Some parts, of course, were seriously read, but especially the Old Testament, with its arcane laws, its cultic history and, frankly, its genocidal horrors were neatly swept away. Shouldn't we spend as much, maybe more, time on the Bible's legacy of ethnic cleansing as on a so-called literal or metaphorical six-day creation?
I think there is a legacy of intellectual Christendom, implicit even in segments of my own Reformed tradition, which is embarrassed of the Bible, especially its homophobia, patriarchy, and violence. But if we're serious about this sola Scriptura business that sparked off a Reformation half a millennia ago, the embarrassment of the Old Testament will need to be met head on, not by perfunctory confessional lip service by Christian political and financial elites but by a robust hermeneutic for the work of the Old Testament—of all Testaments—for public, not just Christian, life.
I think the Bible is up to our questions, tough and heretical as they may appear. Now it's time, like John Wilson says, to put away this so-called literalism, and get to it.