Challenging Literal Language

The over valuing of literal ways of expressing our experience of reality needs challenging. Literal truth doesn’t help us talk about the most important things, and when you force yourself to speak literally, you end up saying some very silly things about those important things. The most obvious example of this is God talk where ‘taking the bible literally’ has become for some the same as, ‘taking it seriously’, or reading it honestly and not complicating it with ‘man made’ interpretations. 

Taking the bible literally however is absurd. It isn’t simple so you can’t pretend it is and to be serious about it and faithful, you need to know what kind of language it is using at any given point. To believe, as I do, that it is inspired by God, doesn’t let you off the hook by assuming that God used only modern ways of using language! 

So regarding literal language we need to challenge the two assumptions. One is that literal truth is ‘simple’ and without distortion. Second that other ways of talking about reality are not serious and are complicating things for the sake of it. I’m not sure I can do that here – though I’ll have a go on another day. Instead here is a way of thinking that I find helpful, I’m curious to know if you find it so!

Well I for one found it helpful. It seems Pam did too: PamBG’s Blog: Taking the Bible Seriously.

4 thoughts on “Challenging Literal Language

  1. Rachel

    I agree – great post from Mark. One of the illustrations I’ve often used is from the sciences – useful because people tend to think of science as very literal. But if you look at the way, for instance, atoms have been talked about over the last 100 years, you find people using several different models – none of which actually represent atoms literally – but which allow you to talk about them in different contexts. For instance, if you want to talk about chemical bonds at GCSE, you need to use the classical model with the electrons whizzing in their orbits around the central nucleus, but if you’re into quantum stuff, you get into using the weird model where electrons are waves of probability (or something like that – long time since I’ve done this and no time to look up!). Neither model is “true” but each allows useful conversation within a particular context. Meanwhile an older model, which saw an atom as a bit like a plum pudding with charges embedded in it, served its purpose at the time but is now outdated.

  2. Dave

    Totally agree on the validity and usefulness of models eg different models of atonement – none complete but many are helpful.
    Sadly there has been a trend to say that truth means that you cannot have multiple models whereas it seems to me that very often the more you seek after truth the more models you need to capture more aspects of the truth that is beyond comprehension.
    So often we see people shouting about the need to
    settle for simplistic views of God. You must believe x,y and z in exactly these words. That has never satisfied me.

  3. Dave

    And as for the science stuff, it sounds good but I jumped out of Chemistry and Biology after O-level and don’t remember much from Physics (certainly get lost when Andrew talks about his A-level).
    In my degree in Management Sciences (inc Sociology, Economics, Marketing, …) models were used all the time and the same in IT.
    In all these disciplines we understand models as being simplifications to allow us to understand part of the problem domain, to work, and to make progress. How come so many churches have lost that idea for theology?

  4. Rachel

    Dave, I don’t know why so many churches have lost it – I hope that through our efforts some may regain it!
    PS – In my earlier post I meant to say neither model is “literally true”.


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