by Henry Neufeld, Publisher
A serious problem in dealing with stereotypes is that there are almost always examples of individual who truly fit the stereotype. When a bigot sees such an example, he or she points at that person and says, “See! They really are like that!” Of course, the problem with the stereotype is that so many otherwise similar people do not fit it. But the bigot feels justified by the affirming example.
Very often the stereotype describes behavior that is actually reprehensible in those individuals that practice it. The problem is to discuss improper behavior without stereotyping certain groups of people. I recently wrote a post in which I said that there is no crime so heinous that we should punish someone who didn’t commit it. Stereotypes generally punish, or at least place at a disadvantage, people who are innocent.
In Bible study we find similar stereotypes. There are the biblical literalists, who always take everything literally, no matter how difficult it is to do so. They produce ludicrous results by their attempts to take everything literally. Liberals and progressives wonder why these people go to the Bible in the first place if they’re going to ignore culture, history, obvious differences, and clear indications of figurative material.
On the other hand, we have the liberals or progressives. They don’t take things so literally. In fact, the stereotype is that they are people who simply ignore whatever portion of the Bible that they want to, and don’t actually care what the Bible says at all. Literalists wonder why these people even bother to read the Bible at all, because they obviously just ignore everything it says.
The two groups have a hard time understanding one another and discussing with one another. Why? Because in too many cases they don’t look carefully at their own approach to the Bible so that they can see their own biases in action, and at the same time they don’t understand the approach that their opponents are taking. Is it any wonder that the arguments get very heated? There is no argument so heated as one in which the participants are not even addressing one another’s position.
Despite the danger of stereotyping, we have to use labels. That’s the problem with communication. We have to make judgments and group people and things in order to talk about them. We use the word “house,” but divide it into mobile homes, pre-fab houses, and regularly constructed houses. In our perceptions, do we group pre-fab houses closer to mobile homes or to regularly constructed houses? Do we consider mobile homes to be “houses” at all? If you pay close attention to this sort of vocabulary you can learn significant things about the way someone views the world.
So we’re still going to use “biblical literalist” and “progressive” as labels for the way certain groups interpret the Bible. Just remember that these two labels describe groups of people who do not all follow the same pattern. While there are literalists who do crazy things to maintain their literalism, there are also literalists who take quite a different approach. In fact, not everyone who claims to take the Bible literally takes the Bible literally. It depends on how you define “literally.”
There are progressives who simply dismiss certain scriptures. I encounter this sort of person in the hallways of United Methodist churches. When they say, “I don’t take that literally,” they are using “literal” in the sense of “real” or “important.” “I don’t take that literally” might mean “I don’t think that applies to me now,” or “I don’t think that’s an important point.” They do not mean “I take that figuratively rather than literally.” Often they are no more capable of telling me why they don’t take it literally than the literalists I meet are capable of explaining why certain things that look very figurative should be taken literally instead.
Those are very “up front” and perhaps even thoughtless ways of applying the respective approaches. If you go behind the scenes, you’ll frequently find that the text in question is one that the casual literalist believes contains a critical teaching, to be defended at all costs no matter what, while the casual progressive does not want the text to apply. Neither is willing to give serious consideration to how and why it applies.
I like to illustrate this by asking people to read Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 19:33-34. I occasionally run into people who want one to apply and not the other, some who would like both to apply and some neither. So sit back and ask yourself why you would like to treat each text as you do. Once you have thought out a way of applying (or not) the texts as you prefer take that same set of principles and apply them elsewhere in scripture. Does this work with Leviticus 11? Does it work with the command of Jesus to love your enemies?
The question I have for you is whether you can be consistent with whatever approach you take throughout scripture. How often as you read do you require an ad hoc explanation?
Very few, if any of us, read and apply scripture without the use of ad hoc explanations. There’s a good and a bad reason for this. (Well, probably more than one of each, but I need to keep this discussion within limits!)
The good reason is that scripture is addressed to a variety of times and situations by a variety of people, each of whom heard God not just as God is, but as they were. Thus we need to hear the whole story, and see not just the words on the page, but also the narrator, the recorder, and the transmitter of those thoughts as we strive to hear God’s voice coming through it all.
Any simple approach to scripture will run into serious speed bumps as we find scriptures that simply don’t simply fit the pattern we expect. When we come to those speed bumps, we all, whether literalist or progressive, find a way to get around what the Bible seems to clearly teach in that case. Our methods differ, but the result is the same; we remain as we are. We refuse to behold so we are not changed (2 Corinthians 3:18).
And then there’s that sneaky little word “seems.” Because we need to each find a way that lets us look honestly at a passage, an experience, or a story, and then apply whatever does apply to our own lives. I’m not trying in this short space to tell you precisely how this is to be done, and I want to be clear that I believe there are things that don’t apply to you. There are, in fact, scriptures that we seriously need to question. Anyone who claims to “do everything the Bible teaches” likely hasn’t really looked at everything the Bible teaches.
The idea here is to find a method that makes you be honest with the text. If you’re saying this does not apply, make sure it is not because you just don’t feel like applying it.
The bad reason is that you require ad hoc explanations in order to avoid things that you just don’t want to do. Not that you think would be wrong. Not ancient ideas that you think would result in immoral action if applied in the present. Just things that you don’t like.
The goal is self-honesty first. When and how you apply or do not apply scripture should be on a principled basis. If it is, you will likely grow spiritually as you study, irrespective of where you started. And in this case, the journey is more important than the destination.
As a final note, I do have a filter I apply to scripture, one I think is itself quite scriptural. I describe it in Hanging Biblical Interpretation. But what filter did I apply in order to discover this filter?