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“Literalism”

March 15, 2010

People (both conservative and other) seem to use the word “literalism” as a general sorting principle, in order to designate two different groups of people: those who read the Bible literally and those who do not.

I hear this from my students all. the. time.

I don’t think they know what “literal” means. It (usually) means “not metaphorical.” However, it is not clear that there is one group of people who read everything metaphorically, and who oppose themselves to another group that reads everything literally.

Everyone reads the idea that Jesus is the “bread of life” metaphorically. Everyone reads “if your eye causes you to sin, cut it out” metaphorically. Almost everyone reads “give all your money to the poor” metaphorically.

The category of “literal” readers is simply not a useful sorting category. Literal reading/metaphorical reading simply does not map onto conservative/liberal.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2010 4:16 am

    I think it’s a useful hostorical and sociological term insofar as it refers to a particular hermeneutical practice developed by fundamentalists, in relation to certain specific biblical passages that were controversial – primarily concerning creation, miracles, etc. that they did and do not want interpreted as other than in the plainest, simple meaning of the words in their context. Of course this can always be disputed, but a fundamentalist interpretive community is not likely to be more democratic or open than, say, a scholarly historical-critical one. So in trying to offer an imminent critique here, giving us a literal reading of literalism and pointing out that it’s not entirely consistent misses the point of the historical and sociological origins of fundamentalist hermeneutics.

    And FYI conservative/liberal is not a “useful sorting category” beyond Anglophone North American political discourse. Liberals are conservatives in Europe and most of the Asia Pacific and liberals are radicals in a handful of other places.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 16, 2010 8:59 am

    Yeah, I understand the origins of the the term (i.e., the five fundamentals and all that), but my students don’t. They take the name for the thing. They’re the ones who think that literal=conservative, non-literal=liberal.

  3. Beelzebub permalink
    March 16, 2010 6:28 pm

    Well, everyone knows that eyes don’t cause people to sin, it’s those lousy girls in tube-tops and cut-off jeans, is what it is!

    And get off my lawn!

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