I hear it practically every day—someone confidently affirming that “the Bible is literal” or that “the Bible is figurative”.
Let me go ahead and state quite unapologetically that both are rather ignorant positions that bring this passage of scripture strongly to mind:
1 Timothy 1:5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
This ongoing debate is an excellent example of how mindless so many are about their religion, for it doesn’t take much thinking at all to see how both sides are quite ignorant. Let me spell it out for you.
First of all, please be advised that I am not talking about whether some certain passage of scripture is being used figuratively or literally. No, that sort of investigation is quite appropriate and apt. Rather, I’m talking about people who want to size up the entire Bible as either “figurative” or “literal”—one or the other. The fact of the matter is that it contains a great deal of both types of language. We can settle this very quickly in the few excerpts below.
At the last supper, Jesus gave a lengthy discourse on many topics to his apostles. In one place, he said this:
John 15:5 I am the vine; you are the branches. …
Those who want to insist that “The Bible is literal” would have to interpret this passage in such a way as to believe that Jesus was a plant. Interestingly, however, to my knowledge, I have never met anyone who believes that Jesus was a plant—even among those who insist that “The Bible is literal”. So those who say such things are accustomed to frequent exceptions, it appears. One wonders, therefore, why they won’t quit saying it in deference to something more defensible.
When Jesus was born, he was laid in a manger. This fact is mentioned three times in Luke’s gospel:
Luke 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Luke 2:12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
Luke 2:16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.
If someone wanted to insist that “The Bible is figurative”, then he would have to come up with a plausible figurative interpretation of this manger business.
Now, let me stop right here and define just what it means to be “figurative”. When we use the word to refer to language, this is the most common definition:
expressing one thing in terms normally denoting another with which it may be regarded as analogous : metaphorical <figurative language>
(From Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)
We all use metaphors, both in our language and even in the way we think and learn. We constantly compare this to that, understanding a new thing by use of our existing understanding of something else that is similar in a way.
So, if the “manger” is a figurative device—a metaphor—then we would have to answer the question, “a metaphor for what?”. For example, in the common metaphor, “an 800-pound gorilla” is used to speak of rather obvious matters that are being ignored by people, and not an actual gorilla. Similarly, “a heart of stone” does not refer to a sculpture of a heart, but to a mind that is hardened to common kindness.
With this in mind, therefore, the figurativist would have to come up with some metaphorical meaning of “manger” or “laid in a manger” in order to keep to the (erroneous) rule that “the Bible is figurative”. What then, shall he declare to be the real meaning of manger?
Yes, I’m scratching my head, too, for no ideas are coming to mind. I’m going to go out on a limb here, therefore, and declare that Jesus was literally laid in a literal manger.
So, Let’s Be Done With It, Then.
Let’s do away with this childish bent toward describing the entire Bible as either figurative or literal. Since we can see that it has both literal and figurative passages, then we should take the more informed view.
It won’t stop, of course, for cognitive misers are always about the business of oversimplifying what is not that simple. For example, there will always be someone describing the entire Bible as “the blueprint for the church” or as “life’s instruction manual” (or some similarly-inaccurate description) because it is easier for them to latch onto an inaccurate idea than to ferret out an accurate one. And there will always be people who want to insist that “the Bible is written to us“, even though not one sentence in it appears to have been addressed to any person or persons living after the First Century AD. Some of them will reluctantly admit it when pressed; they roll their eyes and sigh in irritation—and these are good indications of someone cranking up the algorithmic mind to do calculations he’d rather not do. Others, however, will dig in their heels even deeper when pressed on the question, and will insist quite stupidly that the Bible is indeed “explicitly addressed to them”. One friend, whom I’ll call John Smith, even gave a “yes” answer to the question, “Is any passage in the Bible addressed explicitly to ‘John Smith’?” When he said “Yes”, he showed that he is not operating inside the realm of reality. And of course, when I asked him to cite a reference to that passage for me, he simply neglected to answer one way or the other.
Such people are more interested in beliefs than in facts. They are taught that the faithful thing to do is to maintain one’s beliefs no matter what, and that they should beware of those who purport to contradict those beliefs with facts. Their grand ignorance is shown in debates such as the one in the title of this article. It doesn’t take much thinking at all to expose the ignorance of it, which is a strong evidence of just how ignorant a religion Christianity is for many. For many, it has taken on a persona that is downright stupid compared to the actual ideas and paradigms of the scriptures. I know this because I have forced myself to work through that stupidity in a grand effort to test my beliefs against scripture and to correct myself where I was wrong. I’m still doing this, mind you, but the track record of actual corrections to date is lengthy and concrete. It is no ethereal matter of moods, but a documentable trail of evidence showing that I have had one stupid belief after another that was in need of being brought into line with the reality of the scriptures.
And where did I get those beliefs? Many of them I got from church—from one of the three brands to which I had joined myself. And the rest I got from my own free-wheeling methods of interpreting the Bible. (Which methods I learned at church!) For me, it wasn’t possible to make many significant corrections until I was finally fed up enough with church to leave it. Then I started learning quite a lot from the actual texts of the Bible.
Those who haven’t yet figured out that labeling the entire Bible as either “figurative” or “literal” is a fool’s errand have not even crossed the threshold into the reasonable examination of scripture. Yes, that’s a blunt assertion, but it’s quite defensible—and somebody needs to say it.