Biblical Literalism & Conservative Values

Sunday, August 31, 2008

It's common for people to link authoritarian conservative values with biblical literalism. I'd say however that the opposite is the case: strict biblical literalism leads away from authoritarian conservative values and towards compassionate redemptive values because (hold onto your hat) authoritarian conservative values are anti-Gospel.

Before I explain what I mean, let me first define biblical literalism. Of course it does not mean taking every part of the Bible literally. It does not mean "in accordance with... the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical". No one thinks for instance that when the Bible describes God as "a rock" that God is literally an inanimate stone composed of minerals. We all get that this is a metaphor. So what does it mean? A literal interpretation of the Bible is "adhering to the primary meanings of a term or expression," the "plain" or "unadorned" meaning. The confusion with the term "literal" is that the meaning of the word has changed over time. It used to mean "plain meaning" and now it means "non-metaphorical"

All biblical literalists interpret the Bible by looking for the plain meaning and intent of the author. So while all get that when David says "My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me" that he is being melodramatic not literal, a literal interpretation would claim that Jesus really did raise from the dead because all indications say that the authors did not intend for this to be taken as a metaphor, but as historical fact. A literal interpretation is all about the intent of the author. When Jesus says to a young man "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor" a literal interpretation would think that he really meant that.

The funny thing is that the verses quoted to back up an authoritarian conservative view of morality - strict adherence to the law, severe punishment as a consequence of transgression, no mercy without payment, a low view of humans as evil, etc - invariably come from the Old Testament. If you read the New Testament literally the clear picture you get is of grace. Its a picture of God loving his enemies, of God coming among us in Christ "not to condemn sinners but to save them." It is a picture of God valuing redemption over retribution, and taking any blame, condemnation, humiliation, and damnation upon himself at Calvary. It is a clear message to us that grace should likewise be our ethic, that love trumps everything, that we should always seek redemption, and rather be wronged than seek an eye for an eye. This is absolutely everywhere throughout the New Testament. The picture is not of a strict Father God who demands unquestioned obedience or responds with corporal punishment, it is the picture of God the Father in the story of the Prodigal son who is so loving that it is humiliating to the older son and to the values people held at the time focused on upholding honor. It was a scandal, and still is, but that amazing shocking counter-intuitive picture of grace is the Gospel, it is the image of God incarnate. Read the New Testament literally, and you get a morality based on grace that is in stark opposition to an authoritarian conservative morality. That morality is described as the sinful flesh, as the way of the world.

Now this does not mean we can simply toss out the Old Testament, but you will not find a conservative theologian who would not agree that the New Testament contains a superior and fuller revelation of God's heart than the Old. All would agree that we read the Old Testament in the light of the New, as seen through the eyes of Jesus. Yes, the OT lays out the basis upon which the fuller revelation of the NT is laid, but that does not means that when Jesus says "you have heard it said... but I say to you" that we can ignore his words. We are followers of Jesus the Christ, not followers of Mosaic law. Grace trumps law.

So if that's the case, why is it that so many evangelicals quote almost exclusively from the Old Testament? It's almost as if they have never even read the New Testament(!). My theory is that this is because most sermons focus on Old Testament narratives. If you go to a conservative church like I do, then I'm sure you've noticed this. Most sermons do not preach out of the New Testament, they preach out of the Old. The reason is that pastors are taught in seminary that narratives preach better, and the Old Testament has lots of narratives. So they tell a story from the Old Testament and connect it with a moral. But half the time these are sub-Christian morals. Why they do not preach a narrative from the Gospels is frankly beyond me... maybe they want to save them for Christmas and Easter. But my prescription is going to sound very traditional: we need better biblical preaching, and we need to read our Bibles, we need to let the way and heart of Jesus sink into our bones, we need to have his eyes to see, have his heart, have his values. And those values, taken literally and strictly, and doing the same with the teachings of the Apostles will not lead to authoritarian conservative values, they will lead to grace. Go literalism!

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