Issues with literalism

Some literalism is a good thing, but I’m afraid my son is now in training for the ranks I unwittingly joined long ago—those or us who are often over-literal (and who are hindered in life because of the trait).

Image result for literal wordsThinking and hearing and reading over-literally can keep me from understanding things.  I’m not dealing here with the overuse of the word “literally” in common speech.  No, it’s more of a sometimes-exaggerated sense of what isolated words mean within a passage of text or in a spoken message.  In the middle of a conversation, my brain can get hung up on a word, trying to make sense out of it and wondering about its strict meaning . . . and going into an exploratory hermeneutical limbo while the unsuspecting person finishes her sentence.

When I read the redundant, presumably erroneous phrase “recapitalizing the operating capital,” I wonder if I need to adjust my literal understanding of at least one of the instances of the root “capital,” or perhaps the phrase wasn’t written well.  (And I miss the rest of the paragraph.)

I get stuck on the list of “principal parts” of Greek verbs, because I try to figure out what the parts are parts of, literally speaking.  (And I remain confused about, say, imperfect middle/passive vs. aorist middle, and pluperfect middle/passive.  [I know.  Who wouldn’t be confused?  But my comprehension issues can be partly related to over-literalism.])

I hear the prophetic phrase “every mountain will be brought low,” and I wonder just how the figure of speech might have been intended 3,000 years ago, and how it should be understood today.  Is it topographical mountains or conceptual ones?  Maybe both?  And what does it mean to be “brought low,” exactly?  A given interpretation might be more or less literal, and more or less related to mountain type.  (And I try not to worry too much, for many greater minds have read and understood prophecy in terribly different ways, to each other’s chagrin.)

I rather randomly turned to a page of scripture in a supposedly “literal” translation and found these phrases without even trying:

  • “deserting Him who called you” (not a physical desertion; and, except in Paul’s case, not likely an audible calling)
  • “beyond measure” (a phrase that expresses extreme actions, not literal measuring)
  • “advancing in Judaism” (a verb that suggests physical motion used with reference to some kind of conceptual progress)
  • “He who had set me apart, even from my mother’s womb, and called me through His grace” (I count four figurative expressions here—two actions and two prepositional phrases)

– Galatians 1, NASB

Literalism in scripture reading and interpretation can actually be a bad thing, although the phrase “take God at His word” is generally meant as a positive notion.  It is possible to read some expressions of scripture (and, verily, to understand common phrases spoken in daily life) quite figuratively, thinking all the while that one is reading literally.  Even the idea of taking words in the Bible “at face value” can be a smokescreen for taking them as some individual wants you to take them. 

It is often a particularly bad idea to take prophecy literally, but even phrases in the epistles and sections in ostensibly narrative texts can involve symbolism and figurative meanings.  Quite a few of scripture’s idiomatic expressions, if understood truly literally, would make an exegete bark up the wrong tree.  (See what I did there?)  Poetry appears in scripture, too (sometimes, right alongside historical narrative!); surely it is clear that poetically conceived words should not be confined to “literal” interpretation.  Ponder Peterson’s preface to poetry in prayer:

Poetry is language with used with personal intensity.  It is not, as so many suppose, decorative speech.  Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us.  Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself.  They do it not by reporting on how life is, but by pushing-pulling us into the middle of it.  Poetry grabs for the jugular.  Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.  It is root language.  Poetry doesn’t so much tell us something we never knew as bring into recognition what is latent, forgotten, overlooked, or suppressed.  The Psalms text is almost entirely in this kind of language.  Knowing this, we will not be looking here primarily for ideas about God, or for direction in moral conduct.  We will expect, rather, to find the experience of being human before God exposed and sharpened.

– Eugene Peterson, Answering God:  The Psalms as Tools for Prayer
(c) 1989 Harper & Row

I wish I had at hand a similarly provocative introductory piece on prophecy.  Failing that and staying with poetry, please consider a few songs with me.  These are examples of song lyrics that I once took literally and decided, at least for a while, that I could not conscientiously sing:

1.  “I know not when my Lord may come—at night or noonday fair, or if I’ll walk the vale with Him or meet Him in the air.”  – st. 4 of I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace

Sometime in my twenties, I decided not to sing that stanza.  The either-or statement in the second half of the stanza appears to preclude the possibility of interpreting “vale” as “valley of the shadow of death (if one takes the grammar literally).  The only remaining possibility is allowing for the possibility of a millennial reign on earth, and that is not part of my eschatology.  These days, although I still don’t expect that kind of reign, I don’t really care how it eventually turns out for the good of those on God’s side, so I suppose I could go with a less literal approach to the song and sing along.  The thing is, I think I’ve missed the chance, because this song really isn’t sung much anymore.  I can still remember the strength of its chorus.  When discouragements run rampant, it’s a good one (and pretty literally taken from scripture, at that):

“I know Whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.” (2Tim 1:12)

2.  “Through this world of toils and snares, if I falter, Lord, who cares? ” – st. 3 from Just a Closer Walk With Thee

When my college chorus sang that song, I would confidently clam up during those words.  I wouldn’t sing them.  I felt quite justified in my literalism, but I was stupid (or, if you’re into showing grace, “stupid” could be paraphrased as “befuddled by college-aged, pseudo-spiritual passion”). 

As with pretty much everything, the idea in that verse is better interpreted in context (wait … what? context? like, it matters in songs as well as in scripture?).  The verse continues, “Who with me my burden shares?  None but Thee, dear Lord.”  I now think the entire verse means something like, “If I falter in this world, I won’t let it cloud my overall view that you are with me!”

Thinking that the expression “Lord, who cares?” should be taken literally is as dumb as thinking that Ps. 51:5¹ is proof of the Calvinists’ hallmark doctrine of total depravity.  Here is an excellent example of Peterson’s suggestion of “intestinal” import of language, of expressions that leave the “experience of being human before God exposed.”

It’s poetry, people, not literal doctrinal instruction.

3.  Farther Along (Tempted and Tried)

This one may not fit in the same category.  It wasn’t the same type of question of literalness that kept me from singing this song, really.  It was the whole idea of the song.  It just bothered me to be so whiny.  At some point I allowed myself to lead and sing only the final stanza and chorus—and that only after one of the darkest discouragements of my life—but I still didn’t want to whine through all the whiny stanzas.  The fourth sufficiently expressed the negatives of this life in perspective:

“When we see Jesus coming in glory, when He comes from His home in the sky, then we will meet Him in that bright mansion.  We’ll understand it all by and by.”

These days, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t heartily sing the whole song.  There have been many times since that I have been “made to wonder why it should be thus all the day long” and have dealt, on a pretty literal basis, with other questions the song raises.  At this point, despite the ostensibly bad attitude and the hick-ish musical style, I suppose the whole song is okay by me.

Maybe you think I’ve caved with respect to my later decisions on the above songs.  On the other hand, maybe I’ve succeeded, in these few cases, in not being an over-literal interpreter.


¹ Ps. 51:5:  Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me . . . (KJV)


For more on literalism and literal interpretation:

Literal instructions (1/30/10)

Do we really take it literally? (Leroy Garrett) (12/11/09)

Interpretations and ironies (B) (interpretation of prophecy—pretty heavy) (12/8/15)

Strike That:  A Take on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in Hymnals (today!)

BONUS:  A fresh Logos Academic Blog writer on words, semantic range, context, and more.  This is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also entertaining, mixing Humpty Dumpty, Japanese missionary humor, linguistic instruction, and context.

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5 thoughts on “Issues with literalism

  1. navcad56 04/05/2017 / 8:49 am

    How about the use of “:absolutely”, eh?

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    • Brian Casey 04/05/2017 / 10:05 am

      Eh? Huh? What? (I can’t hear you unless you’re in France or Canada.) I think “absolutely” can sometimes (non-absolutely) be translated as “I’m not as sure of myself as this word makes me sound, but I want you to think I am sure,” or “yep, already thought of that and got it under control, so please don’t waste my time following up anymore.”

      Now you have me thinking etymologically. What is the current relationship of “absolutely” to “absolve” … and can I be absolved of my annoying, literalist tendencies?

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  2. Michael Asbell 04/05/2017 / 2:20 pm

    “…the idea of taking words in the Bible ‘at face value’ can be a smokescreen for taking them as some individual wants you to take them.” Truer words were never spoken (don’t take me too literally there). Isn’t it funny how easily we get hung up on this when grappling with holy texts, but we hardly bat an eye in our every day conversation? If we want to communicate, we don’t try to argue when someone says “I’m freezing to death” in here; we simply check the thermostat or offer a sweater.

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    • Brian Casey 04/06/2017 / 7:32 am

      Thanks for bringing this in. There are so many examples of words and expressions that are intended non literally once one opens his ears. And the point you make about how we tend to treat scripture, as a whole, differently from other writings in this respect is highly valid.

      I recall someone spending Cedars Wed. evening devotional-talk time picking apart a personal letter from Joe to Sally in a way that reflects how some of our traditions tend to view epistles. Getting into the cracks of the text is a good thing (in responsible hands), but taking every word and phrase “literally” can be a barrier to understanding.

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  3. Brian Casey 04/06/2017 / 10:31 am

    via Facebook:
    Edward Wilson: Just knowing our hangups helps us to work with/around them and even to make them assets. I totally agree that Farther Along is whiny! We also have no assurance that we will understand it all later, and I suspect we won’t care about the trivia that seem so important now, so may not even ask the questions we think we would. Not my favorite song, though many love it.

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