Monday, January 01, 2007

Literal vs Metaphorical

I do not take every word of the Bible literally.

Before anyone brands me a heretic, let me explain. There's a lot of confusion about the word 'literally' these days. I've read and heard people say things such as:

My heart was literally in my mouth!

This book was so exciting, the pages literally turned themselves!

I can only assume that some people don't know what literally means. Because in fact what they mean is 'metaphorically'. Someone's heart remains literally where it's always been. Book pages do not literally turn themselves.

Why use the word 'literally' at all, though?

Recently in studying and discussing differences of personality type and temperament, one of the issues that cropped up was that of abstract vs concrete language. About 75% of the US population (and perhaps other populations too) tend to use mostly concrete language. The rest - and I'm among them - who prefer the abstract tend to use metaphors as a matter of course.

Now some metaphors have made it into everyday speech and are widely used by all. I used the phrase 'cropped up' and indeed 'concrete language' - hoping that anyone reading this will understand the meaning I'm giving to the words. And because a high percentage of fiction writers use metaphorical language, such phrases have crept into common usage too. If I say my heart was in my mouth, most English-speaker would know that I meant I was very tense and frightened.

But perhaps those who prefer the concrete style are actually uncomfortable with metaphor. So when they use such phrases, they have to add an extra word - and, bizarrely, choose 'literally' because they like the literal use of language and perhaps it truly felt as if their heart really was in their mouth.

Back to the Bible.

When people say they take every word literally, they usually mean they believe what's written in the Gospels about Jesus - including the miracles - and they believe in Creation as outlined in Genesis, and they take seriously things they perceive as commands to the church.

Well, so do I. But on the other hand, there are plenty of metaphors too: Jesus used them frequently. When he said he was the light of the world, or a gate to a sheepfold, or the bread of life, we know he meant them metaphorically. Sometimes he explained what he meant, but not always. So how do we know? Because of our own cultural experience, and what we've been taught.

However, our understanding may well be limited or even wrong. For many years I thought the gate to the sheepfold was something wooden with hinges. Then an elderly minister in a school assembly I was visiting told the relevant story to the children. He got some children up front to be a sort of hedge with a gap in it, and others to be the sheep. Then he himself got down on the floor, and lay across the gap. That, he told us, was what the 'gate' was like in ancient Israel. The shepherd really did - literally! - form the gate which both kept the sheep in, and kept any wolves or thieves out.

So some of the Bible may be more literal than we realise. Other parts may be less so. People come up with all kinds of explanations for some of the more confusing statements, and sometimes it's impossible to tell exactly what was meant, although usually we have a good idea.

We will never fully comprehend everything in the Bible while we're on earth. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would help us remember his words, and understand them. As we read the Bible, and listen for the voice of God, we may well begin to understand better. It's also important to learn about the culture of the times, to read books written about the Bible, and to discuss our ideas and questions with our Christian brothers and sisters. But let's not be rigid. Too many battles and divisions within the Church have arisen because of verses taken out of context, or different interpretations. Jesus said that the first commandment was to love God, and the second was to love our neighbour. If we differ from our neighbour (or indeed our brother at the church on the other side of town) in some doctrinal issue, let's go with the principle of love and let the Holy Spirit work in us both.

1 comment:

The Zimmermans said...

The problem, as I see it, is that we pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe and which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. We pick and choose for the nice bits, and reject the nasty. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision. But then we must have some independent criterion for deciding which are the moral bits: a criterion which, wherever it comes from, cannot come from scripture itself and is presumably available to all of us whether we are religious or not. Modern morality, wherever it comes from, does not come from the Bible. One cannot get away with claiming that selected scriptures are symbolic rather than literal. By what criterion do you decide which passages are symbolic, which literal?