Within the field of literary analysis there are many isms: New Historicism, Freudianism, Feminism, Post-Colonialism, et cetera, but there has never been a literary movement of "literalism." No group of English professors or literary critics have ever banded together to declare that Moby Dick is simply an adventure novel about a man who hates an animal — not even after Stephen Crane and the turn toward realism in American fiction. In literature, realism has never been conflated within literalism.
So while no university English student has ever berated their fellow classmates and teachers for disrespecting and devaluing a novel because they didn’t take its narrator’s statements at literal face-value, in very different classrooms at very different colleges, professors and students alike carry the banner of literalism proudly. They are the Biblical Literalists, a form of Christianity that began in the United States among evangelical protestants in the nineteenth century.
The trouble is, we should recognize immediately that “literalism” is a nonsense word, a word packed with assertions that cannot be supported, a word that is nothing more than a glitzy marketing term, a way of branding one’s ideas about the Bible as inherently better than someone else’s while also dismissing any pretense of honest debate. However, larger cultural conflicts about faith versus science and rationality obscure the nonsensicalness of “literalism” and allow for the perpetuation of a dispute that should not exist.
There are many claims packed into the word “literalism,” both rhetorical and theological. Too much attention is given to the theological claims and so I’d like to put them aside for the moment and instead focus on the rhetorical claims. When a minister or evangelical says they are a “Biblical literalist,” they are making significant claims about their methods of scriptural interpretation and the interpretations themselves:
1) There is only one literal meaning of a word or passage.
2) There is only one correct interpretation of a scripture — the literal one.
3) A literal interpretation is devoid of any cultural influence or personal bias.
4) Because it lacks bias, a literal interpretation is superior to all other interpretations.
Let's examine these claims one by one.
1) First rhetorical claim: There is only one literal meaning of a word or passage.
Since we are considering the literal meanings of words, there is an obvious problem right off the bat: we can assume most American evangelical ministers will be reading a Bible written in English, translated from Hebrew and Ancient Greek. Translation requires interpretation in order to render ideas and expressions from one language to another, and so the literalist is already confounded by at least one layer of interpretation separating them from the original words of scripture. For the curious, BibleHub allows you to compare the same verse across multiple translations—the differences are fascinating and often different translations can have very divergent implications. But let’s ignore that issue and conduct a thought experiment where a self-described literalist is fluent in Hebrew and Ancient Greek.
The claim that there is only one meaning of a word or passage, is on its face an absurd claim, since you would be hard pressed to find any word in the dictionary with just one definition. Every word is used by speakers of a language in many different ways — that is the nature of language. In the most obvious, even cliché example, when I was a kid in the 80s we used the word “bad” when we actually meant its complete opposite. No one except our parents was ever confused about what we meant though, because cultural context provided the correct definition of the word “bad.” Today many people, like Rob Lowe's character on Parks and Recreation, use the word "literally" to mean its exact opposite. Viewers of Parks and Rec don't get confused. Someone watching the show 2000 years from now probably won't get the joke, however. The imaginary literalist who is fluent in Ancient Greek and Hebrew is 2000-3000 years removed from the cultural contexts of the Bible's authors.
Language is also filled with idioms and expressions that do not make literal sense whatsoever. How exactly does someone pay through the nose? Anyone who has taught English as a second language or had ELL students has realized how chock-full of idioms English is. While lecturing I would use expressions like “beating around which the bush” and would quickly realize from their confused faces that my ELL students knew the individual words I had used, but couldn’t make sense of the expression.
Similarly, different languages use different ways to describe the same act. In English we "get out of" a car, but in Spanish they "get down from" a car. This minor incongruity tripped up a man I know who speaks both Spanish and English. He was on a date. He was driving. The girl was in the passenger seat. She only spoke English. When they arrived at their destination he put the car in park and said, "Do you want to get down?" Of course, he meant "get out of the car" but in English "getting down" is an idiom with sexual meaning. Hilarity ensued.
Thus, translation requires not only the interpretation of individual words but entire phrases — phrases that if translated literally would be completely ridiculous. When any translation is made, whether it is of the Bible, a novel, a newspaper article, the answers of someone being interviewed, et cetera, the translator plays the role of cultural interpreter, doing the best they can to convey the ideas expressed, not the words used. Once again, the 2000 and even 3000-year distance between the modern reader and the Biblical author leaves us vulnerable to misunderstanding.
Yes, I know this is a straw man.
Before you send me an angry email, I know that have been criticizing a kind of limited, parochial understanding of “literal” that comes from a simple dictionary definition. Not all literalists went to divinity school, but those who did will tell you that determining historical cultural context of passages is important to determining original authorial intent, which should be common sense. I would even go so far as to assume most Biblical literalists know translation is a matter of cultural interpretation. They know words have more than one meaning. They know how idioms and expressions can be ridiculous when taken literally.
But here's the problem: scratch the surface of Biblical literalism and you find this simplistic understanding of “literal” acting as a kind of scaffolding or support structure for the rest of their rhetorical claims.
2) Second rhetorical claim: There is only one correct interpretation of a scripture — the literal one.
This second claim rests on the first. Because there is only one meaning of a word or passage, there is can only be one correct interpretation of a scripture. Having already examined its shaky foundation, let's examine the claim at face value by imagining that not only is our hypothetical literalist fluent in Hebrew and Ancient Greek, but the scriptures he or she is examining are written in the most precise, exacting way possible so that there is no need for cultural context to fill gaps of understanding. If authorial intent is this obvious, is there still room for bias and multiple interpretations? Can authorial intent be this unambiguous?
Parliamentarians, legislators, congress members, senators, judges, and lawyers drawing contracts make conscious efforts to use narrow, detailed, and precise language in order to avoid ambiguity and ensure their intentions are not corrupted, distorted, or undermined by interpretation. Nevertheless, every day in courtrooms across the country lawyers argue over differing interpretations of the law. There is just no way around it — no matter how detailed and specific the language, there is always room for interpretation. Even individual lawyers may have two or more interpretations of a bill or phrase within a law. If you ask two lawyers for an opinion about a point of law, you’ll get three answers, so an old joke goes.
Consider the Supreme Court case of Lockhart v. United States, which in large part hinged on the grammar of modifying phrases and antecedents.
So clearly there can be more than one interpretation of a passage, even when that passage was written purposefully to avoid the ambiguities of language, and the Biblical authors hardly wrote in legalese. But by attaching the word "literal" to their interpretation, the evangelical is making an implicit argument that their interpretation is the superior and correct one. It is correct because there is only one correct (literal) meaning of a word or passage.
Admittedly, these first two claims aren't at the forefront of literalists' arguments. They recognize the weakness of them and don't bring them up. However they are always there, packed into the word "literal" and present under the surface of every argument.
3& 4) Third & fourth rhetorical claims: A literal interpretation is devoid of cultural influence or personal bias, and thus is superior to all other interpretations.
The third and fourth claims are the most significant and they are at the forefront of literalist arguments. The use of the word “literal” implies that the interpretation is devoid of any contemporary cultural influence or personal bias and thus because it lacks bias, is superior to all other interpretations. Evangelicals expressly make this claim, and do so loudly and repeatedly.
In a courtroom, lawyers have to support their interpretations by citing evidence such as precedent, case law, or transcripts of debate that prove legislative intent. But while lawyers allow their interpretations of law to be subjected to scrutiny, the biblical literalist cites no evidence and refuses to subject his ideas to similar scrutiny.
If our hypothetical literalist enters into a debate over a passage of scripture with a non-literalist theologian, by calling himself a "literalist" he is saying to the other: “You have injected your own beliefs, biases, and values into the text and are allowing contemporary culture to corrupt and distort the meaning of the scripture, while I am not.” It’s an ad hominem attack, a classic logical fallacy. It is an attack on the person, rather than an attack of the person’s argument. The literalist is essentially a name-caller. By smearing his opponent as “biased” he implies that somehow he has no personal biases and is immune from the influence of his own culture.
Having done that, there is no need to defend his ideas with evidence. By definition, the “literal” interpretation is the only objective one and all others are subjective. Strong offense is his defense. This is the great rhetorical dodge of the literalists and this is what makes the word “literalism” a brand, a way of marketing an idea without having to prove one’s claims with evidence. “Literalism” shields claims about the Bible from critical thinking. It doesn’t matter what the claim is or how bad it is (more on this in a little bit), by branding the claim as a “literal” interpretation, a shield of objectivity and accuracy surrounds it and protects it. But to claim that an interpretation is devoid of contemporary cultural influence or personal bias is intellectually dishonest.
(Among lawyers & judges there is a similar type of branding: constitutional originalism. This is a brand conservative politicians concocted in the 1980s to market their right-wing beliefs. The “originalist,” like the biblical “literalist,” claims that their interpretation of the constitution is not an interpretation at all but the unadulterated, original intent of the constitution’s authors, which paints everyone who disagrees with them as people who inject their biases, values, and beliefs into the document, thus altering its “original” meaning and not respecting the constitution or its authors, but of course that is just cover for a right-wing agenda.)
Literalist vs Literalist
In the scenario above, I have pitted a literalist against a non-literalist, but what happens when two literalists disagree? The very premise of literalism implies it’s not possible for literalists to disagree, but of course it happens nonetheless.
Go into any Christian bookstore, pull a couple books off the shelf that cover the same topic, and look for differing opinions. You will find them of course, but if the authors are American protestant evangelicals, many of them will have branded themselves as “literalists.” It is a great marketing strategy. “Literalism” has worked well for many people who wanted to sell themselves, their books, their church, even their TV and radio shows because it lends authority and legitimacy to their ideas. The trouble is, it is not a brand that any one person or group owns exclusive rights to. Anyone can pick up the word “literal” and use it as their brand and as a result, we can find innumerable examples of two or more ministers, authors, or evangelizers, who all call themselves literalists, who nevertheless disagree.
For example, Tennessee preacher Michael Pearl is the author of To Train Up a Child, a child-rearing how-to book with more than 670,000 copies in circulation that is popular among Christian home-schoolers. Pearl does not have a degree in a psychology, child development, or any other related field. Instead, he has the Bible, and his “literal” interpretation of it. In his book, Pearl uses numerous Bible verses, particularly from Proverbs chapter 22, to argue that the Bible requires Christian parents to use corporal punishment to discipline their children and train them to submit to the parents’ will. In Pearl’s "literal" view of “spare the rod, spoil the child,” parents should beat their children with a literal rod — and Pearl has a favorite, a ¼ inch flexible plastic plumbing tube. Three children have been beaten to death by their parents who had copies of To Train Up a Child in their homes. The parents who administered the beatings have been convicted of murder and child abuse, but for each of these three dead children, there are thousands more who have suffered horrible physical punishments that the law calls abuse, but whose parents will likely never face prosecution.
Despite the popularity of Pearl’s book, I know that there are Christian parents who describe themselves as literalists who would never whip their child with a ¼ inch plumbing line, or any other rod for that matter, and they have said so loudly on the internet.
So is Pearl wrong to say that the Bible wants parents to hit their children with rods? Many literalist Christians would say yes. How can this be if literalism allows for only one interpretation? How are Christians supposed to decide what is the correct “literal” claim? Who will be the impartial judge of competing “literal” claims? Doesn’t the fact that two “literalists” can have widely different interpretations show the slipperiness of the concept of literalism, and the impossibility of describing any idea as “literal?”
Of course, but someone will always respond this way: “But Mike, a day is a day is a day.”
And here is where the theological claims enter the picture and obscure all the obvious logical problems with the word “literal.”
People Cling to Literalism Due to Theological Anxiety
I attended a non-denominational (yet another nonsense marketing term) evangelical Christian school until the fifth grade, and later attended youth group at a Southern Baptist church. During that time my peers expressed great anxiety about the vulnerability of the Bible, and hence their faith as a whole. They had been convinced by adults that you had to accept every part of the Bible because if you decided Genesis was allegorical or mythical rather than literally true, then every other claim within the Bible would also fall prey to skepticism, and you might decide that Jesus was not a divine being, hadn’t died on the cross, or risen from the dead. A non-literal interpretation of any part of the Bible was a slippery slope toward atheism.
The most disconcerting argument I heard, wielded by both fundamentalists and atheists, is that Jesus had to die on the cross to provide humanity with an escape from the curse of original sin. But if there was no garden east of Eden, and no literal Adam and Eve who ate the forbidden fruit, then there was no reason for Jesus to die on the cross. In this view, the entirety of Christianity crumbles into dust without literalism.
This all-or-nothing attitude and the anxiety it induces is the theological issue that clouds the nonsensicalness of literalism’s rhetorical claims. Anxiety makes believers quick to defend their “literal” position and attack anyone who holds a different view.
If you believe the Bible is true, then you should contemplate this question deeply: How is it true? or, in what way is it true? The literalist believes the Bible is true in the same way that scientific facts are true, but as many scholars of religion have pointed out time and again, this is a very new idea, just a century or so old, born out of protestant reactions to the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution.
If we recognize this, then criticizing and rejecting literalism does not mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You can have faith and nevertheless not believe that the Bible is inerrant and literally true. Perhaps this is obvious to some people — I think it certainly should be obvious — but within American evangelical culture, where I grew up, larger cultural conflicts about faith versus science and rationality obscure the nonsensicalness of the word “literalism.”