JR. Forasteros - September 15, 2019

Is the Bible Literal?


When do we take the Bible literally? Do we have to believe the whole thing is literal truth? We dive into the book of Jonah for an example of how to read the Bible while taking genre into account. How can reading literarily - not literally - help us know God better?

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I’d like to run an experiment with you: Read the following passages and guess what kind of work they’re from.

Here’s the first one:

You know what they were calling the terraforming initiative, when we left Earth orbit? The Forever Project. Because this is it. This is when the human race becomes immortal, you get me? We’re off Earth. We’re making new homes amongst the stars, whether the stars want us or not.

[Science Fiction]

Here’s the next:

I am a successful business professional with a proven track record of business growth and restructurings of multinational corporations. I would bring my tenacity and penchat for success to your organization in the capacity of the senior executive. As such, here are the skills I will bring to your company…

[Cover letter]

And another:

Temperatures were expected to hit 101 degrees in Dallas on Monday and were forecast to climb even higher on Tuesday afternoon before cooling off. The combination of heat and humidity will make temperatures feel closer to 107 in Dallas and even hotter in Houston. The National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory until 8 p.m. Tuesday.


One you may know:

A Dog, to whom the butcher had thrown a bone, was hurrying home with his prize as fast as he could go. As he crossed a narrow footbridge, he happened to look down and saw himself reflected in the quiet water as if in a mirror. But the greedy Dog thought he saw a real Dog carrying a bone much bigger than his own.


Here’s a fun one:

Heat oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are starting to brown, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add oregano and cumin and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.


And another:

The child who would become Black Elk was born on a riverbank in the Powder River Country, a fertile rectangle loosely defined as the Powder River Basin of southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming.


And another:

No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.


Last one:

K lol. C u 2nite.

[Text message]

Think about what you just did: you read a sentence or two of a text and, without much trouble at all, and with basically no context, identified its genre. You knew intuitively that these were all different forms of writing, that they followed different rules, used different terminology and key words. If we went back through them, you could point out the specific clues that led you to the choices you did, but for the most part, your decisions weren’t that conscious. If you know how to read English, then a lot of these decisions feel natural, instinctual to you.

They’re not, of course. They’re learned. But we take them for granted.

Until we come to something like the Bible. The Bible is a collection of books from several cultures, several languages, from thousands of years ago. The cultural assumptions that underlie the genres of the Bible can be very different from ours, which can make it hard to read the Bible. Moreover, we’re mostly not taught to read the Bible with an eye to genre – it’s not just that we treat the ancient histories in the Bible like modern history (even though they’re pretty different). We read poetry like history like parables like letters like legal code.

Imagine if we did that today – treated a sci-fi novel like a history book like a legal document like a text message. That’s a quick route to confusion. Some things we want to take very literally – like a legal document. Others we might read literally but feel free to improvise on, like a recipe. Still others we know not to take literally – like novels, fables and poetry.

The Bible is the same – it’s a huge collection of literature, and believe it or not, we’re not meant to take it all literally. Let’s explore why we need to learn to read not literally, but literarily – and don’t worry: it’s something we can do without a seminary degree.

Join us Sunday as we learn how taking genre into account when reading the Bible helps us know Jesus better.

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