I was sitting in a classroom at James Madison University when one of my peers raised her hand to ask a question. The lecture had been focused on the reliability of the New Testament writers/witnesses and a debate had erupted over whether or not to take the bible literally. I sat patiently near the front of the class watching the comments fling back and forth like a ping pong match between the students and our professor when the girl finally raised her hand.
She said, “I just want everyone to know that I take the bible literally because Jesus is my savior.” The rest of us stared at her and then slowly turned to watch our professor’s rebuttal. “Really? You take the entire bible literally all the time?” he asked rhetorically. The silence was palpable. He continued, “Well then, let me ask you this: Are you a sinner?”
With an obvious look on her face, she said, “Of course I am, but Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.” The professor responded, “Yes yes, but do you sin, even though Jesus died for the world?” “Duh,” she said, “everyone sins, and that why we need to let Jesus into our hearts.”
The professor then sighed and brought the point home, “So you say you’re a sinner, but I notice that you have two hands, two legs, and two eyes… Jesus told his disciples that if their hands or feet cause them to sin, they should cut one of them off, and if their eyes cause them to sin they should pluck one out. So you see, I’m having a hard time understanding how you take the bible literally, affirm that you’re a sinner, and still have both your hands, both your feet, and both your eyes all at the same time.”
I don’t remember the girl’s name, but I will never forget the way she looked as she slumped back down into her chair thinking about what our professor had said.
The bible is full of different literary forms that give it life. There are epic poems that retell the great story of the past in order to teach a lesson to the present. There are long genealogies that connect different characters throughout the centuries. There are parables of everyday situations that are meant to leave us scratching our heads in wonder. There are metaphors used (just like we do) to convey meaning in a way that is memorable and effective. There are proverbs, psalms, and poems that contain wisdom beyond their literal words.
The bible is not a historical narrative to be analyzed and redacted like a modern textbook. It is not a perfect collection of rules to live life. The bible is not a text to be read literally all the time in every situation; otherwise we would all be stumbling around with missing appendages.
The great beauty of scripture is that it opens up the strange new world of what it means to be in relationship with God and with our fellow human beings. The greatest moments in our lives cannot be conveyed in simple words to be taken literally, but are in fact so profound that we must use differing literary forms to even begin conveying what our experience was like. The bible is full of wonder and that’s why we keep coming back to it every day and every week to learn more about who we are, and whose we are.
This week, let us open up our bibles to discover the strange new world of God’s kingdom, and start letting it become incarnate in the way we live.