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A grandfather’s concern: Literacy, literalism — and the measure of truth

I’m worried about my grandchildren. They live in Kentucky. A New York Times story by Laurie Goodstein triggered the concern. Its focus was the separation of church and state, occasioned by a proposed Christian theme park.

I’m worried about my grandchildren. They live in Kentucky.

A New York Times story by Laurie Goodstein triggered the concern. Its focus was the separation of church and state, occasioned by a proposed Christian theme park. But my concern was for my grandchildren.

Kentucky ‘s governor and the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet seem enthralled with a planned Christian theme park called “Ark Encounter.” Ark Encounter will be developed by “Answers in Genesis,” developers of The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., which shows humans and dinosaurs living together on a planet that is 6,000 years old, a kind of Disneyworld for the illiterate.

My concern is for Jack and Mimi’s survival. I’m proud of Jack. He’s 10 years old now. He’s a thinker. His emails to me are flawlessly literate. According to his dad, he doesn’t need Spell-Check. He knows how to spell. In addition to being literate, his emails are sometimes literary.

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Given that Jack is swimming in a sea of literalism, I wonder whether my literate and literary grandson will be able to withstand the peer pressure of biblical literalism. Will he forsake his literary bent for his Kentucky peer group’s belief that the measure of truth is literalism?

Expecting 1.6 million visitors in first year
According to the Times article, “The developers of Ark Encounter, who have incorporated as a profit-making company, say they expect to spend $150 million, employ 900 people and attract 1.6 million visitors from around the world in the first year. With the Creation Museum only 45 miles away, they envision a Christian tourism corridor that would draw busloads from churches and Christian schools for two- and three-day visits.”

If he goes the literalist route, Jack might find himself like the little boy who, when asked whether Noah did a lot of fishing on the ark, answered no … because he only had two worms. Eventually, his native curiosity and literary bent would free him for the less obvious symbolic riches of sacred text.

But the issue is not only in Kentucky. It’s everywhere that people refuse to read the Bible literately as literature. It may be sacred literature, but it is literature. The folks from “Answers from Genesis” who are building the Ark Encounter insist that the Bible must be read literally. According to my dictionary, “literal” means “restricted to the exact stated meaning; not figurative.” Genesis is factual, but not figurative.

Missing much of what is sacred
My hope for Jack and Mimi is that they’ll board a different ark — the ark of literacy that will rescue them from the sea of literalism that misses nine-tenths of what is sacred — the poetry, the metaphors, the similes, the parables, the literary allusions of The Song of Solomon, the Psalms, or the prophet Habakkuk, who climbed up, figuratively, on “the watch tower” to see what God would say to him about the world in which he lived.

The more I think about it, the less concerned I become … unless, of course, Jack and Mimi, succumbing to peer pressure, conclude that to be a person of faith means you have to swallow a camel. While some of their friends are trooping off to see the young giraffes in Noah’s ark — “We think that God would probably have sent healthy juvenile-sized animals that weren’t fully grown yet,” said the head the project, ”so there would be plenty of room” — I hope my grandchildren stay off the buses to Ark Encounter. More than one person’s faith has been killed by encounters that put faith against reason.

I hope Jack and Mimi stay home to read their Bible not as a collection of “literal” facts but as inspired sacred literature that will lead them into the deepest sacred recesses of the soul and into the heart of the world itself. When someone asks whether they take the Bible literally, I hope they’ll be able to answer that they don’t read it literally; they read it literately. Otherwise, there would be no worms.

The Rev. Gordon Stewart is the pastor of  Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, and moderator of First Tuesday Dialogues: Examining critical public issues locally and globally.