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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. 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.

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.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/05/2011 - 09:16 am.

    Thank you, Rev. Stewart, for this whimsical and yet very serious treatment of the subject of the proper use of the Bible as a guide for Christian Faith.

    Biblical literalism, itself, stands far outside the traditions of the Judeo-Christian faiths. It’s important to remember that in the 2,0000 years of Judeo-Christian History and 3,000 earlier years of Jewish History there has never been a time when the “literalist” perspective on The Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, and the Epistles gained any kind of dominance until about 100 years ago when “fundamentalism” was developed as a buttress against what seemed to be the likely wiping out of “faith” by enlightenment science (most of which has now been expanded and deepened to the point which those at the forefront of science would never say that it precludes the possibility of “miracles” and only the most backward scientific Luddites continue to make that claim).

    Using the Bible to point us to God as we argue over what it’s words mean, allows us to discern and discover God’s guidance for our own day and time. We look within the pages of the Bible but also beyond the Bible to find how and where God is present and active in our world today and to seek to walk in harmony with God in our own day and time.

    Our literalist friends have, far too often, ceased to worship the living God, replacing God with the Bible itself and, what’s worse, a set of hidebound interpretations of the Bible which reflect, not the reality of God’s presence and guidance in their own lives and in the world, but rather, a projection of their own psychological dysfunctions and their own worldview ONTO God and worshiping the God they have created in their own image.

    Those who developed the principles of Fundamentalism would be massively opposed to what has been done these 100+ years later with their efforts – at the way the Bible has now been pitted against and made the enemy and antithesis of science and rational thought. This was not their intent.

    Added to the reality that the First Chapter of Genesis portrays the earth as flat, with the sky made up of a dome (or domes) above which are endless volumes of water and the ground established as a sort of island beneath which are endless volumes of water, are the reality that the Bible often contradicts itself telling radically different versions of events and featuring statements such as these:

    “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, ‘I am a warrior.'” [Joel 3:10]

    “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;” [Micah 4:3]

    Are we, then, to be warriors in God’s name or not? There are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of this issue, but our “literalist” friends seek only to harmonize these disagreements away in order to strip out the history of God’s relationship to God’s peoples and insert their own psychological projections, prejudices and predilections in their place and worship their own ideas and ideals which they project into the Bible, in place of God.

    They then declare their ideas and ideals, flawed as they are, filled with their human limitations, to be infallible, ultimate truth and cease to listen to the God who would tell them otherwise if they would but listen. Having ceased to worship the living God, they worship only themselves and their leaders who have set themselves up as authorities in all things to the exclusion of God.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/05/2011 - 02:27 pm.

    Dear Reverend

    Thank you for your essay.

    I rejoice that we live in American and can own, read, and interpret the bible as we desire. I also rejoice that we can worship freely.

    I also respect your desire that your grandchildren embrace a “non-literal” hermeneutic when approaching certain passages in the bible. We both can agree that reading the bible, whatever the hermeneutic, is important.

    I am still debating how it interpret your essay. If I “spiritualize” your essay, it means whatever I desire it to mean. If I take your essay “literally” I know what it means, I think?

    Either way, thanks.


  3. Submitted by Jim Vieceli on 01/12/2011 - 08:13 am.

    Rev. Stewart-

    I rejoice in your love of your grandchildren. I pray they will come to have a living relationship with the bodily resurrected and ascended Lord, Jesus Christ.
    Rev, If we subscribe to a non-literal hermeneutic, are we to say that everyone’s interpretation is correct? Is not everyone free to interpret as he/she sees fit and therefore do what is right in his own eyes? I am afraid if you are correct, this is inescapably the case. And if this is what God intended then we are all left to ask along with the Serpent, “Has God really said?”

    May God richly bless you and your family.

  4. Submitted by lucy keating on 01/12/2011 - 08:49 am.

    Your article confuses and somewhat frightens me. If the Bible is not to be taken literally, how then are we to take the “story” of Jesus, crucified and risen so that we might have life? Are we then to conclude as Oprah has that there are many ways to God? Jesus said HE is the way. If I choose not to take the entire Bible as fact, how can I count on what Jesus said? I am afraid that those who share your opinion of Scripture are diminishing the power of the Gospel to reach people for God and change lives and am left wondering exactly what “good news” it is that you bring.

  5. Submitted by Dan Morrow on 01/12/2011 - 11:18 am.

    What is sad here is that the author, as well as some of those commenting, have a predetermined and narrow understanding of the term “literal.” As is typical especially among atheist critics, the term is defined, dare I say, in the most woodenly literal way possible and then set up in such a way as to easily burn it down.

    Now, believe what you like; fair enough. But at least make some effort to understand those you are critiquing. I am not entirely persuaded one way or the other as far as interpretation goes, but at least I have sought to understand the view as it comes from the horses mouth. the one thing you can be sure of having read this little rant is that the author has not actually engaged with the views and materials of, in this case, AIG. Had he spent even the shortest amount of time browsing their site with his concern in mind, he would have realized that they do not propose a literal interpretation of the Bible as he defines it, but that they believe the bible should be interpreted “literally” according to it’s genre. Poetry should be interpreted as poetry, parable as parable, and history as history. This being the case, the author needs to demonstrate that Genesis is not written as history instead of making uninformed assertions that say more about his ability to debate and argue than anything else.

    So, to argue that there has never been a literalist method of interpretation until 100 years ago is unhelpful, since that fundamentalist literalism is not what AIG is espousing here. Again, were any of you to actually read what they say, perhaps you could at least get your arguments off on the right foot – debate the right issue, which is the genre of the text.

    For crying out loud, it seems as though if someone were so hell-bent on defeating their so-called terrible interpretations one would at least make sure they know what they are talking about. As a Christian I am far more embarrassed by the reasoning ability and ignorance of many Christians than I am of a particular group of them who believe we were created 6000 years ago.

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