I attended a Christian university in the long ago days of acid wash denim and Commodore 64s. One of my classmates, Ken Jacobsen, had a gift for impersonation. He was renowned for his imitation of Bono on the U2 song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." "I have spoke with the tongue of angels," he'd croon when he got to the fourth verse. "I have held the hand of a devil." But then he'd alter the lyric and sing, "N-o-t literally. It's only a metaphor." That always got a huge laugh.
It's been decades, but I still remember the joke. I realize now it was humorous not only for its inherent silliness, but also for the way it held up a mirror to something funny about ourselves.
Most of us were earnest, sincere evangelicals. We weren't biblical studies majors, but we saw the defense of the Bible as our sworn duty. Against the onslaught of those who sought to undermine Scripture's authority, we committed ourselves to upholding it as the reliable Word of God.
One of the unintended side effects of our fervor was that we took almost everything literally, at least in spiritual matters. Generally, we weren't very good with oblique metaphors and analogies. And if, like Bono, you talked about spiritual things in a seemingly unorthodox way, well, we worried.
There was much that was good about our impulses, and maybe they were necessary in a time when the "battle for the Bible" was raging. But for me, and, I suspect, others like me, our "literalist" convictions left us confused in significant ways—not only about song lyrics, but, much more tragically, about Scripture itself.
All these years later, I'm learning that understanding the literal meaning of the Bible is a more nuanced adventure than my college friends and I imagined. We'd been blithely unaware that there is more than one genre in the Bible, or that literary context profoundly matters to meaning. We didn't understand that when we read ancient Hebrew prose poems (like Genesis 1), wisdom literature (like Proverbs), or apocalyptic literature (like Revelation) as if they were science textbooks, we were actually obscuring their meaning.
For me, the most negative consequence of all that well-intentioned literalism was the conviction that Yahweh, having given us his straightforward Word, was completely comprehensible. This paradigm both diminished my perception of God and set up my faith for crisis when I discovered aspects of God that remain stubbornly shrouded in mystery.
If you'd told me back then that the language we have for God—even (especially) much of our biblical language—must be understood analogically, I would have prayed for you and backed away slowly. I wouldn't have understood that there are no words that can be applied to God exactly the same way they are applied to creaturely things, no language that can be used "univocally."
When I say that I am "alive" and God is "alive," the word "alive" is analogical, not univocal—it does not apply to me (a temporal creature) the same way it applies to God (who is eternal). The same goes for words like "good" or "powerful." Connotations of imperfection or limitation must be deleted from any word when it is applied to God, and the notions (as best as we can conceive them) of total perfection and completion must be added.
Understanding this sooner would have helped me with biblical descriptions of God's "wrath." I can only get a glimmer of what God's wrath looks like when I divest the word of the human implications of self-centered, reactionary anger, and condition it with the unchanging goodness that must clarify all of God's attributes. Or take the word "Father." The claim that God is our heavenly "Father" can ultimately mean something wonderful, even to my friends who had terrible human dads, because the word is not used univocally when it's applied to God.
J. I. Packer likens our relationship with God to that of a two-year-old with a father who has a brain of Einsteinian proportions. To make relationship possible, the father will have to accommodate himself to the toddler he loves. The child will know her daddy, but she won't completely comprehend him. What the father reveals to the daughter will be true, as far as it goes. But there will always be more.
We shouldn't be surprised (or worried) that in his overtures to us God uses every kind of language available—straightforward (but culturally lensed) historical narrative, analogy, metaphor, parable, poetry, apocalyptic vision, and, hallelujah, the Word made flesh, Jesus. The best way to receive his Word is with the humble conviction that not only can we find what we're looking for, it (he) will be more than we could hope for, imagine, or fully comprehend. That's the best news there is.
Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "Defending Scripture. Literally," a Bible study based on this article.
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Previous columns by Carolyn Arends include:
The Other Prodigal Son | The Prodigal's coming-home gala was for both sons. (February 13, 2012)
Hardworking Sloths: Disguising Spiritual Laziness | The lazy culprit behind our busyness. (June 13, 2011)
Satan's a Goner | A lesson from a headless snake. (March 25, 2011)
Relationship That Leads to Life | Why God's Law is good news. (August 11, 2010)
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