Bryan Bibb

The Bible in Church and Academy

Biblical Literalism's Tight Grip

My Sunday School class has been reading Genesis for Normal People, by Peter Enns and Jared Byas, which the class is enjoying immensely. On a related note, yesterday I came across two very good posts on the topic, one by JK Doyle titled “Of Oar Fish, Sea Monsters, Dragons Of Chaos, And The Bible”, and one over at Bible Junkies by John Martens, titled “Science and Interpretation of the Bible. I highly recommend these to you, as they discuss the literal vs. metaphorical interpretation of Genesis from two different angles.

As I was reading this morning, it occurred to me that reading Genesis literally is like keeping a tight grip on a roller coaster lap restraint. I’m not a fan of tortured analogies, but this one seems to work very well. I’m sure others have made similar analogies, but I thought it might be worth a share. What do you think?

Humbly submitted, consider the ways in which biblical literalism is like holding on tightly during a roller coaster ride:

It is unnecessary.

The coaster is built so that a tight grip is not required. If a rider understands and trusts the system and the engineers who built it, they will not fear being launched into the void during the first big loop. In the same way, the Bible is not designed to require such a tight grip. All of the necessary restraints and safety precautions are already built in.

I would call your attention to the recent books by John Walton, a conservative biblical scholar from Wheaton: The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate and the more in-depth Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. Not every biblical scholar will agree with all of Walton’s arguments, but he does a very nice job of placing Genesis in its ancient context while expressing its theological value. My point is that a careful, respectful, and faithful reading of Genesis will examine the creation texts as literature rather than as scientific description. This is how they were designed to be read! The contorted logic of Young Earth Creationism is simply not necessary.

It is based on fear and anxiety rather than freedom and joy.

I love to ride coasters, and to be honest I do sometimes find myself holding on tightly. It’s a natural human response, and feeling a bit afraid and out of control is part of the fun. Certainly anyone who has read the book of Job carefully will have sensed their metaphorical hands reaching around for something solid to grasp. This anxiety and frustration is actually part of that book’s design. It was written to generate a destabilizing sensation; rather than holding on to something out of fear, try to let go and see how the book makes you feel. If at any point you find yourself agreeing with Job’s friends, you’re holding on too tightly.

Of course, people experience the Bible differently depending on their stage in life. As I take my kids on their first coasters, I encourage them to hold on because they naturally feel nervous about the unknown thrills to come. As they get older and more mature, however, I hope they will hold their hands up and experience the ride with freedom and joy.

I would never chastise a young person or a new Christian for reading the Bible in an overly literal way. However, I hope that as they mature they will learn that the Christian experience of the Bible is filled with liberty and exhilaration.

It vastly over-estimates your abilities.

Holding on tightly may make you feel more secure, but it’s not actually doing anything. Do you really think that if the seatbelt broke, your puny grip would keep you from doing a moonshot into the parking lot? Where the Bible is complex and difficult, it is exceedingly complex and difficult. Genesis 1–11 raises a host of thorny theological problems, and a literal interpretation does not make those issues any easier to handle. You cannot hold on to the Bible tight enough to make the gender issues between Adam and Eve any less vexing, or the Flood story any less terrifying. You may think you’ve solved things with a clever interpolation, but the more you read and explore you will discover that the deep mysteries of God are beyond your grasp.

That’s just the way things are. Your grip cannot overcome the centrifugal force placed on your body by a coaster, and so you must trust the ride and its designers. Your mind cannot unravel the mysteries of God’s creation, and so you must trust the God who made the world, and whom we encounter through scripture.

Holding on tight doesn’t help you do that. It just makes the ride less fun.

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