There’s been a lot of online chatter about Michael Gungor’s recent admission that he doesn’t believe that everything in the Bible—particularly the OT—should be read literally. Here’s my two cents. I don’t claim that this is in any way original or mind-blowing, but it’s important to keep in mind nonetheless. The following is therefore meant as a neatly packaged response to the oft-repeated fear-based chorus lines that Christian fundamentalists have been singing in the face of this ostensible hermeneutical threat.
What I’ve noticed time and again is the accusation that refusing to read everything in the Bible in a literal way marks the beginning of a slippery slope toward denying the central tenets of Christianity: the virgin birth, Christ’s death and resurrection, etc. And this is what makes Gungor’s admission so threatening to them. It may seem like a minor, esoteric anomaly within the confines of the Evangelical world, but to the fundamentalist gatekeepers, admissions like Gungor’s call into question the authority of each and every word between the leather-bound, monogramed covers of their Bibles that many of them have abruptly enthroned at the right hand of the Father in a coup d’état to replace the One who preached the Sermon on the Mount, taught love of enemies, and absorbed our violence instead of fighting back. It’s a big deal to them.
But aside from the fact that the slippery slope argument is actually a logical fallacy that we’re taught to avoid, it’s an ironic accusation given that the same could just as easily be leveled against literalists: this literalist method of reading the Bible could certainly be considered a slippery slope that leads to a whole host of atrocities and unethical behaviour (by their own logic, anyway). While the literalists ask, “If you don’t read everything in the Bible literally, who’s to say that you won’t one day deny the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ?” we could also say, “If you do read the entire Bible literally, who’s to say Christians won’t start smashing babies’ heads against rocks (Ps. 137:9) or start stoning rape victims at the city gate because they didn’t call out for help loud enough (Dt. 22:24a) or endorse genocide (1 Sam. 15)?”
The sad truth is, however, that this blanket literalist reading of Scripture has led to all kinds of distorted socio-political stances that violate the patristic hermeneutic of interpreting the Bible through the lens of Christ as the first full revelation of God (Col. 1:15; Jn. 14:9), including support for the death penalty, militarism, slavery, mimetic rivalry, racism, and even ethnic cleansing and apartheid, to the point that Ann Coulter has cryptically called for the ethnic cleansing of the US-Mexico border region in imitation of Netanyahu’s horrific actions in Gaza and an Oklahoma Tea Party candidate, Scott Esk, recently said he wouldn’t have a problem with stoning homosexuals to death based on Lev. 20:13.
And yet, many biblical literalists do an odd (and convenient) about-face when they enter the eschatological realm by selectively turning literal descriptions and contextualized events into symbolic representations, extramundane descriptions of the unseen world, or self-serving prophecies that are detached from the era and immediate circumstances about which they were originally written. So, for example, to these “selective literalists,” passages outlining the return of the Jews to Israel isn’t referring to those in exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE but to diaspora Jews in the 20th and 21st centuries; Gog and Magog aren’t set in the time in which they were originally written—decipherable to their immediate audience—but instead magically represent Russia and it’s crusading military general in our own lifetime; the Beast in Revelation isn’t Nero who was persecuting the 1st-century Christians to whom John wrote his apocalypse but instead symbolically represents the future antichrist who will rule on the strength of a one-world government; and Gehenna isn’t the literal valley of Ge Hinnom on the outskirts of Jerusalem into which the dead bodies of Jerusalem’s Jewish population who mistakenly anticipated a militaristic messiah were unceremoniously dumped after too many were slaughtered during the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE to give them a proper burial but is instead an otherworldly location in the afterlife reminiscent of pagan mythology in which “unbelievers” are tormented forever. Again, this is selective, convenient literalism—when passages are about the past, it’s literal; when passages are supposedly about the future, it’s not … as if there are no other genres and literary devices in between these two extremes.
Bottom line: no one reads everything in the Bible literally (as much as we avoid admitting this), but it seems that those who are quickest to accuse others of greasing a new slippery slope are more guilty of gleefully sliding down one of their own design—one that already exists and has been absorbed into “normative” Evangelical Christianity, an omnipresence and “boiling frog syndrome” that deceptively conceals its existence and distortive properties. Striking contradictions abound in the above description: aside from the fringe extremists, even those conservative fundamentalist Christians who support a so-called literalist reading of Scripture are actually more thoughtful in their interpretation than they realize if they don’t condone baby head-smashing and rape victim stoning; this is a good kind of selectiveness. And yet, those who admit that they don’t read the entire Bible in a literalist hermeneutical cast often do read portions of Scripture in a literal, context-driven manner where the so-called “literalist” tribe applies only symbolic or out-of-context futurist readings. Weird.