Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The ELCA and literal interpretation

During the August 9th meeting of the ELCA (the largest Lutheran denomination) Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson issued a call for Lutherans to join with Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans to fight against literal interpretation of the Bible (click here to read more). The attack was apparently directed against Evangelicals. Most Evangelical scholars believe that authors usually try to communicate something when they write, so Evangelical scholars, therefore, want to understand what the authors of the biblical writings were trying to communicate. To do this, they study biblical texts, taking such factors into account as historical and cultural background, grammar, literary genre, and figures of speech. Evangelicals insist, for example, that we should not interpret poetry or music as literally as we would interpret a letter or historical narrative. Evangelical scholars fully understand that the Bible contains numerous figures of speech. For example, there are no Evangelical scholars who think “the trees of the field” literally “clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). Evangelical scholars may not always agree on what was intended as a figure or speech or metaphor, but they do not deny that the Bible contains such literary devices.

Admittedly, “literal” (as opposed to allegorical) was probably not the best choice of terms for this view of interpretation, but it is certainly shorter than “grammatical-historical hermeneutics” which is a more scholarly designation. Besides, other religious scholars know very well what Evangelicals mean by “literal interpretation.” So why do these religious critics mock “literal interpretation” when they are fully aware that Evangelicals don’t take everything in the Bible literally? The fact is that the religious leaders who mock “literal interpretation” simply don’t believe much of what the biblical writers were trying to communicate. Many of them probably don’t want to come right out and tell their congregations that they don’t believe the Bible, however--this might invite questions about why they continue to be religious leaders if they don't believe their own religious text. Not only that, but some in their congregations may leave for other churches, taking their offerings with them!

The solution that some religous leaders have chosen is to interpret the Bible in such a way that it doesn’t matter much what the authors were trying to communicate—only what the reader wants to find in the text (Marcus Borg calls this “metaphorical” interpretation). This allows religious leaders to present the allusion that they still believe the Bible (just not the “literal" interpretation). This method also frees them from annoying biblical rules and commandments, and allows them to create a new, more politically correct “Christianity” that is more in line with whatever happens to be socially acceptable at the time. The biblical name for this is "idolatry." In America these people certainly have the freedom to imagine their own religion. I just think religious leaders should stop pretending that what they are proclaiming is still Christianity.