The Ventriloquist

An online publication at and outside the boundary of evangelical Christianity.



February 2012

Deconstructing Scripture: Why Literalism Makes You Lazy

by Grant Miller, on Theology, February 2012

Deconstruction: “A philosophical theory of criticism that seeks to expose deep-seated contradictions in a work by delving below its surface meaning” [as defined by Princeton University.]

I have a confession to make. I am a deconstructionist. For those of you who have been absolutely inundated and saturated with the mores of deconstruction, you are not alone. Deconstruction, a mode of thought which has resurfaced in the face of the postmodern era, is not a new concept. Even so, I believe we are moving past the postmodern era into a yet unnamed period of development that will most surely be castigated as “more” godless, “more” dangerous, and increasingly peppered with the slippery slope fallacy.

Most of us are very familiar with the concept of “worldview.” For some, it has been presented as a revelatory concept that not many people “out there” understand and is the key to defeating all other forms of religious evil. I understand the risks with current culture: lack of absolutes, infinite relativity--the list goes on and on.

Because of this constant obsession with understanding and exalting the “biblical worldview,” it becomes quite possible to view ourselves and others as projects instead of people. This is a direct result of individual and collective retreat from an idea we didn’t take the time to fully understand before it was rejected and thrown out like so many babies in the bathwater before it.

Drawing from the conclusions of Rachel Held Evans in her snarky but insightful book, Evolving in Monkey Town, I believe this happened because the generation of our parents--when faced with the reality they could not adequately defend their faith in the face of a changing world--resolved to “raise a generation of apologists.” In doing so, they churned out an army with the answers...who had never grappled with the questions themselves. In a sense, our grand theological castles were built on nothing but sand. And our parents wonder why our generation is more prone to question or doubt or wander from the church!

One of the main problems we are facing today is evident in popular culture. News sources will eagerly report the hateful and repugnant actions of institutions which call themselves churches--such as the woefully erroneous Westboro Baptist Church that regularly pickets the funerals of soldiers with signs that proclaim “God Hates America” or tramples upon the Imago Dei when they scream into the faces of fellow human beings, “God hates you, fag!”

“Where is the problem you are referring to,” you ask? It is situated in how we choose to view Scripture. Is it inerrant? Is it absolutely all-encompassing? Was it meant to act as a blueprint for every of life’s many and diverse activities? These honest questions--and many more--determine how we live out our faith in public and private.

For this brief article, which cannot deal with the whole depth and breadth of deconstruction and its implications, we will examine one pronouncement which has the power to do much harm: “I take the Bible literally.” What is more commonly meant by this statement (and what is meant when the phrase is used for the remainder of this article) is, “I take the Bible at face value, reading what the English language says and basing my theology around the simple words on the page rather than seeking out their true meaning for myself through deep wrestling, study, and concentrated meditation.”

In the clause, “I take the Bible literally (at face value),” there is a fundamental fallacy which begs to be addressed. By proclaiming complete confidence in the inerrancy, infallibility, and literal nature of scripture as a crutch to hold up a possibly wavering faith, one may ignore the fact that this simply is not true. We contradict ourselves regularly with this bold assertion. Ironically, it is through an attempt to “be faithful to God’s Word,” that we discredit its power and can be viewed as irrelevant and out-of-touch with current thinking and culture.

Said another way, when I have heard someone proclaim, “I don’t take the whole Bible literally,” the mood of the group visibly becomes strained and tension begins to build. This, I admit, is a very uncomfortable assertion. It is because people are afraid to embrace it and its implications. After all, if one does embrace this position, it could necessitate having to think deeply and meaningfully about their faith--possibly for the first time.

Speaking with some friends not too long ago about this issue, we concluded that by freeing ourselves from slavery to literalism, we can be open to understanding the deeper concepts being communicated beautifully through poetry, story, or allegory that speak to the overarching, powerful, and redemptive narrative of scripture--rather than endlessly debating the finer nuances which can be so contentious in circles of faith.

After all (and contrary to what is said), “Taking the Bible literally” opens up the text to be interpreted and filtered through individual bias. Using the words on the page to justify hate, slavery, discrimination, and so much more is an egregious affront to the intent of the book. However, maybe that’s what people want--a book with the appearance of steel but through alchemic manipulation a book that becomes malleable to fit within one’s prejudicial, self-righteous soapbox.

For instance, there are some eager to proclaim the “fulfillment of the Law” but who will quote Leviticus as if it holds just as much sway today as it did 3,000 years ago. We don’t necessarily agree that women should “be silent” in church and keep their heads covered, but we almost certainly will not allow a woman to lead a church body. We disregard the exhortation for “slaves to obey your masters” because we recognize slavery as a morally repugnant institution. We no longer forbid interracial marriage, yet not too long ago, “Bible believing” people used verses of scripture (out of context) to justify their position of racial segregation.

The inconsistencies in how we apply biblical authority extends far beyond these few examples. However, the point is made--we do not, in fact, take the whole Bible literally. I submit the following: we proclaim that we take the whole of scripture “literally and at face value” because we do not want to have to deal with the internal, below the surface inconsistencies with which we apply “biblical teaching” to our lives. We do not want to have to wrestle with the necessary question which must follow this activity, “Well, if we do not take this portion literally, why should we take that portion literally too?”

Wherever you fall in your understanding of Biblical literalism, I think the most crucial thing to internalize is the importance of deep and meaningful meditation. Without this, one is a sponge, soaking up whatever someone else tells them to believe. Before you know it, an entire theology can be constructed from hearsay or the concluded wrestlings of Luther, Calvin, or a host of other theologians across the centuries.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the concept of deconstruction be eviscerated by evangelicals. On one hand, I understand their disdain: deconstructing scripture gives rise to the cry of, “Where is the plumb line for truth?” On the other hand, deconstructing deeply held beliefs, theologies, or traditions has the potential to free one from slavery to institutionalism, legalism, and unnecessary guilt. Rather than destroying meaning, deconstruction brings the hope of rediscovered meaning and vibrancy.

Don’t be afraid of change. Don’t just listen to what your friends or professors tell you to think or believe. After all, this is supposed to be a period of education--not indoctrination. Learning this valuable Truth has made all the difference in my life.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the greatest commandment. The second is exactly the same, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40