One of the more well-known debates in the Church is the infamous “creationism vs. evolution” debate. I know that many people see this as a debate between Science and Religion, but the Truth is many Christians believe in Science and many Scientists have some kind of religious belief in a higher power. So the debate usually falls between those that feel that all words in the Bible should be translated literally and those that feel that certain passages were written metaphorically and not historically.
There are two issues here that cause problems for both sides. The first is that not all parts of the Bible are meant to be read literally as there are parts that are poetry and metaphor. Most people agree with that, but you still have to bring it up when people swing too much onto the literal side. The other is that even if a something is a metaphor, that doesn’t mean it can’t also be historical or real. As the scholar Jerry L. Walls once wrote: “a metaphor communicates because the reality it depicts is similar to the image that is used.” So the conundrum is that Genesis 1-3 are not historical chapters just because they are presenting events in a historical fashion (metaphor can also do that), but if they are metaphorical poetry that doesn’t mean that the Earth wasn’t created in seven days (since metaphors can still rely on historical facts).
But beyond this we are still faced with one larger issue in how to look at the Old Testament – the presentational style of the story (whether fiction or non-fiction) does not change radically from Genesis up through Acts (which skips for wisdom literature like proverbs and some of the writings of the Prophets that detailed Gods prophecies of the future and not chronicles of the past). In other words, if Genesis was not historical then where does the history start? Some also write off Moses, Judges, David, and a few of the Israelite kings as metaphorical, also. Some don’t even stop there and write off the whole Bible as complete morality tales based on fictional characters. We run into a problem that there is not a clear line where metaphor ends and history begins if we start grouping such large parts of the Bible in the metaphor category.
So am I trying to make a case for a literal interpretation of every line of the Bible? Not really. I believe there are many metaphors in the Bible. I also believe that most of them have fairly clear beginning and ending points. Some don’t, of course. But as I have stated, using a metaphor or poem does not necessarily mean that the events described did not occur. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t.
So I started searching for some kind of position that matches what I believe – that takes into account the possibility of metaphor and historical accounts both being in the Bible, and both often in the same passage. I came across the term “metaliteral” at Urban Dictionary: “when a statement is both metaphorical and literal at the same time.” I know that urban dictionary is not exactly the pinnacle of scholarship, but that just shows the concept of mixing metaphor and reality is out there.
But to be honest, my problem in the whole debate is with the literalist side taking a weird angle on the idea of literalism. I came across these two parts of the overall definition of “literal”:
- (of a translation) representing the exact words of the original text.
- free from exaggeration or distortion.
And right there is probably my problem with the literal creationist side of the debate: they have to add many things to the Bible to support their literal 7 day creation narrative. I have previously looked at how reading the Bible literally does not lead to a 7 day creation week unless you add ideas into the text that are not there. Other famous examples of this issue are things like Gap Creationism or the problem of dealing with Adam & Eve’s children marrying other people that were already there (I’ll look at these in the future). Ideas like this involve adding exaggeration or distortion to the story. It also doesn’t always represent the exact words of the original text. One could also argue that saying something is literal when it was written as metaphor does not “represent” the exact words, it “modifies” them into a different genre.
So all of this leaves me in a bind when it comes to how I view the scriptures, caught somewhere between literal and metaphorical. I couldn’t find a view that matched mine, so I just came up with my own term. Since my desire was to faithfully represent what the scriptures are meant to be, even if they could be both literal or metaphorical or either one, I just went for “representative metaliteralism.”
I know – I use a lot of “meta” around here. I need to stop that – its pretty cheesy. But at least the “meta” in metamodernism and metaliteralism mean different things 🙂
I will keep going through various parts of the Bible to explain how I look at things from this “representative metaliteralist” position. I already started with “When Literal is Not Literal Enough: The Genesis of a Creation Myth.” I will continue on looking at other issues through out the Bible where I don’t feel like either the literal or metaphorical interpretation really fits fully.
Click here to see a list of posts in the category “Representative Metaliteralism“