Apr 30, 2012

The problem with the 'literal' defintion of evangelicals

Within about two minutes in any conversation about evangelicals, someone will say they're defined by the fact they read the Bible "literally."

This term is never unpacked, though. It's just accepted that it's simple. It's not, though.

There are other definitions of evangelicals out there, but this is the shorthand used almost universally. I heard Lisa McGirr, the Harvard history prof who wrote Suburban Warriors, talk the other week in Heidelberg, for example, and it was a good talk, but she used this definition. David Canon, a Fulbright Scholar and University of Wisconsin-Madison poli sci prof spoke last week in Tübingen, and he used "literal" too without pausing, even, to question it, qualify it, or explain even a little about what it means. My students, certainly, even when they know very little about evangelicals, know this idea that evangelicals are those who "take the Bible literally."

But what does that mean, to take a text literally?

There is an answer, and it does mean something, but the practice being named here is actually a sophisticated, complicated, problematically ambiguous, polemical, contested, constructed and on-going, open-ended practice.

One should not take the claim "I just read the Bible" at face value. The fact something can be presented and positioned as simple and natural does not mean it is those things. One should not simply accept "those people are literalists," without demanding a decent account of what that means in practice, since it is, after all, a practice. It's something they do. There's political value in dismissing the practice and the people thus defined as simple, stupid, silly, but whether or not it's a good way to read, it's really not any of those things. If you're going to use this idea, this name for a certain sort of anti-hermeneutics hermeneutics, for interpretation that intends itself to be interpretation-less, reading that wants to self-erase, you should be required to at least try to say how it's literal.

When Jesus says "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit," what does it mean to read that literally?

If you can't answer that question, you shouldn't say that doing exactly that is what defines this group of people. If you can answer it, the answer itself will serve as evidence "literal" doesn't mean "simple," and to understand this idea, it has to be unpacked.