Friday, July 30, 2010

The Parable of the Secular Literalists

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
Matthew 13:34-35

Literalism is a problem for the Christian Church.

Biblical literalism is a problem because it has led to a method of Bible study which is fundamentally un-Biblical. As Paul said, “The letter kills, but this Spirit gives life.” The Bible is dynamic and literalism is static. Religious language is symbolic. Its full meaning cannot be understood if we approach it literally.

In an odd way, the problem of literalism extends beyond biblical interpretation. It extends beyond the church. In fact, it may be a greater problem outside of the church. And the Shirley Sherrod debacle is a case in point.

The video that Andrew Breitbart circulated was carefully edited to portray Shirley Sherrod as a “racist” who did not want to help a farm couple because they were white. After that first short video appeared the public commentary was unanimous in condemning her as a “racist.”

I mentioned to my daughter, Carolyn, that I thought this unanimous condemnation was strange because, to me, it was clear even from the edited video that Shirley Sherrod was telling a story about a change in her own life. I could tell where the narrative was going even without seeing and hearing it. I wondered why the commentators just didn’t get it. Carolyn interrupted me to say, “Of course, anyone who goes to church would know what she’s doing. It’s a SERMON ILLUSTRATION!”

She was telling a parable. She was confessing her temptation to sin and giving thanks for how God’s grace had saved her. “Sometimes,” she said, “God shows you another way.”

Half a century ago, Paul Tillich argued that many of our most treasured religious words, sin, grace, faith, salvation, were no longer understandable in the modern world. They needed to be redefined or they would lose all meaning. My friend Scott Campbell said that today large numbers of people “do not understand the idiom of the church.”

So Shirley Sherrod’s parable, which was deep and textured and full of meaning, comes out flat and two-dimensional. The nuance is utterly lost.

Inside the church we have a problem with biblical literalism. But outside the church, we have a (bigger) problem with a kind of secular literalism which simply cannot (or will not) understand religious language.

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