Righting America

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Greedy for Certainty: The Strange Fruit of Literalism  | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). And his newest book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has just been published (a Q/A with the author is forthcoming).

Two illustrated male caricatures are beating each other bloody with a Bible in their hands.
Image via Canary Pete Cartoons.

Harold Bloom may seem an odd spokesperson when the subject is literalism. Yet Bloom’s primary contribution is his insistence that metaphor produces a new kind of knowledge as a defense against death-dealing literal meaning: “Literal meaning and the powerful presence of a precursors’ meaning are equivalent to death in that they prevent the impulse to communicate further.” 

Why does a literal reading of the Bible hold such attraction for Christians? More to the point: How has belief in literalism led to “Christian nationalism,” to such awful ideas about how immigrants should be treated, to discrimination against women and minorities, to an insistence that women can’t be ordained as pastors, to screams about “wokeness,” “Critical Race Theory,” “replacement theory,” White supremacy, climate denial, and an anti-vaxx movement? 

Why are literalists so determined to be free from everything, even truth itself?

Perhaps we can think of literalism as an attempt at providing epistemological comfort for believers. More than this, literalists, not content with a literal Bible, grant their preachers an authority to speak literally about issues that never occur in the Bible. A climate change denier can make fun of the science of climate change and speak like a literalist to his congregation. The congregational consciousness automatically confers the authority of biblical literalism on every word that proceeds from their pastor’s mouth. We have the literal transference of literal belief in a literal Bible. Now, the pastor has literal authority on subjects he may not even understand. He boldly refutes history, psychology, and science. In the face of overwhelming evidence for God taking her sweet time to create the universe, the literalist attacks the theory of evolution as if it were invented by the devil.

This reaches the heart of the issue and might explain the truly tragic spectacle of someone like Robert Jeffress – a prominent Southern Baptist pastor and Fox News commentator who made his name as a hardline advocate of a literal Bible – arguing that Jesus will [literally] return to earth and rapture believers within the lifetime of Jeffress. His epistemological love of literalism has crashed right into and up against a limit: his unfettered pursuit of Mammon and his right to – the freedom to – having his own opinion carved in the stone of biblical literalism. A presumed lover of truth and reason, he is driven to deny the most crucial truth in the world today (as pollution and climate change are on the verge of destroying our planet). His literalizing of everything important to him and his tribe is a tragic spectacle. Or perhaps more accurately: farcical.

The remarkable irony here is that Baptists especially are allegedly congenitally against political correctness and authoritarianism, and yet they have themselves become the most staunch defenders of a kind of biblical correctness and authoritarianism. I believe that this has to do with an insecurity about not being able to see, actually see God. I think that the ambiguity, contingency, and uncertainty of having faith in God, is more than a literalist can tolerate. They are greedy for certainty. They possess a longing to maintain a Cartesian sense of certainty about everything.

Most of all, they have substituted a literal Bible for God. Since God can’t be seen out in public, they have replaced God with words about God. A literal Bible is a replacement god. Biblical literalism is the ultimate bastard child of Descartes.

The obsession of evangelicals with literalism crowds out the value of truth. In the end, their attempt to impose the scientific method on Scripture ends up being the attempt to drive a square peg into a circular hole. Not wishing to live with uncertainty, tension, insecurity, and not knowing, they have attempted to foist literalism on all of Christianity.

Hebrew scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has written a book called The Disappearance of God, in which he maps divine recession in the Hebrew Bible. Friedman shows God receding from the scene, leaving the responsibilities of just and holy living to actual human beings. God seems to step back, not intervene, so that human beings have room to take responsibility. This flies in the face of literalism which portrays God as a coercive presence and a God constantly intervening to get God’s way. The literalist doctrine of creation insists on divine intervention rather than divine persuasion. Somehow literalism always circles back to creation.

After the debacle at Babel, no human ever visibly saw God again. Once Moses saw God’s backside on Mt. Sinai, the period of visible encounters with God came to an end. God assumed a lower profile, working miracles for smaller and smaller audiences. Even angels got scarce: there is no evidence they tended to anyone after Elijah. Barbara Brown Taylor says, 

Gradually, the prophetic experience of God became one of visions and dreams. From Hezekiah on, the world described in the Hebrew Bible was one from which God had largely retired, leaving humans to interact with other humans. The acts of God were over. The remembered words of God took their place. The world was no longer a place where seas split and snakes talked, but one in which human relationship to the divine was largely a matter of personal belief. 

The evangelicals are not happy with God disappearing from the scene. They need God to thunder from Sinai. They insist that God show the world who is boss, and if God will not take charge, then the evangelicals will do it for God. They tell us that they have the Word – the literal Bible, the Sword – that now speaks what God would speak if God were to show up one morning in Washington, D. C. The literalists shout, “You may not need a literal Bible, but we do.”

The literalists are taking the same approach John Calvin took in his argument with the Roman Catholics over miracles. Calvin insisted that our confidence should rest on the Word of God and not on signs and wonders. Miracles were not only fraudulent and diabolical, but they were also unnecessary. Calvin argued vigorously for a limited age of miracles and the subservience of miracles to the scriptures themselves. God never allowed true miracles to overshadow the sacred text. I Cor. 13 listed temporary gifts that long ago passed away. Calvin called them counterfeit miracles. Christians didn’t need miracles because they had the Word of God.  Literalism not only offers us a physical, material idol – the Bible – but it also ignores the reality that all language about God is tentative, contestable, and often combatable. People find themselves disagreeing with one another about texts, meanings, and interpretations. The result has often been strife, schism, and war.

Literalists, by and large, seem unwilling to admit the natural order of theological language: it is, in fact, composed of arguments. The word “argument” implies at least two possible interpretations, and as David Cunningham note, “this, in turn, implies multiplicity and contingency.” Rather than face the reality of such a world, evangelicals created their own archetypal metaphor: literalism. What remarkable irony to discover that “literalism” is a metaphor.

Like a crying baby that can only be comforted with a pacifier, evangelicals require a literal Bible to be comforted that they are right, certain, and possessors of the entire truth about, well, everything. When you hear David Barton pontificating a horde of misinformation and false claims about the founding fathers of America, you are face to face with a literalist who has read American history badly. When you hear Ken Ham insist that he is actually the scientist and that biblical literalism is the true science of creation, you are witnessing a literalist who knows neither the word of God nor science.

Take a deep breath. Relax. God is alive and well on planet earth. We are not required to embrace certainty. It is perfectly acceptable to live within the uncertainties of a risky universe and do so with faith. After all, our faith is in God. Our most ancient creed, The Apostle’s, never mentions the Bible. Instead, it boldly professes, “I believe in God, maker of heaven and earth.”