Friday, January 7, 2011

Borg and Biblical Literalism

I'm currently reading Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. At first I wasn't sure what to make it of, having recently been disappointed by his novel Putting Away Childish Things. But this book is a hundred times better than I expected. In fact, it brings up a good question: should the Bible be interpreted literally?

According to Borg, contrary to what many Christians believe, the Bible is mostly a human product; mankind wrote it in response to real experiences with God. However, that doesn't mean the Bible does not hold any spiritual significance. On the contrary, the Bible is a sacrament as much as the bread and wine. God uses the Bible to communicate with us.

So then how should we read the Bible? According to Borg, it should be read through a historical-metaphorical lens. The Biblical writers often used memories and metaphors to explain their experiences with God. For example, while God may not have literally parted the Red Sea, Borg believes that that passage shows how God liberates His people from oppression.

Since I wasn't there when the Bible was being written, I can't say how much of it was written by God and how much by man. But I will say this: I do believe we shouldn't stress out about whether or not certain events in the Bible really happened or not. Instead, I think the number one thing we should ask ourselves is, "What is this telling me about God?" For example, we all know about the endless creationism vs. evolution debate. There are those who swear up and down that God created heaven and earth less than 10,000 years ago and in six twenty-four hour periods just like it says in Genesis. Others say that the creation account in Genesis should be taken metaphorically. Me, since I wasn't there when the world began, I can't say who is wrong and who is right. Instead, I focus on the message of the first three chapters of Genesis: how God made the world, and how mankind rebelled against Him.

What do you think? Should the Bible be interpreted literally? Does it really matter?


  1. I definitely agree that when we start arguing about semantics, we're missing the point. As in, I've heard lots of arguments about creationism, and I've heard lots of people argue that while a historical flood happened as in the Noah story, it was not over the entire world, etc. So wanting to prove or disprove the Bible because of some historical evidence, I think, is wrong. History, as we all know even from our short time on earth, has a tendency to be like a vast and endless game of Telephone: things are twisted and changed and might not be all that accurate.

    I guess I have a bit of trouble when it gets down to it because if we argue that it's not important that the things in the Bible didn't literally happen, then where's our faith? Arguing against the Garden of Eden or the flood or the burning bush or the parting of the Red Sea -- some of these are God's miracles. Are we going to start arguing that it doesn't matter if Jesus fed thousands on a bit of fish and bread? That he never walked on water? That the miracle of his resurrection didn't happen? That these are all metaphors for how God wants us to see him? Where does the metaphor end, then? Where does it start? How many stories should we view as literal and how many as metaphorical?

    If the basis of the Christian faith is that God came to earth humbly in human form as Jesus Christ to walk among us, to save us through his death and resurrection, and yet we disregard that as a metaphor -- then what exactly is the basis of our faith?

  2. I have no idea what the answer to that question is and it is one of the underlying thoughts/question that spurs most of my discussion questions in my bible study group. Was it really 7 days? How do I know which verses I should take literally, which were just metaphors, and which were just cultural/historical references. I am so reading that book because I would love to hear someone else's thoughts on it!

  3. We should of course read historical accounts as being historical, metaphorical accounts as being metaphors, poetry as being poetry, etc. To say that the bible is either all literal or not is a gross fallacy -it's made up of many books and different genres of writing occur throughout its books. Knowing how to read each book and putting into it's proper genre isnt that hard. Many scholars and apologists have been doing this rationally and logically for decades. Check out Reasonable faith .org and listen to podcasts from William Lane Craig or Ravi Zaccharias. The biggest mistake I see in our generation is that we think we are the first ones to grapple with these issues. The powerful skeptical arguments that we are seeing against biblical narratives are not new, they have been around for centuries. The bible doesnt have to be inerrant to be true. But Jesus had to absolutely rise from the dead or I'll be the first one to turn in my Christian ID card!
    Remember: God says that faith is a gift, it's not however, the gift of stupidity. We are not supposed to blindly believe things that are unreasonable (that's called delusion). But we are (and will with the Holy Spirit) believe things that are revealed as true. Picking the revealed truths out of the bible is not as hard as we think if we are willing to build on the scholarship of apologists, archeologists and theologians who have been working and publishing on these things for years (again see Criag, Paul Copan, Ravi Zaccharias, Michael Ramsden, John Walton, etc.)