Sunday, January 13, 2013

Literal Versus Figurative

I recently started reading Revelation, and there was a discussion in the comments section about whether things in this book should be taken literally or figuratively. My original position was to assume everything is supposed to be literal unless there is a pretty explicit reason to think it is intended to be figurative. For example, many times when Jesus would tell a story, he would say it was a parable, which means we are not supposed to think it really happened. Without some explicit indication that a particular passage is intended to be taken figuratively, I would think the natural conclusion would be that it should be taken literally.

dsholland challenged my interpretation of the first book in revelation and relayed a story about a time him and a friend were not confused about the figurative nature of a drawing he had done. I argued that the situation is different because he wasn't trying to forward the idea that it was literal, while the bible is. TWF then argued that there are some pretty heavy metaphors in the bible and he thinks that most of Revelation is supposed to be metaphor. When I asked him how he determines it to be metaphor, he said that is a very hard question. Since it is communication via text it can be hard to figure these things out sometimes, but it is dangerous to start off with the assumption that things are either always literal or always metaphor. The best thing to do is to get a feel for the text and then take it on a case by case basis. I'd like to quote a paragraph of his
We use figures of speech, similes, and metaphor all the time in our speech today, and most of the time we understand the meaning because we've learned the cultural groundings for those phrases. But looking back on the Bible, so far removed from that era, is extra challenging to parse correctly. There are at least a handful of phrases in the original Hebrew text which even the Jews today do not really understand the meaning of.
He makes a really good point, it is very difficult to figure out the intent of the original author. It is probably too hasty of me to assume that everything is literal unless explicitly said otherwise, and yet part of me still wants to hold on to this. Perhaps it is because I was raised in a fundamentalist church, and to them we were always supposed to take the bible literally. Perhaps it is because this is an excuse I see some Christians make when things seem to be going against them. Don't like the way a bible verse sounds? Must be figurative. This is an annoying tactic, especially when abused by some Christians. However, even if they don't have a good reason to declare something figurative, even if they are simply declaring a verse to be figurative as a defense mechanism, it doesn't necessarily mean they are wrong. For me to claim that everything must be literal as a preemptive strike against such tactics is also crap.

So where does that leave me? I think the only reasonable course forward is to try to always consider literal and figurative interpretations. On one hand, I'm interested in what lessons people could get from reading the bible, and I know there are people in the world who interpret passages both literally and figuratively. I would like to consider what both groups could potentially get out of the reading. I am also interested in what the original authors actually intended by their writing, and as TWF pointed out, this is not always easy to figure out.

Understanding the text on a literal level is easy, I think I can do that without any problem. Understanding the symbolism is not going to come so naturally to me. I'll do my best, but I will mostly rely on the Christian commentaries I read, and on my readers to catch anything I miss. Let me know if you ever catch me being to literal, and I promise to do a better job at considering the alternate interpretations in the future.

[Later addition to this post] In defense of my insistence to at least consider the literal interpretation of every passage, people make pretty crazy sounding claims all the time. Consider people who think they have been abducted by aliens. They will tell you detailed stories about what they saw and what happened to them while they were on the alien ship. Someone reading their account later might think it is so crazy they must not have meant it literally, but they would be wrong to assume that. How do I know that John is not the alien abductee of his day?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the shout out. :-) Great thoughts, and it really bugs me, too, when apologists take the easy way out and just claim that the meaning must be metaphorical. :-p


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