Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Strange Sermon

Our pastor preached on Sunday in response to the assertion "You can't take the Bible literally". I was interested to find out whether he would admit that, in many cases, you can't take the Bible literally. A lot of it is poetry, allegory, metaphor and what have you and was never meant to be taken literally. If Jesus said "I am the door", he didn't really mean he was a door. He was, rather, like a door in some way. The prophets' visions are mostly allegorical.

The preacher didn't really address the question. He argued that Scripture was reliable in three ways (historically, personally and purposefully) and used the Gospel of Luke as an example. Luke is clearly historical in nature and not merely legendary, and the preacher seemed to imply that this meant everything in Luke was, therefore, true and that since Luke was true, the rest of the Bible was true. Or maybe he didn't mean to imply these things at all. The literalists in the congregation would have no argument with the sermon, and the non-literalists among us could accept the sermon as well as long as we didn't push the issue. It was kind of pointless except for the admonition for Christians to stay in the deep end of the pool and not to get wrapped up in small differences of opinion.

I don't care if other people are literalists mainly because it shouldn't have any practical impact on how we live our lives or treat one another. Authoritarians tend to be literalists in my experience but there is no reason that a literalist has to be an authoritarian. What difference does it make, for example, whether Jonah was ever really inside a great fish? Or if someone really believes in the Deluge? As long as they love God and their conspecifics, there's no issue as far as I'm concerned.

I once had a discussion with a literalist at church in which I proposed that I had the authority to interpret Scripture in accordance with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whereas he argued that such a stance would permit too much freedom and undermine authority. I suspected that he didn't really believe in the Holy Spirit. I really believe in the Holy Spirit, that it dwells within me, and that it is responsible for transforming my life and guiding me in my spiritual journey. I trust in the power of the Spirit more than in any authority.

The best part of the sermon was a mangled John Calvin quote: "If you build a man a fire, you warm him for an evening. If you set a man on fire, you warm him for the rest of his life." The bass behind me muttered: "About 15 minutes, I'd say."

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