An Emergent Non-Literalist Christianity

Most religious people don’t need to accept the Bible literally – only fundamentalists are so obliged. Moreover, and somewhat ironically, even a literal reading of the Bible argues against reading the Bible literally (!), since biblical stories often show their protagonists arguing with Yahweh, challenging him, even accusing him of breaking his own covenant,  wrestling with him in angelic form… and even casting doubt on the inerrancy of scripture itself – as Jeremiah (8:8) does: “How can you say, ‘We are wise, we have the Lord’s Law,’ when scribes with their lying pens have falsified it?”

How do educated Christians know what to take/not to take literally?  That can be a relatively concise task for the non-fundamentalists: they utilize the fruits of critical biblical scholarship, which analyses the texts into their respective formats. It determines which are folkloric, which are expanded or shortened texts, which are secondary editions, which are interpolations, which are derived from surrounding cultures, which are prescientific attempts at recording history, which are consciously constructed myth, which are parabolic, which represent various parties (such as Genesis’ multiple authors: Priestly, Elohist, Yahwist, etc.), which are products of the prophetic tradition, which are derived from the royal house traditions, which are more or less individual statements, which are more or less communal statements, etc.

Many sincerely-seeking, educated non-literalist Christians realize that there is no literary test for “Godness” and they realize that scripture is not the “Word of God,” but rather the word(s) of people about god. They maintain that, to the extent a particular scripture preserves an accurate description of human communion with God, that particular scripture can be said to be “inspired” – but not  an “inspiration” viewed as the inerrant word of God. Rather, this means that something of the ineffable Deity is disclosed in parts of scripture. In fact, something called “the emerging paradigm” is currently developing in progressive churches, which is a model of renewal that views the Bible as a disclosure, a lens, and a sacrament that conveys truth about God’s nature – without being a literal communication from God.

If anyone wishes to imbibe of enlightened, critical, non-literalist Christianity, s/he might (enjoyably) explore Marcus J. Borg’s The God We Never KnewJesus: A New Vision, and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  Non-believers who make blanket statements about Christianity’s purported irrationality will find their assumptions challenged by Borg’s work and the work of many other emerging-paradigm authors. The aim is not to make converts but rather to factually set out what a renewing, educated, critically-enlightened Christianity really has to say – as opposed to the frequently mistaken claims of fundamentalists and unbelievers alike.

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3 thoughts on “An Emergent Non-Literalist Christianity

  1. Peter

    How is it possible even in part to understand this blog post, the Bible, or any other written or oral piece of language unless the writer/speaker and the reader/listener share a common understanding of what the language means? If we, “fundamentalist” or otherwise, cannot discern whether many phrases in their respective contexts are literal or figurative, our communication is proportionately filled with gaps or misunderstandings. Or is the Bible not subject to the same decoding procedures as any other piece of language?

    More importantly, I think, is the question whether or not the Bible is to be read in Christologic fashion. It does not address all interpretive problems, but is nonetheless pervasive in scope when we answer the question: “Who is Jesus” one way or another. Similar is the ironic question whether or not we tolerate truth.

  2. rennyo01 Post author

    Peter,

    Thanks for your comment – for some unknown reason it ended up in Spam and I was not notified by email so I’m replying belatedly. Yes, I think the Bible can and should be decoded by the same methodologies that are used to analyse any form of literature. Re: reading Torah and Prophets “christologically,” I think it’s legitimate as a acholarly excercise, i.e., to find out who were the people who, for example, contributed the genealogies and suffering Messiah prophecies to the NT; how second temple Judaism regarded such prophetic material; to what extent earilier Judaism regarded such materials as messianic and if they applied to an individual or to Israel collectively. The “christological” approach I would object to would be one that a prior assumes that Jesus explicitly makes an appearance in the Law and Prophets, that Torah contains allusions to the Trinity, etc.

  3. rennyo01 Post author

    Peter,

    Thanks again for the suggestion re: how to get your post moved out of Spam over here into Comments. Seems to have worked!

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