It’s hard to imagine there was a time before books were so widely available. Before we could walk into a Barnes & Nobles, grab a coffee and pastry and peruse the thousands of books available. Before we could download straight to an e-reader within seconds.
But what is probably even more difficult for us to imagine, is a time before we collectively had the literacy we see today. The extent of literacy necessary to produce the need for libraries, bookstores, and e-readers.
According to The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report “How Was Life? Global Well-being since 1820”, literacy levels across the globe have risen drastically in just the last couple hundred years. In 1820, only 12% of the people in the world could read and write. Today however, only 14% of the world population (as of 2016) remained illiterate, an increase from 12% to 86% in literacy across the globe. However, much of that growth occurred just within the last 65 years. During that span the global literacy rate increased by 4% every 5 years from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015. Nearly 1% a year!
There are sure to be multiple factors for these developments. Improved quality of life, which I’mled tohigher levels of education, and therefore increased literacy rates. But one significant factor that I think is often overlooked is the invention of the printing press. A technology that made it so much more efficient to disseminate literature and publications than ever before. For the first time in history, these writings could be mass-produced. And with mass-production came increased affordability. And with that the incentives were in place to bring about the widespread literacy we see today.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Bible is the most printed book of all time. The printing press has, probably more than any other development in technology, put more Bibles in people’s hands around the globe. Even making their way into seemingly every hotel room’s nightstand drawer.
But with that widespread availability to literature and increased literacy could there have there also been unforeseen consequences that maybe we aren’t aware of? With Bibles so widely available today, has there been a seismic shift in how we read and interpret it? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Reformation occurred so soon after the introduction of the printing press. For better or for worse, we are on the other side of this pivot point in culture, and it would probably be beneficial for us to assess the consequences.
the problem with the word literal
I can think of few people who use the word “literal” more than those in the church. We cling to this claim of “literal interpretation” often in the faith as a buttress against conflicting ideas and beliefs from within or “attacks” from those outside. One of the most widely known arguments between Christians and non-Christians, and an oft-mentioned reason for leaving the faith, has been waged over the “literal interpretation” of passages like the beginning of Genesis.
There are Christians trying to poke holes in the credibility of carbon dating and the point to the lack of observable transitional species in fossils as evidence disproving evolution. I have heard some even look to passages noting the separation of the waters of the earth and the waters of the sky to justify the long lifetimes experienced by the earliest people documented in Genesis. We have estimated the total years documented in the genealogies in Genesis to justify that the world is only a few thousand years old. Heck, I just saw advertisements on Facebook for an entire children’s show dedicated to alternate versions of geological sciences used to justify the new-earth creationism belief.
In almost all of our arguments today, the issue often boils down to a what is the accurate interpretation of the Bible. And all of this well-intended effort is being made to defend this “literal interpretation” we have of the Bible. Is this really the fight that should be waged? Is this really how the Bible is to be used and read?
the difference between inerrant and literal
We can be quick to reference passages like the following from 2 Timothy and conclude that because the Bible claims that all scripture is inspired by God, that it is therefore inerrant, and therefore meant to be interpreted literally.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16
Verses like this are often used as a defense for the faith. An anchor that we hold on to. That we can combat the attacks of our “godless” professors, like was depicted in the movie “God is Not Dead,” with reason and a firm grasp onto the truth contained within the Bible. We focus on the inspiration of the scriptures and that because they are God-breathed, they must be without error. That they must be “literally” true.
And while I would attest to what I believe to be the God-breathed nature of scripture from my own experience, I think we go awry when we take the step of saying, everything must be “literally” true in the Bible. In essence we are saying that the Bible is true in its plainest and most simplistic reading.
I mean, what would a “literal” description of a story even look like? If someone were to ask you to describe your morning “literally”, how would you do it?
You might say that you woke up at 5:45. You stepped out of bed, got a shower, brushed your teeth, and got dressed. You went downstairs and got your coffee brewing. You threw a bagel in the toaster and once your coffee was ready sat down for breakfast. After breakfast, you packed your lunch, grabbed your bag for work, and left the house, locking the door behind you, and hopping into your car to drive to work. Seems like a pretty comprehensive story right?
The problem with the word literal, is that we assume any number of words would be sufficient to exhaust the entirety of the story. For example, why didn’t you say which side you rolled out of bed? Which specific muscles you used? Or how many sheets you had to move to do so? What was the thread count on those sheets? How many steps it took to get to the bathroom, which foot you used first, or the rate at which you were moving? What about the flow rate from the shower head, or the cubic feet of space you had in the shower? The number of bristles on the toothbrush, the flavor of toothpaste you used, the chemicals within the toothpaste that create the sensation you experienced? The number of steps to go downstairs, whether they are hardwood or carpeted, the length of the rise and run for each of them? Do you step on one lighter than the others because it creaks? What flavor of coffee you drank? Was it Starbucks brand, or just Folgers? Out of which mug? Where did you get the mug? How long did you toast the bagel and at what temperature setting? What was the remaining moisture content of the bagel? How many calories were in it? Peanut butter, jelly, cream cheese on top? What are the dimensions of the door, or the finish of the knob and hinges? Are there multiple locks on the door? Which way did you turn the key? What type of car do you drive? Were you parked in a driveway or on the street? How much gas was used on the trip?
If you’re still with me, thank you for persevering through an annoying list of excessive details. Don’t we get frustrated with friends and family that include seemingly irrelevant details in there stories? They are trying to recapture the entirety of what happened, which is impossible, and we all know that and we just want them to get on with the “meaningful” part of the story. Yet, by no means could this list of potential additional details ever be exhausted right? And that’s exactly the point.
Can we ever describe an event literally? Is that first story literally true? What is it that makes it true or untrue? With error, or inerrant?
Likewise, what would Genesis 1 read like if God had intended it to be written to appease our modernist society? I’ll take a quick stab at it.
“In the beginning, approximately 13.799 billion years ago, God took this incredibly dense and high temperature state called the singularity (which you will learn about later), and it expanded at a rate of 72 kilometers per second per megaparsec. Then God said let there be light, and let it travel at a rate of 299,792,458 meters per second…”
The details that one could squeeze into that version of the story would be inexhaustible. And by breaking it down in this way, doesn’t it cease to have any meaning? Lose any ability to inspire awe? Let alone the fact that it would be absolutely useless to people who did not see the world through our modernist lens?
Do we read all types of literature the same way? Do we read a note from a loved one the same way as research paper? Do we read poems the same as a historical account of an event? Do we read a children’s story the same as the front page of the news? Or lyrics to a love song the same as a work email? I think the answer to all of those should be a clear “No.” Language serves as a vehicle for communicating essence or meaning. It always points back to essence and meaning, and adopts different forms depending on the context in which it is used.
Genesis was likely written after the Israelites escaped captivity in Egypt. It wasn’t written as a firsthand account from Adam. It was a story about who this God was and how valuable people were to him. A God that was above all created things when neighboring peoples worshipped things within this world. A God that created man in his image, when they had been treated as worthless slaves for so long. A God that knew he could rest from his work, when all the Israelites knew was that their slave labor was what gave them identity and value. And this story has so much more packed into it beyond that. It’s poetic. It’s meant to contrast the Israelite God from the gods of their neighbors. And while there are cosmic elements to it, I don’t believe that was the author’s primary goal to be communicating in the passage.
As John notes at the end of his gospel, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” We need to realize that the Bible never claims to be exhaustive. It does not cover everything, nor could it. So how should we read it?
so how do we read the bible?
The Bible is filled with poems, dreams, songs, words of wisdom, letters, myths, stories, historical accounts of events, symbolism, and parables. All of which were written specifically to our ancestors of varying contexts, and they are now available to us today for our benefit. If we are to try to read the Bible as best as we can, trying to see the scriptures from their historical context is of incredible importance and can help us to see past our own interpretive frameworks and biases.
And maybe we should consider reading alongside others as often as we can. Nothing more quickly points out how different we can all interpret passages than by studying alongside others and even reading interpretations of Christians throughout history. People studied the scriptures communally before literacy was so widely held, by one literate person reading to a group of people and sparking conversation and I think for good reason. Increased literacy has allowed for more personal study of the Bible, which I don’t think is entirely a bad thing. But that can quickly turn into one heck of an echo chamber if we don’t bounce our interpretations off of others.
The rest of what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy says, all scriptures are profitable for what? It does not say it is profitable for understanding the details of the origins of the world. Nor does it say it is profitable for subscribing to the denomination that holds the perfect interpretation of the Bible. It says all scriptures are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Let’s get back to reading the Bible with that intent as well. Because I think the scriptures are very well equipped to do just that.