There are people who just get their jollies by arguing about “What the Scripture says.” It energizes them.
They aren’t really interested in hearing the many sides of how people understand those old texts. They just find that being in the argument gives them a high of righteousness.
There are, of course, people who are serious about learning how others understand a certain text. You can pick those people out by how they respond to anyone disagreeing with their interpretation.
But then there are many who already “know” “what God says” and therefore are already convinced that alternative understandings from theirs are wrong and evil. They must not be proven wrong or even have a question raised in their minds because they feel as if nothing less than their being and eternal destiny depend upon having gotten it right.
This phenomenon functions as part of a way not to face that what they’re using their bible for is to keep them from confronting their own personal issues, their prejudices, their bigotry, and their fears about their own gender, sexual orientation, and other issues. It also scares them because if they’ve misunderstood their scriptures on the point of this argument, then they might be wrong about so much else.
This is no more common than when arguing “What God says” about sexual orientation, gender roles, gender identity, and transgender possibilities. So many personal issues are hidden underneath claims about “tradition,” scriptures, and institutional integrity, issues that the arguers prefer to remain unexamined and unthreatened.
This is religion functioning for them as an addiction. And, for them, being in the argument is like a non-recovering alcoholic arguing whether tequila or vodka is better — nothing in that argument poses a threat to their real personal problems, whereas the argument itself provides a good diversion from them.
It’s better for us in such arguments to know how to back away and to reframe what we’ve found ourselves doing in order to make certain that we’re not enabling people who use arguments this way. What’s needed is more like an intervention that breaks old patterns than a potentially frustrating dialogue.
Such arguments can remain civil and non-frustrating if we’ve prepared ourselves with certain tools that must be used consistently and repetitively to be effective in the long run and to keep ourselves centered rather than triggered.
In any case, whether it’s an argument with possibilities of dialogue or one with someone who’ll never change to protect their stash, it’s important to stand one’s ground with the continual repetition of one fact — no one is a Biblical literalist.
Everyone interprets that old book. Everyone interprets some passages literally while there are others that they don’t. Everyone.
There are many examples and, hence, many excuses or principles of interpretation (“hermeneutics”) that justify non-literal understandings. For example, no one says that this passage from Isaiah (55:12) is a literal geological/biological description of mountains and trees:
“The mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
It’s actually a matter of which passages one chooses to take literally and which ones one doesn’t. And that choice most often is based on what one has regularly been told by some authority figures or institutions.
It’s a matter of whether one has an interpretive bias for prioritizing “In Christ there is no slave or free” from Galatians or “slaves obey your earthly masters in everything” (even in “fear and trembling”) in numerous New Testament texts.
That’s why there are no “Biblical literalists.” Nope. None.
All the clobber passages from the Bible used to condemn LGBTQ+ people have numerous interpretations among Bible scholars — interpretations that have been in discussion for almost half of a century now.
The fact that one of those interpretations is the one most repeated (the only one that defames LGBTQ+ people) only means that it enforces a major cultural prejudice. It’s a historical given that the most popular understandings of a culture’s religion are those that support the cultural prejudices.
And to let someone claim that their understanding is a “literal” one is not only inaccurate but is strategically self-defeating. When you say that someone is a literalist or is taking a passage “as what it says”, you’re giving them the upper-hand in the argument.
You are saying that they have what the text says right but you are interpreting — when everyone interprets. So, let’s agree that we’ll no longer refer to anyone as a “Biblical literalist,” that we’ll always talk about Biblical meanings as interpretations.
And every time someone uses the Bible against LGBTQ+ people, we’ll incessantly frame what they’re doing as an interpretation even in the face of them denying it. We’ll make sure that “interpret” is a regular part of our language.
It will also be a part of our own claims, for we will take responsibility for our interpretations even if we believe that ours is the most historically probable. We’ll talk about the only thing we can guarantee — our story, including our interpretation or understanding of those old texts.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.