This year, let’s keep one resolution when we talk about religious people, let’s never again refer to them as literalists. That’s because they aren’t, and no one is.
No one takes all their scriptures, tradition, or even their natural laws literally. They all pick and choose from the variety of material available to them, taking some of it literally and some not.
To continue to label them literalists is not only inaccurate, it gives them the edge in any argument. Even though everyone — that’s everyone — interprets and picks and chooses from the material available to them and decides what to take literally and what not to take literally, when we refer to right-wingers as literalists, we have conceded that we are interpreters but they the ones who understand it.
This doesn’t mean that historians can’t determine what an old text meant to its authors in its ancient historical context with some academic probability. It means that past writings, activities, doctrines, and institutional pronouncements are interpreted by those who believe they must at be true at all costs, through the believing interpreters’ modern lenses.
Who today takes literally the writings of the Bible that say: “God makes the clouds his chariot,” or “let the hills sing out for joy,” or “let the floods clap their hands?” When the author of the New Testament letter to Timothy tells him to “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss,” there are few who claim to take the five passages in the Bible that call for such a greeting literally and therefore meet people at their church door with lips puckered.
They’ll argue that to understand their intent, one must see these verses in their historical context, and that today’s context causes one not to literally go around practicing, especially, same-sex kissing. So, Ah Ha! They’ve admitted that contemporary societal norms trump a “literal” Biblical command.
The question becomes: okay, when don’t they? But when you ask that, be prepared to stand back and watch intellectual gymnastics explain how they’re the ones who really know what verses are eternal truths and which ones aren’t meant literally.
That’s what interpretation does.
It’s no wonder that there are some passages in the Bible that aren’t taken literally in the U.S. It’s just not a pro-Capitalist book. Those passages would condemn our entire economic system to hell.
In the older testament the Hebrew prophets regularly rail against loaning money with any expectation of interest in return, but when have you heard an American minister preach that usury meant more than 0% interest and that a society that allows usury is anti-God? If those verses every come up, stand back again for mental gyrations that defend why they don’t apply in American Capitalism.
When Jesus of the Gospels says it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven, watch the knee-jerk attempts to say he didn’t mean that literally for Americans. When he tells the rich young ruler to give all he has to the poor to follow him, don’t hold your breath waiting to have that literally take place among our richest church capitalists.
It should have been no surprise, then, when last month Tony Perkins, president of the rabid right-wing, so-called Family Research Council — whom some might call a Biblical literalist — asserted on CNN’s “Belief Blog” that Jesus was a free market capitalist who would condemn the Occupy movement.
For Jesus, he said, “there are winners and yes, losers.” “Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality … that everyone gets a trophy — equal outcomes for inequitable performance.”
To prove that this wasn’t just a claim that affirmed his prejudices and current net worth, Perkins cited a New Testament parable generally known as the Parable of the Talents:
An abusive and crooked nobleman hated by the common people leaves town and entrusts some of his wealth to three of his underlings. In the text itself the nobleman describes himself as “a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow.”
Upon return, he rewards the two who made him more money with the funds entrusted to them (probably from extorting the people who owed their master money) and threatens the one who merely held the funds and returned them.
Thus, Perkins says, the evil nobleman (whom he takes to stand for God?) rewards investment-banker-type initiative and punishes the one who refuses to take money to make money. See, capitalism is holy.
Other interpreters understand the third underling as a hero who practiced a non-violent resistance by refusing to further exploit the poor debtors to the evil nobleman. In the immediate literary context they see this as a parable of what is to happen to Jesus, who in the very next chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is arrested and crucified.
Perkins is no literalist here. He’s a capitalist. Since he believes the Bible is true as well as the economic system that brought him his prosperity, he must interpret the Bible to agree no matter how hard it is to find American capitalism there.
And Jesus dieing with no huge following or large annual budget? That’s not a very good ending to the story.
It’s certainly not contemporary American. Where’s the building of a mega church?
And Jesus only leaving a few very poor disciples to occupy Roman society? And they began their new little community in Jerusalem by holding, the book of Acts says, “everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.No one claimed that any of his possessions were his own, but they shared everything they had.”
Then when a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira broke this communal commitment — didn’t share what they had earned from selling a piece of their own property, but kept it for themselves — God struck them dead on the spot?
Oh no! Quick! Interpret me out of that story.
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.