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Beyond Literal Belief

Religion as Metaphor: Beyond Literal Belief by David Tacey

I hope David Tacey’s book is another doorway into the realisation of the importance of metaphor. It rightly argues that the new atheism and fundamentalism are both misunderstanding the stories literalistically.

I regularly encounter a fear that if someone questions the historicity (or validity) of a detail in the Bible, then the whole fabric of the Bible might unravel. “You cannot believe half of it, so why believe any of it?”

Many stories in the Bible, however, are not about something that happened somewhere else at another time, they are stories about what is always happening (including here and now) – and that’s what gives them their power. The right question to ask of such stories is not: what actually happened? But: what does it mean?

Tacey suggests, for example,

that the truth of Noah’s Ark might be found in symbol and myth, not in history and geography. It is not found “out there,” but “in here,” as we reflect on its symbolism. (page xxii)

Some might come away from the refrain of “metaphor rather than history” and treat the Bible homogeneously so that they assign the historicity of Jesus in the same category as the historicity of Noah.

A recent survey in England found that 40% of people did not think that Jesus was a historical person. In part, that is the inability of people to understand the metaphor of “belief” – “Do you believe in Jesus?” cf. “Do you believe in Santa Clause? Do you believe in the Tooth Fairy?” It is a lack on the part of Christians in communicating the concept of belief as trust/entrust.

We have, then, to distinguish the metaphorical imagery of, say, that Jesus came down to earth from heaven (John 6:38 – there is not literally a heaven up there) from Jesus has not been on earth historically at all.

We have in this library of 66 or more scrolls (“books”) that make up the Bible, written over a period of about a millennium, a large variety of genres. And within each scroll, there often are a number of genres. Sometimes, that history is being written, is the clear intention of the author – granted that history has been written in a different manner over the centuries. And we have some fairly powerful tools that help us to determine the likelihood of the historicity of something recorded in the Bible. Sometimes, the stories are clearly fable-like (beginning, essentially, “once upon a time”, or having talking animals, or with clear contradictions that did not disturb the editor). At other times, we, two thousand years on, need to have the humility of not being sure what the genre of the original actually is.

Tacey sometimes gives the impression that once it might have been fine to have taken a story literally/historically, but that this is now no longer appropriate. I suggest that this may be unfair to previous generations. Reading much of the Bible metaphorically has a long and honourable history. The question of “did this actually exactly happen like this?” is a more modern question that did not enter people’s minds. It is this question that is answered “Yes” by fundamentalists and “No” by the new atheists that Tacey is trying to find a new way forward for.

John Dominic Crossan made this point well when he said:

My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.

I often say: “All of the Bible is true and some of it happened.” I want to hold to both sides of that sentence rather than simply have the Bible as a homogeneous metaphorical construct that has no connection to our historical, actual world.

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6 Responses to Beyond Literal Belief

  1. This comment is off the point! The book’s of the Hebrew Bible can be described as a collection of scrolls, albeit the 12 minor prophets are always a single bookroll, and so are Ezra and Nehemiah united. For the New Testament, it’s difficult to think in terms of scrolls because the codex is the great medium of Christian writings. One conjecture is that the folded leaves of Paul’s letters are the origin of Christians using folded Scripture rather than the Jewish and Graeco-Roman preference for rolling. In spite of many suggestions to the contrary, codices are not any easier to use or more portable than bookrolls, but the Christian preference for this medium is almost defiant.

    • Thanks, Gareth. I would love to explore this further. Have you got some links and/or book(s) about the shift to folded leaves over scrolls? Blessings.

  2. It is sometimes said that books and stories are superior to movies because the pictures are better.Unfortunately many of our children and young people no longer hear the great myths and stories of the world, nor do they read many books.Computer games and movies are visually literal with realistic props and sets, and very little “poetry”.This is a form of artistic materialism which I believe means that the great works of art,such as human beings and the bible, are seen in a materialistic, reductionist way also. I feel very strongly about this. We are often giving children stones for bread, and therefore not nourishing their young souls to help them grow into adults who can see beyond the most obvious.

    • Thanks, Tomascita. There is so much to think about in your comment – is the increased obsession and addiction to the digital world stifling imagination? Wow! Blessings.

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