This morning I had an admittedly basic, simple idea regarding the various interpretations people choose to apply when reading potentially deep spiritual, religious, fanciful, philosophical, etc. writings (e.g., texts and scriptures associated the “revealed” religions). In addition to upbringing and other factors, the intelligence of the reader surely must play a major role in whether one interprets such material literally or metaphorically/poetically.
Perhaps this controversial (in Nashville, at least), meandering post will eventually be broken up into several smaller posts. There are some good points, persuasive arguments, and fresh ideas here; however, it may be a little long for some… As always, thanks for reading.
When reading a particular religious or spiritual text — say, the Bible — why is it that…
- Some individuals prefer, or assume, that literal interpretation is proper or correct, while…
- Others cannot make sense of the material unless it is understood to be less literal, and more poetic, metaphorical, full of literary devices, etc.?
On literal interpretations
Isn’t it true that the simplest possible interpretation of a given text is the literal interpretation of it? It seems to me this is so. What could be simpler than the directness of literal meanings of words being read? The only ability or skill required for this level of understanding, I believe, would be basic reading comprehension.
Vigorous use of the mind is rarely required for literal interpretations of the written word; the meaning of such material is conveyed quite matter-of-factly. Basic reading comprehension is generally the only skill necessary when reading for literal interpretation.
On non-literal interpretations & deeper meaning
And isn’t it also true that non-literal interpretations — by default, by definition — require deeper thought, more focused concentration, more background knowledge, and maybe even higher intellect on occasion? And doesn’t it follow that other, more advanced written spiritual teachings are even more involved & complex, requiring the reader to have experienced certain things, to have had exposure to particular culture(s), or to possess certain wisdom — before the material can be properly understood?
More sophisticated literature is quite different. Often, the reader must also apply contemplation, critical thought, intellect, experience, wisdom, common sense, etc. when literary devices are being used by the writer, or if the material is thought to impart a deeper meaning than literal interpretation would convey.
But it’s the application of these ideas that’s really important…
Scriptures and stories mistakenly interpreted as history, biography, and fact by so many modern religious adherents ought to be read as poetry, metaphor, allegory, aphorism, and archetype: literature that’s brimming with literary devices and fantastic poetic effects. Only with non-literal interpretation of revealed religious texts do the lessons therein…
- Unite mankind rather than driving us apart
- Strike a chord with rational & logical thinkers, highly educated,
- Stand up to the Bible’s exhortations to test everything that is said
- Allow readers and students to reason together about the deeper, pragmatic meanings
- Fit more neatly and cleanly into the grand scheme of things, the puzzle of world religion and spiritual truth
- Illuminate other religious paths & spiritual traditions previously believed to be at odds with the Bible — thus illuminating itself further (When one respects the religion of another, he honors not only the other religion but his own)
Two of my favorite examples of literal Bible interpretation that cannot stand up to even the most rudimentary, basic arguments are:
- A six-day creation of the universe occurring less than ten thousand years ago (This is a story; it is not history.)
- A global flood lasting almost a year, with Noah’s family and a pair of every type of animal on earth being saved in a boat (This is a story; it is not history.)
We are not making fun of you if you are still holding on to these beliefs for whatever reason(s); however — if the subject interests you — we urge you to launch your own independent study. Examine the accounts from all angles, look into related matters as objectively as possible… and the truth will eventually make itself clear as long as you can avoid the tricky trap of closed-mindedness.
Caveat: It’s just a theory… food for thought for thinkers
This so-called theory has nothing to do with the intended message of individual religious scriptures and spiritual teachings; their meanings must be "determined" — or perhaps more accurately, guessed — on a case-by-case basis.
For example, the correct interpretation for most Buddhist texts is probably a fairly literal interpretation, with the exception of certain Buddhist gathas and sutras which might utilize more poetic or literary devices.
On the other hand, the best guess regarding correct interpretation of the Bible as a whole, we believe, would certainly not be literal. The Bible is full of fantasy, paranormal events, supernatural beings with incredible powers of control over humans, metaphorical teaching stories, allegory, and countless other literary vehicles that are not meant — nay, cannot be meant — to represent real science, accurate biographies, or accounts of history (in many cases, anyway; some of the stories are probably true or based upon actual events).
How could one come to such a conclusion? Well, it’s a novel concept to many…
By actually reading the Bible.
The only thing one must do to grasp this is to read the Bible in its entirety, without obtaining any external input along the way — from biased sources, in particular. This writer knows of no better, more effective way to determine how the Bible ought to be interpreted than to read the Bible in its entirety as objectively as possible: A careful, independent, reasonably objective reading of the Bible from cover to cover. After such an unattached Bible reading, it’s reasonable to conclude that the Bible delivers a strong spiritual, metaphysical message — not a cogent religious or supernatural message.
If you are (or claim to be) a Christian, yet have never even read the entire Bible… well, that’s a cause for concern — and a sure sign that your religious opinions and comments should be taken with a grain of salt. (But you already know this.) Please do not allow yourself to remain a mental loafer when it comes to religious belief — if it’s important to you, that is.
One of the more curious arguments for the literal interpretation of the Bible pertains to archeological digs and findings which clearly show that many of the geographical locations and descriptions in the Bible were reasonably accurate.
That’s a given. The problem is in the subsequent reasoning.
If accurate geographical descriptions of places, architecture, etc. in literature indicate that the related stories represent true, actual, factual history, then we must conclude that the novels of Stephen King are true, since the events of characters’ lives play out in real places like Bangor, Maine.
Let’s suppose that thousands of years from now, archaeologists discover ancient Bangor in what used to be Maine. The resulting new religion — Stephen Kingism — will have no trouble converting plenty of naive, green simpletons; after all, the discovery of old Bangor will serve as "undeniable" evidence to the gullible masses that the events described in Stephen King novels (e.g.,Bag of Bones) really happened!
Modern archaeology often succeeds in amazing historical finds with the uncovering of ancient cities that played a role in "revealed" religious texts such as the Bible & the Koran. It’s interesting stuff, for sure; history can be absolutely riveting! But then religious fundamentalism takes it way too far and creates beliefs like:
The recent discovery of the ancient Biblical city of Ur by a crack team of archaeologists and anthropologists provides yet more proof and support for our strong religious faith by indicating that the events in the Bible really did happen. We find Ur in the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12:1-20 – 22:1-24, wherein Abraham — successful trader and herdsman — left his native city of Ur during a period of upheaval…
(And these things are often published — most often on Christian "evidence" & apologetics sites such as Christian Answers.)
It’s not a complicated point: The use of archeological or geographical similarities between religious texts and modern discoveries as evidence of true, factual, historical or biographical accounts is ludicrous, illogical, and irrational — basically worthless. All such arguments should thus be deleted and forgotten — summarily tossed out of contention.
Other issues with literal interpretation
Efforts to interpret the Bible literally require the setting aside of much science, logic, reason, common sense, and so on — as well as the adoption of fancy & fantasy as fact. When literal interpretations of the Bible are forced upon adherents (e.g., taught as absolute truth to impressionable children and adults), the material becomes extremely problematic and divisive. Literal interpretation followed by actual belief in subjects of fantasy — so many found in Genesis — like a conversant snake, a six-day universe creation, the whimsical existence of light before the sun or stars, the creation of two great lights, a historical Noah’s ark & global flood, a talking ass (I’m not making these up, you know), the tower of Babel causing God to fear man, men living to be almost a thousand years old, etc. all serve as excellent reasons the Bible should not be interpreted literally. [ Why Do Intelligent Christians Believe? ]
Religious fundamentalism includes belief in the supernatural, so it’s a category of paranormal belief. This is neither positive nor negative — merely a statement of fact. When Christian fundamentalists are asked whether they believe in the paranormal, the correct answer must be yes. When asked whether they believe in mediums that can communicate with the dead, I guess they must answer in the positive (if they are to be truthful).
The paranormal bit is true not only with regard to the general supernatural nature of literal Bible interpretation, but also in the more specific context of occult practices — namely, communicating with the dead via a medium. IMHO, one of the most interesting stories in the Old Testament is that of Saul and the medium of Endor. (It sounds like a George Lucas creation, doesn’t it?)
In I Samuel 28, Saul consults a medium and goes on to speak with the dead. There were other instances of communication beyond the grave as well; Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah hundreds of years after their deaths. Per fundamentalism and/or Biblical literalism, practices like divination and sorcery must be real, since these and similar events took place in the Bible (which, the fundamentalists continuously remind us, is supposed to be interpreted as literal fact). [ 100 Reasons to Doubt ]
Enduring Word has some good advice:
Things such as tarot cards, palm readers, horoscopes, and Ouija Boards are modern attempts to practice forms of spiritism. They are dangerous links to the demonic, even if undertaken in a spirit of fun. Christians should have nothing to do with occultic arts or practices.
Obviously, literal interpretation followed by the actual belief in the resulting fantasies is a highly flammable topic, and we are certainly not judging anyone. However, the material in this blog was written to discourage the fundamentalism & fideism that seriously weakens certain belief systems — but mainly to promote & encourage adherence to basic universal spiritual principles.
If you have chosen (or have been led) to interpret the Bible literally — have you ever looked into its teachings about the afterlife — about what will happen when the trumpets sound at the second coming? The standard modern Christian belief seems to be that our souls will be sent to heaven (or hell, in some cases). But does the Bible teach or imply that our afterlives will be experienced by our souls — or by our resurrected physical bodies?
Does anyone really believe that physical corpses — most of which have deteriorated to mere skeletons and piles of dust (or much less, in the case of cremated bodies) — will suddenly reassemble when those trumpets sound, and then drift off into the sunset like so many helium balloons? (Paraphrased from Why Do Intelligent Christians Believe? — Craig Hart Online)
Need I say, that would be truly horrifying — and not from a "religious fear" perspective, either, but from pure, unadulterated, creepy horror! As a longtime horror film aficionado, I feel confident in this judgment.
Sure enough, we’d be facing a global zombie panic. It would be relatively short-lived, though, I suppose — depending on how long the automatic reconstitution of long-decayed bodies takes… (and what they prefer to eat)! So much of the required physical matter — that is, the atoms and molecules of the elements formerly bound together as a particular human being at some time in the near or distant past — is presently being used as constituents within trees, animals, dirt, grass, water, other people, subterranean rocks, and all other physical material on and in the Earth.
(Hey, this notion may be one of the few aspects of potential zombie horror not yet made into a film! Just imagine… instead of the dead merely rising from graves and mausoleums, how about everyday living folks, trees, dirt, plants, grass, animals, etc. — basically, any matter presently comprised of atoms that were formerly part of a living human — suddenly breaking down and reforming into people? Damn!)
A respectful way to postpone a religious debate?
In looking back, I respect a particular phrase I heard from a non-fundamentalist Christian friend about twelve years ago during a short-lived religious debate — a conversation which eventually turned south and ended abruptly. (We are still good friends.)
When I asked Dane whether or not he believed that a particular supernatural event described in the Bible actually happened, he responded with something to the effect of:
Yes; within the system, that’s true…
In other words, within the system of Christianity, Lazarus being raised from the dead (for example) is true. In the context of the Christian religion, the story is true; or, from a Biblical perspective, the story is accurate.
Dane used what seemed at the time to be a subtle, crafty, well-timed caveat or disclaimer.
NOTE: I did not describe Dane’s response as well as I intended to; the way he stated it — within the context of the conversation we were having at the time — it sounded better. Honest!
 Creation of two great lights
This is an obvious reference to the sun and moon, presenting many problems for those who would interpret this religious poetry literally, or as fact, history, or science.
There are countless billions of galaxies across the universe, with each galaxy containing potentially billions of great lights (stars).
Furthermore, the moon is not a light; it merely reflects light in the same manner as a light-colored wall would reflect light.
The creation story is crammed with fantasy; it seems to be one of the stories that most obviously cannot be meant for modern humans to interpret literally, or as historical fact.
 Religious debate
This blogger is not suggesting that readers avoid religious debate. We strongly encourage respectful conversation about religion and spirituality, obviously; however, these kinds of potentially touchy subjects — religion, politics — often rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune times!
On the other hand, tactfully steering clear of debate about religion can be a classy, spiritually proper choice. Arguments and debates concerning religion are sure-fire ways to wake up the human ego! Therefore, declining to uphold or support a particular set of views about politics or religion can truly be an exercise in ego-deflation. It’s not always easy to keep one’s trap shut…
As we’ve mentioned before (e.g., in the list of spiritual principles), we consider ego deflation to be a pillar of genuine spiritual practice.
 A talking donkey…
(NOTE: This subject is more than interesting; it’s certainly entertaining enough to get its own post: Subtle humor belies religious text: Response to talking animals. Thanks for reading.) The story of Balaam and his donkey can be found in Numbers 22:21-33. In the shell of a nut, Balaam is a fiery-tempered fellow who won’t hesitate to whip his misbehaving animal into submission. After Balaam whips his donkey for the third time, the ass complains:
28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? 29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee. 30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.
The most humorous thing about the Bible’s talking animals is this:
When the lucky people within earshot of these amazing talking creatures — Eve in Genesis, and Balaam here, with the donkey — actually hear the comments made by the animal, rather than reacting with surprise, shock, or amazement (as anyone would), they just casually respond to the animal…. No big deal!
 "Revealed" religions…
If you have spent serious time studying religions, then you’ve undoubtedly seen a handful of religions referred to as the revealed religions. These are the religions purporting to have been "revealed" from God to man, in relatively direct fashion — some form of revelation. I can think of four so-called revealed religions off the top of my head: Judaism (via revelation to Moses), Christianity, Islam (via revelation to Muhammad), and the Latter Day Saint movement or Mormonism (via revelation to Joseph Smith). I believe there are a few more… the progressive revelation of Bahai, Zoroastrianism…
 Test everything…
1 Thessalonians 5:21: Prove all things, but hold fast that which is good… To prove all things is a needful caution. Many religious adherents fall short in careful, independent contemplation of spiritual matters. It is so much easier to be lazy mental loafers and simply accept whatever is taught at church! We mustn’t waffle around here. If you have not yet plunged headlong into your own independent, objective, detailed search for spiritual truth — if instead you simply glide along the path of least resistance, accepting the traditional teachings of your group on trust, never asking the difficult questions, fearing what others will think or say — then perhaps it is time to get real. Go for it!
One must absolutely not take spiritual or religious teachings upon trust from preachers, teachers, rabbis, ministers, pastors, elders, or anyone else.
Instead, test everything.
If a spiritual or religious teaching cannot withstand basic rational thought… if it doesn’t work in the real world… if experience shows it not to be so… if it fails to withstand generic debate… then be wary of it and consider dumping it from your belief system. Travelers on the Middle Path must not believe every teaching, but must try every teaching! When one is satisfied as to the spiritually-principled nature, the truth, the love, etc. of a given teaching, then one ought to hang on to it — regardless of the resulting opposition, persecution, ridicule, unpopularity, parting with the majority, or whatever other struggles and challenges one may meet with for the sake thereof.
In today’s Hard Right fundamentalist, dominionist, extremist circles, one can easily detect praise for human (or American) infallibility, implicit faith, and blind obedience — none of which properly understood spiritual teachings. All travelers on the path of enlightenment must attain sound judgment, discretion & discernment — giving his senses adequate exercise in discerning truth from falsehood, supporting unity over division, practicing compassion over intolerance, living in the present moment and not in the past or the future, and generally adhering to basic universal spiritual principles in all areas of life. We must not only adhere, but encourage others to become familiar with those basic universal spiritual principles on which virtually all world religions and spiritual paths agree. Amazing — and reassuring.
 Stephen King stories taking place in Bangor, Maine…
Stephen King fans (and likely no one else) may have noticed my probable error here; first, a bit of background.
I was a dedicated fan of Stephen King horror novels as a tween and teen; however, as an adult I have generally preferred non-fiction. (Nothing personal, Mr. King; you ROCK!) As a result, I have read only a handful of horror novels in the last two or three decades. Although I definitely remember most of King’s stories playing out somewhere in the state of Maine, Wikipedia and other web resources have reminded me that King prefers to use fictional towns such as Castle Rock as the backdrop for his excellent stories (rather than using the actual town of Bangor, Maine).
Even so, I am not going to change the above example re: the folly and logical fallacy of real geographical locations in the Bible serving as legitimate or convincing evidence that its stories are fact. The Bible’s containing actual places has absolutely no bearing on whether the stories therein represent actual, factual history.
 Archaeological finds used as evidence that Bible stories are true…
Those Christians that decide to research what their church has been teaching them will find gobs and loads of supposed evidence — such as the info found at the Christian Answers web site (and thousands of other similar resources in print and on the web). If curious Christians know nothing of critical thought or logical fallacy — especially if they’ve lived in the relatively closed world of fundamentalist Christianity from a very young age — they may accept this "lite" evidence and move on. However, the rational and critical thinkers among them will quickly notice that all of this so-called evidence is riddled with logical fallacies.
This Christian Answers web page — which purports to explain how and why archaeology supports the truth of literal interpretations of the Bible — is just like all the rest: Extremely "lite" on valid, convincing evidence: How does archaeology conclusively demonstrate the Bible to be reliable and unique among all the holy books of world religions? Christian Answers
Resources: Thoughts on interpretation: Revealed religious texts, scriptures
- Michael Scott – Wikipedia
- Literary Devices – An excellent list of literary terms, poetic devices, etc. Avid readers and bookworms will enjoy this
- 1 Samuel 28: Saul and the medium of Endor – Enduring Word — I did not intend to single out the website of D.G. or Calvary Chapel Santa Barbara; Enduring Word just happened to be the highest-ranking website resulting from a Google search for the words Saul consults medium to speak with dead.
- What Does the Bible Say About Witchcraft, Astrology, and Magic? Bible Plus – Excerpt: Welcome to BiblePlus: the premiere on-line source for serious Bible study
- Why Do Intelligent Christians Believe? Craig Hart Online
- Talking Animals in the Bible
- The True Meaning of “Inquiring of the Dead,” from Spiritual Teachings and Universal Truths (Copyright © 1998 by Raphael. All rights reserved.) –
- Death, afterlife, the future, according to the Bible – Religious Studies
I have not looked at these yet; just noted them for later…
Content to edit
Religion has reason on its side; there is all the reason in the world why we should do as God would have us do. The God of heaven condescends to reason the case with those that contradict him and find fault with his proceedings; for he will be justified when he speaks, Ps. 51:4. The case needs only to be stated (as it is here very fairly) and it will determine itself. God shows here upon what terms they stood (as he does, Eze. 18:21-24; 33:18, 19) and then leaves it to them to judge whether these terms are not fair and reasonable. (Source: Isaiah 1:18 and commentary )
(It’s probably nothing more than illogical silliness, this idea which formed in my mind during the wee, dark hours of the morning…)
Is the implication here that interpreting religious texts literally is tantamount to believing Michael Scott is the World’s Best Boss? (You decide — let it be on your own, though…)
This theory may help clear up some things… in particular, varied ideas concerning the true meaning of flowery or poetic text, such as that found within Neville Goddard‘s deep spiritual books.
There is no place in modern society for anyone who thinks that Balaam and his donkey had a philosophical argument — or that a talking snake brought on the downfall of man and the subsequent expulsion from the garden… (Source:
Perhaps specific examples will be provided later in order to more clearly illustrate this theory… That is, unless this page is quickly forgotten (which it very well may be)…
There are countless examples throughout the Bible.
stumbled across a simple theory which was lurking in my brain: A