I got to thinking about Biblical literalism again, and the pain, fear, suffering and bull___ it leaves in its wake. No, I didn’t grow up with that monkey on my back (although I am sure the pastor of the church where I went to Sunday school and catechism probably had it on his back). But literalism is such a crazy issue, since many true-blue Christians think they want to buy into it, even while they ignore it, or manipulate it to hurt others.
Biblical literalists want to stick gay people with the sinfulness of homosexuality, for example, even though no one, literally, knows what arsenokoites and malakos mean in the original Greek. Whatever they mean, it is not “homosexuals” as we understand that idea now. We could argue for days I think.
So, take long hair, then. According to the New Testament, men aren’t suppose to wear long hair, but women are, because of the angels. I am not making this up. It’s literally true, if the Bible is literally true. In 1 Corinthians 11:14, Paul says, unconditionally, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him . . .?” Never mind that Christians ever since have assumed that Jesus himself wore long hair. Michelangelo put long hair on God the Father in the Sistine Chapel. Old Testament heroes such as Sampson wore long hair. And even St. Paul, a few verses before that passage, urges the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Christ, the guy with the long hair. Yeah, right.
Warner Sallmen’s portrait of Christ was all the rage in the 1930s. Richard Hook’s surfer-dude portrait of Christ was all the rage in the 1970s, especially among evangelicals.
So literalism (Paul’s advice) can be ignored when they want to ignore it, and especially if you’re a born again surfer dude.
After I wrote the blog about the Brandon McInerney murder trial, I realized how futile it is to quote Matthew 26:52 when it comes to Christians toting guns. Jesus, after all, said “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus, literally, never mentions guns, so they must be okay for Christians to wield. They weren’t invented until the Middle Ages, after all, so violence-loving “Christians” can dodge the bullet—they can safely claim that there’s nothing in the Bible against Christians owning and using guns.
(At least McInerney didn’t have long hair. That would be degrading, according to St. Paul, who never condemned guns but did condemn arsenokoitai and malakoi and long hair.)
This is a clear case of using Biblical literalism narrowly in order to hide behind it. If something isn’t expressly forbidden in the Bible, then it is permissible.
The great gun control debate isn’t the first time, of course, that Christians have gotten into bed with evil and violence, weapons, or earthly power. The Christian church has a shameful history of using earthly cruelty to enforce the boundaries of the kingdom of heaven. Biblical literalism is only one weapon in its arsenal.
But people who were raised on the comfort food of biblical literalism have a hard time changing their diet, even if it isn’t good for them. When Christian gay apologists first started trying to create “wiggle room” in the 1970s, they tried to argue their way with literalism. In Genesis 19 (the Sodom and Gomorrah story), for example, there were tortured arguments about the meaning of the Hebrew word in 19:5: “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot, the host, urges the evil townsmen “do not act so wickedly.”
In other places, “to know” meant in the Biblical sense, to have sexual relations with, as in Genesis 4:1, “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain.” But fundamentalists refused to see the truth behind the euphemism because they hid behind literalism. The truth, of course, is that in this place “know” really means “gang rape.” “… so that we may gang rape them,” an understanding which makes much more sense when read in light of the amazing parallel story in Judges 19, where the wicked townsmen are also told not to behave so wickedly, but then offered the hosts two daughters to ravish (19:24) and even the guest’s female concubine, who was raped all night long (19:25).
Betty Bowers, by the way, has a wonderful take on Biblical marriage from a literal interpretation’s point of view. Especially see the section on marriage between a woman and her rapist. Literalism has an answer for everything, after all. But when are we going to step away from it once and for all?
—Pastor Dan Hooper, Los Angeles