Our U.S. American culture tends to conflate and confuse the words “literal” and “true.” Using the bible as an example, many believe that in order for something to be “true” it must be understood only as “literally happened.” This results in some very bizarre interpretations of biblical literature.
The bible is a compilation of many books of various literary genres including poetry, song, narrative, lament, metaphor and many other literary forms. We would not read a poem and insist that it be interpreted as literally factual. Why, then, would someone do this with scripture?
Using symbol and metaphor in literature, including in scripture, actually deepens the nature of the truths recorded there. Because something is symbolic doesn’t mean that it is fictious or not true. Quite the reverse. It means that something is true at a very deep level.
Children’s fairy tales are a good example to demonstrate this. The story of Hansel and Gretal (children alone in the woods are in danger) teaches children about a deeper truth: that the world can be dangerous for children alone – they need parents to guide them.
The symbolic nature of scripture allows us to access the deeper wisdom present there. The story of Exodus can be understood as a historical event where the Israelites leave Egypt to wander in the desert finally arriving in the promised land.
But this same story has many other interpretations. It can also be understood as our spiritual journey as a faith community: we leave the dominant culture or the land of our egos (Egypt) to enter a time of confusion where we must walk by the Spirit (time in the desert) – learning to allow Spirit to emerge from within ourselves bringing peace and a new, other-focused perspective on reality (promised land).
Best of all with scripture, we needn’t be limited by just one interpretation. Symbols have many meanings and speak to us in different ways at different times. God speaks to us afterall, through the events of our lives. God is present and acting through history.
Literalism is a modern development that restricts our ability to understand. It flattens meaning, limiting “truth” to that which similiar to a “video of an event.” It is reductionistic.
Expand your world. Think symbolically. Ask a better question.
Here are wise words from a seasoned professor I know. “All of the bible is true, and some of it actually happened. Therefore, instead of asking ‘Is the bible true?’ it’s wiser to ask, ‘Where’s the truth in the bible?’”