taking things literally and why that's a bad idea


I was so proud when Christina asked me to go with her to a revival service in Alabama. Her family regularly traveled what I thought of as “great distances” in order to be “ministered to by the Word.” But she had never asked me to one, and I happily said yes. Excitement mounted as it came closer– this was supposed to be a “good ol’ fashioned tent meetin‘” and I was picturing things like ladies in bonnets and “chicken on the ground.”

We arrived on the “campground,” and there was a gigantic tent set up with rows and rows of metal folding chairs. A generator was beating away somewhere just to run the huge fans and audio equipment. As evening fell, it got darker, but not cooler. It was Alabama in the middle of a sweltering summer. But, I was enthralled by the mystery of it all. Here was where a great thing would happen, I just knew it– like those boys who prayed in a hay stack and started the Second Great Awakening.

We sang all the old “revival hymns” and then settled in for the preaching. I don’t really remember what the sermon was about, although it must have been about sin because of what happened in the middle of it. The evangelist called a man up out of the congregation, and I watched him walk up the dirt aisle to the front. As he passed me, I stared at his eye patch and wondered if he was Patch the Pirate. When he got up to the front, the evangelist asked him to share his testimony.

Slowly, the man shared his story of a lifetime of sin and abuse, but he culminated by telling of his addiction to pornography. He concluded his tale by lifting his eye patch and telling us that he had followed Matthew 5:29, where it says if your right eye offends thee, to pluck it out. He, in obedience to God’s word, had done just that– and thus, God gave him the strength to overcome his addiction.

Clearly, I did not pay attention to the rest of the sermon. I remember just sitting, dazed, through the rest of it, because I knew if I one day ended up struggling with a sin like that, I was not going to gouge out my eye. I struggled with feeling “convicted” the rest of the sermon. Shouldn’t I be willing to do whatever it takes to obey God? How much more should I value my relationship with him and having a pure heart over my fleshly pleasures? Over trying to avoid pain, and protecting myself?

We came back, and I also don’t remember what the evangelist preached the second night because of what happened. A few minutes after he had started preaching, there was a slight commotion. I don’t remember exactly what made me turn around, but when I did, I saw a black family sitting down in the remaining seats in the back. I didn’t think anything of that and turned my attention back up to the front– where the preacher that had organized the meetin’ was standing up.

“You!” He yelled, striding boldly to the back of the tent. “Yes, YOU!” He pointed. Suddenly, I realized that he was gesturing at the black family. “You don’t belong here. Here,” and he flayed his arms wildly over the throng gathered under the tent folds, “is the bounds of OUR habitation. These are OUR borders. You just get– get back to where you belong, boy. You’re not welcome here.”

“Amens!” and “Preach it, brother!” started echoing from all over the tent.

And I watched, horrified, as the father stood up. For a moment I could see rage engulf his face. Cords tightened in his neck, and I watched as his fist clenched. He was trembling, and I knew it wasn’t in fear. But, after a long moment, he reached down for his wife’s hand. He pulled her up, then turned and picked up his daughter. He faced the preacher again, his daughter in his arms, but then didn’t say anything. He just . . . left.

As they walked back out into the night, the hollers and jeers came to my ears like they were traveling through water. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I remember looking down at my hands and watching them shaking– trembling violently. And I couldn’t identify the emotions that were rampaging through me. I glanced over at Christina and her father– but their faces were impassive. They didn’t seem to be affected by what had happened. I looked around the tent, and saw that some were gathering up their families and leaving, and I could see anger mixed with disappointment on their faces. The evangelist and the preacher screamed after them as they left, calling upon every biblical invective I’d ever heard.

The evangelist returned to his sermon eventually, but after ten, maybe fifteen minutes of preaching, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to get out of that place. Christina grabbed my hand and asked where I was going, and I muttered that I had to use the bathroom.

I stayed in the bathroom as long as I could without Christina or her father wondering where I’d gone, scraping together my determination. I was not coming back to this place. I was not coming back, and I did not care what Christina thought of me.


There is a term for what happened in those two examples, and it has actually been referred to as “the evangelical heresy” (and no, I’m not talking about individualism). It’s called biblical docetism, and it is an extension of gnosticism, dualism, and Arianism. All of these systems promote a common thread that “physical” things represent evil, as they are corrupted copies of the pure, “spiritual” realm. Dualism eventually leads to a mind vs. body dichotomy. Arianism teaches that Jesus was not truly incarnate– he only looked like or seemed to be physical (the term docetic comes from the Greek word dokein, “to seem to be” ).

Biblical docetism is an approach to understanding the inspiration of scripture. There are many perspectives on this, including “verbal plenary” view and the “degree” view, among others. People who hold the docetic view– and many of them have no idea that this is what it’s called, I sure didn’t– all tend to ignore the human component of scripture. They see the Bible strictly as “the Word of God.” Some consequences of this view are:

1) Being able to randomly select any passage of scripture to see how God will speak to them. This includes being able to draw huge spiritual implications out of simple things like Paul asking Timothy to bring him his cloak in 2 Timothy 4:13. And yes, Spurgeon, I’m looking at you.
2) Believing that every single scripture applies to everyone, everywhere, and always. Including 2 Chronicles 7:14, which is used to support Dominionism. And segregation. And all kinds of evil things like slavery and the oppression of women.
3) Believing that the chapter and verse organizations and the canon order are inspired, too. This is less common, but it happens among re-inspiration advocates. Let’s give a shout-out to Micheal Perl and Peter Ruckman, here.
4) Completely ignoring that the writers had personalities, preferences… or that they had anything to do with the Bible whatsoever. We can learn a lot about Peter’s impetuousness, or Paul’s logic, or Luke’s compassion, but that has no bearing on fundamentalists who see the Bible as only the Word of God.
5) There is no such thing as progressive revelation. Because God wrote it, and God is timeless, and God is omniscient, there isn’t any such thing, actually. God wrote Genesis, and God wrote Revelation. It doesn’t make a lick of difference that John the Revelator had witnessed the Resurrection and had some inkling about what was going on, and Moses couldn’t even really understand the Messiah. This can be disastrous from a hermeneutics perspective, because then you start assuming all kinds of things into the text that cannot sensibly be there.
6) They pay absolutely no attention to genre. At all. Every single element in the Bible is exactly the same as all the rest. There’s no reason to pay attention to the nuances between historical narratives and poetry, or biographies and epistles.

7) The supremely over-literalization of Scripture. I cannot stress this one enough. You cannot take the Bible too literally, or you end up thinking, saying, believing, and doing all kinds of insane things. Like plucking your eye out when you have a porn addiction. They have no understanding of metaphor, myth– they cannot account for different narrative structures. To them, every single parable Jesus told literally happened. They turn the entire Bible into a perverse form of itself– as dry and un-human as an encyclopedia.

And, most dangerously, because they believe in a non-fiction, give-me-the-facts-ma’am approach to the entire Bible, they prioritize imperative statements over anything else. They reduce the beauty of the Bible down to a bunch of commandments and lists. They take the suggestions that exist inside an over-arching narrative and force them to be the filter for everything else. And this fails us, because the Bible is a book of story before it is anything else. It gives us story after story— and nothing about these stories in inherently prescriptive. They describe human beings in all their glories, triumphs, and absolute failures.

And when you believe that miniscule imperative statements trump entire narratives, you miss out on the complexity that is woven into scripture. You lose stories like Deborah and Junia and Phoebe and Tabitha and Lydia and Anna and Priscilla– because these stories about powerful women conflict with the limited suggestion of one author to one friend. You lose the ability to learn from the value of contradictions, because instead of recognizing contradictions as the human component of individual perspective and human narrative, the contradictions become something you have to explain away or deny.

And that traps us. It limits our ability to learn, to grow, to understand, to seek, to question. Dichotomies, dualities, and binaries come into play– with only one being “right” and anything else being “wrong.” We lose the ability to appreciate a modern narrative of multiples views, multiple understandings. We lose variety and complexity. And, looking around outside, our world is nothing if not complex.

(My list of seven consequences of biblical docetism was structured for me by Bibliology and Hermeneutics.)

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  • Tim

    Absolutely outstanding. It’s amazing the lengths some people will go to deny God’s grace in the New Covenant. Thanks for reminding us that God’s word means so much more than they would like to restrict us to.


  • I have often said that, “The truth is often best expressed in seemingly contradictory terms.”

  • Edo

    So what would a “Biblical Chalcedonian consensus” look like? Christology isn’t the right word for talking about Scripture because Scripture, even the Gospel, ISN’T the Logos. Isn’t and can’t be. (And I’m also gonna disagree about #1 on that list. Lectio divina was going on at least a millennium before The Literal Reading was even possible.)

    “Biblical docetism” is a brilliant phrase, though. May I borrow it?

    • Absolutely. It’s not my phrase though– I borrowed it from

      And, I must admit, I had to wiki most of those terms. Could you explain a bit more? I’m curious about what you mean.

    • Christine

      I think that the difference between what is intended with Lectio and with #1 on the list is that with Lectio, any relevation is intended to be personal, and speaking to an individual situation. It was never intended to allow you to see that this passage means this really monumental thing that needs to be shared with the church at large.

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  • That is a CRAZY story about that revival. May I ask when it happened? Excellent article, btw. Much of the church – particularly those who most think they are the real Christians – are so deep in heresy it’s mind-boggling. Their day is coming though – a royal pruning is on its way. It makes me sad for the children and powerless among them, but I will be glad to see that form of “christianity” meet its timely end.

  • Edo

    Sure, although I’m curious about what I mean too. (I’m responding as a separate comment because this is long, and too-nested long responses look horrible.)

    Heresy’s been big on my mind this Lent, which is why I squeed at “Biblical docetism”: it says so much so well. And it struck me that you could express other condemned/flawed/problem-making understandings of Scripture (that it’s wholly human, for instance) in Christological terms. That’s where “a Biblical Chalcedonian consensus” comes from. Christianity’s understood that its writings relate to Godhead since the ink was drying on the first “God-breathed,” and some understandings are clearly not standard ones (Biblical docetism, etc.); but what is the standard one? Is there a generously-orthodox way to describe the nature of the Biblical canon that works across 2000 years?

    The problem with that line of thought is that Christology can’t say what scripture is, only what it’s not. That’s because ultimately the scriptures AREN’T Jesus Christ. That Jesus could claim they pointed to him means that they’re separate enough to be signs (signifiers?), but the “divinely-inspired, infallible word of God” (rhema) *isn’t and can’t be* the Word of God (Logos) – and Christianity has NEVER asserted or acted as though it did. (Nobody prays to the Bible, for comparison.) Fundamentalism has conflated the two, of course, but… you’re recovering from that, so I’ll shut up.

    It looks like the relationship of God and Scripture is pneumatological; it’s not about Jesus but the Holy Spirit. (It’s why I won’t hate on lectio divina, except to say that it’s not an exegetical tool.) But since I know next to nothing about pneumatology, I’m gonna have to bring this line of thought to an end, because I can’t say anything more.

    • Edo

      “…is pneumatological; it’s not about the Son but the Holy Spirit.” Ack, theological typo there. Sorry.

    • Oh, ok, this makes much more sense.

      From the research I’ve been doing, there are ways to approaching Scripture that are fairly orthodox. The technical term is verbal plenary, but that term has been hi-jacked to no end by the fundamentalists, so it’s a term that I approach with a great deal of caution. From what I understand, the verbal plenary approaches Scripture in terms of the hypostatic union– 100% God, 100% man. But then you have to layer a sensible hermeneutic on top of that, and approach it from the 100% MAN perspective first.

      • Edo

        Thank you! (Given how important it is, I’d assumed there were orthodox understandings of what Scripture is. I just never needed to think about it until today.)

    • > That’s because ultimately the scriptures AREN’T Jesus Christ.

      Absolutely correct. I confuse people all the time by asking them “what is The Word of God?” They invariably say “the Bible” – then I have them turn to John 1:1, and watch them squirm and dance. The main problem I have with the whole “the Bible is the Word of God” argument is that it’s 100% provably FALSE. God-inspired is the best one can say about it.

  • RickRS

    Reading this story and getting to the part about the black family being singled out and told to leave, I expected this was from when I was a kid back in the 60’s to early 70’s. To find it was only 10 years ago make me so disappointed in those that think that only white people are God’s chosen are still here. And my mom can’t understand why I have no desire to be associated with Baptist churches anymore…

  • Hilary

    Wow! Way to break it down!! I dont’ have much to say other the, “you go girl!!”

    Check out Libby Anne’s blog this Sunday. She’s had several Jewish women talking about the Jewish interpretations of Genesis, and a lot of what we (yes, fair disclosure, I’m on the panel) talk about is how much we don’t take the bible that literally. It seems a much more Christian thing then Jewish thing to do.

    Oy vey on the racism, I wish I couldn’t believe that still happened.

    • I am excited about that post– I didn’t realize it would be coming out so soon. Thanks for the heads up!

  • Great piece. My jaw literally dropped when I read about the preacher driving away the African-American family. Unfortunately, I could *so* see it happening.
    I thank God I’ve grown past these kinds of fundamentalism and have found a spiritual home in a much more tolerant and accepting tradition that values the gift of Reason.

  • Really good introduction to the pitfalls of biblical doceticism. It’s the kind of thing that completely destroys any hint of critical thinking and instills harmful traditions more deeply than anything else.

    • I’ve seen it used the most frequently as a means to shut down any conversations. When you take the Bible this literally, there’s only one way to take it, and everyone else is wrong.

      • Oh, absolutely. It’s mind-numbing. The concept of proof-by-contradiction is totally lost on this kind of thinking; I’ve seen defenses of the most inane and ridiculous corollaries taken to the nth degree.

        Like how the translators of the KJV were divinely inspired to produce a perfect translation capable of correcting the Greek and Hebrew, yet deceived by Satan and the Roman Catholics into thinking they WEREN’T divinely inspired (thus explaining why the preface to the original KJV is a complete foil to KJV-onlyism).

        They’ll defend the reasoning process of any conclusion that happens to agree with them, no matter how bad the argument is.

      • By the way, thanks for what you’re doing here. It’s good to see a post-fundamentalist from the IFB movement; I didn’t know it was possible. =P Followed and added to my links.

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  • Mary

    A-flippin-men! Excellent article. 🙂

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  • wow this is a very horrible story, but its not the first i have heard of

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  • I still don’t understand the meaning of ‘fundamentalist christians’. I believe the fundamental teachings of Christianity is to love the other as one’s self…..and… God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength ; so the very fact that this sound God-centred advice is being painted in a negative light all over the internet and in our churches really beats my imagination.
    If Christians who live unlike Christ are called ‘fundamentalist christians’ , what name would you give to Jesus who lived and taught the….fundamental commandments….of the Almighty God? Does the fact that Jesus who lived and taught the…..basic…..principles of Godliness in God’s commandments label Jesus as a ‘fundamentalist’ as defined by most Christians today?
    Can anyone here define and explain ‘fundamental Christianity’ to this native African here? Am confused.
    As for the preacher above how can I blame him for heading off the blacks from his tent revival program ? This is a man who praises a member of his church for gouging out his eye to literally fulfill a biblical directive; for all we know he has no physical heart because he might have already torn his heart to pieces leaving his coats ( ‘rend your heart and not your coat’),…..I believe this rather ‘keen’ follower of Jesus must still have a bottle or two of Jesus’…..literal blood…..which this man uses to wash his entire membership ; I wonder how this pastor manages to wash his members in Jesus’ literal crimson blood without staining their clothes with the literal blood stains of Jesus. How did this man manage to get the literal blood of Jesus , 2000yrs after His crucifixion and resurrection?

    Now this pastor above reminds me; when the bible says….”from the time of John the baptist the Kingdom of God…..suffereth violence…..and……the violent……take it by force”?….what does this mean ? Anyone? Sister Samantha?
    Dont let the above mentioned pastor get wind of this biblical passage though, or else it will spell out chaos for his members.

    • Tim

      Good questin, Franklin. The phrase “Fundamentalist Christian” has a technical meaning different form the way you might take it. It has to do with a group of people who started using the phrase in a very specialized sense, and carried certain doctrinal characteristics. You can read more about it here. While those late 19th c. adherents were well-meaning, I think they were also very short-sighted on the consequences of their decision to adopt their doctrinal stance.


  • Namma

    I am not currently a practicing Christian, meaning I do not frequent a house or location of worship.

    What strikes me most from the blog author’s post is this;

    1) I remember only ONE place that God required his words written down. The Ten Commandments.

    2) I don’t remember God ever commanding the writing of the Bible.

    3) I don’t remember Jesus Christ ever commanding the writing of the Bible although I remember him asking his disciples to teach the masses.

    (If I am wrong about #2 and 3 please enlighten me)

    4) Since the Bible is NOT complete and a newly converted follower who had political aims caused it to not be complete (Constantine I) why would anyone see it as a manual of spirituality since it is incomplete due to secular aspirations?

    5) The FIRST of the Ten Commandments is: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

    Does this not mean Constantine who caused any writings that didn’t further his political ends to be hidden?

    Does this not mean any person, be they male or female, who claim to know the mind of God? And re-interprets stories and parables as commandments? Are they not trying to BE God?

    The 2nd Commandment is; “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”

    Words FORM likeness as they can cause a picture to be formed in someone’s mind. This would then be a graven image. Therefore people taking statements, stories and parables that ARE NOT the word of God and making them LAW are dealing in graven images.

    It seems the only requirement per the Commandments is to love God and keep his Commandments.

    Additionally Commandment 3 says; “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

    Again, anyone who states that they know the mind, and wishes, of God, are they not guilty of this? Are they not using the name of God to enrich themselves, hold power over others, or come into some other sort of gain?

    This is what strikes me the most about many of the alleged leaders of Christian churches. For myself I think I will simply do as God asked and love him and keep his Commandments.

    Thank you for letting me input on this.