5 Reasons Literalism Is Bad for You

By ignoring the figurative language in the scriptures, you may very well miss the point.

The moment I fell in love with literature is the moment I stopped taking every word literally. As my mind began to look beyond the surface of the words, I found my heart captivated by the intricacies of figurative language. But my love affair didn’t end with literary texts. I also found religious scriptures to be equally entrancing — riddled with metaphors, personification, analogies, and allusions.

Figures of speech help us understand metaphysical realities through tangible means. Their use is crucial to understanding and connecting with religious and literary texts. But according to a Gallup poll, one third of American adults interpret the Bible literally. Here are five reasons this is problematic:

1. Literalism is incompatible with human nature.

People leave literalism behind the moment they start searching for the deeper meaning and significance of any text, says John Rumrich, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The human brain is naturally drawn to engaging in the interpretation of texts. Taking any text literally is incompatible with human nature because it forecloses thinking and leads to a confined state of mind.

“It’s like saying you can learn your alphabet, but not learn how to spell,” Rumrich said.

2. You can’t appreciate the text without the language.

Any text devoid of figurative language is lifeless. Figures of speech enhance the beauty of the scriptures. For example, the Bible talks about God and his creation in the following words: “We are the clay, and You our potter . . . ” (Isaiah 64:8). Clearly, humans are not made of clay, but blood and flesh. The metaphor helps connect an abstract notion to a sensuous physical phenomenon that everyone can relate to.

“I think it’s very powerful [because] metaphors help you to understand in more vivid ways, which makes for more effective communication,” Rumrich said.

3. Taking the scriptures too literally can lead to extremism.

When it comes to fundamentalism, Rumrich said, people will try to mold religious texts to fit their own dogma. Recently, we’ve see this happen with ISIS, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups who ignore the context of various verses of the Holy Quran in order to justify violence.

For example, the Quran says to slay the transgressors wherever you meet them (2:191). Naseem Mahdi, missionary and vice president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, USA, said the context of this verse relates to a time when Muslims faced intense religious persecution and were told they could engage in self-defense if they were attacked by their enemies.

Today, Mahdi said, ISIS poses a great danger to some parts of the world, which is why the United States and other countries have started carrying out strikes against its regime. The transgressors that the Quran refers to are also the very extremists who not only kill and maim innocent people, but restrict freedom of religion.

4. You can’t limit the divine.

Eric Bugyis, religious studies professor at the University of Washington-Tacoma, said certain segments of the religious population take scripture literally because they are afraid to question the authority of the divine. In their minds, they feel anxious that if they get the meaning wrong, the consequences will be grave.

This view doesn’t just limit our own thinking — it also limits God, a transcendent being who is considered omniscient in most religions of the world.

“It . . . limits the power of the transcendent and what might be revealed to us,” Bugyis said. The central point of the spiritual texts is to maximize the communication between the divine and his creation.

5. No interpretation means no debate.

Throughout human civilization, religion has played an integral role in how we perceive the world and ourselves. Like any other discipline, it is meant to be explored and questioned in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of our relation to our creator.

By limiting the interpretation of these texts, we are silencing the debate about what it means to be faithful. If we stick to the literal word and don’t look beyond, we also silence our capacity to reason and question.

*   *   *

As an English teacher, I recognize that language has its limits as well. Not every verse of the Bible, the Torah, or the Quran can be interpreted — some ideas are simple and straightforward. But there are verses in all scriptures that require interpretation of figurative language to gain a deeper understanding. If we ignore that, we can very well miss the point.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Huma Munir
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  • Jon Herrin

    Excellent! As a pastor and former English prof. I agree with you all the way! Thank you for sharing these good thought. Your words are a breath of fresh air (well, not literally! :-) )

    • Huma Munir

      lol, thank you so much for your kind words :)

    • BornAgain123

      Pastor….how do you interpret 2 Timothy 3:16-17?

      • Jon Herrin

        Well, the only bit that may be open to ‘interpretation’ is the initial clause–All Scripture is God-breathed or inspired by God. We could dicker around with what ‘ God-breathed’ or ‘inspired by God’ actually means. I’ll go with the strictest idea–God is the author. Then, we need to understand ‘Scripture’ here. Paul was writing this, so he referred to the Law (what we today would call the Pentateuch) and the Prophets…and perhaps the Writings (what we would call the Wisdom literature–Job, Psalms, Proverbs, etc.). So, in short, Paul was saying that Law and the Prophets were authored by God…and quite useful. But, I’ll go a step further–I believe that God was even inspiring Paul at the time, and unbeknownst to him, Paul was actually referring to the New Testament writings as well. Therefore, this verse applies to ALL Scripture. Now, what any of this has to do with the question at hand, well, perhaps you can help us there. Just because God inspired, breathed, authored Scripture in no way indicates that all Scripture should be taken literally. If so, there should be a whole of bunch of one-handed, one-eyed Christians running about…. Hope this helps.

  • Sam

    Hear, hear.

    I always find it funny that those who insist on literalist have no problem with phrases like “Sun rise.” :)

  • Rob Bowman

    Huma, there is an interesting irony in your article. The point of your article is that is it “problematic” that “one third of American adults interpret the Bible literally.” You make the easy point that there is figurative language in all literature including the Bible. What you don’t seem to understand is that those American adults fully recognize the presence of figurative language in the Bible. We know that when Jesus said “I am the good shepherd” he did not mean he was skilled at working with literal sheep. We also know that statements in the Bible need to be interpreted in their contexts. The irony in your article is that you took the word “literally” in the survey *too literally,” i.e., in a woodenly, flatly literal, noncontextual way. What evangelicals and other traditional and conservative Christians mean by interpreting the Bible “literally” is that they understand its historical claims to be historically factual and its moral instructions to be morally binding. References to Jesus rising from the dead mean that Jesus had died and then been resurrected from the dead. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” means that it is wrong to accuse someone falsely of wrongdoing. We’re all for digging deep into the texts of Scripture to learn whatever is there, including what might be missed by a superficial reading. However, we insist that such reading not involve turning the Bible inside out to make it teach Buddhism or to redefine marriage to mean any union of any number of people of any genders.

    • Bcrew

      Absolutely excellent response to this article. The author clearly misinterprets what a literal interpretation of the Bible means. Many like this author seem to think that they can interpret it however they want or believe the parts they like. This is irrational.

      • Jon Herrin

        Mr. or Ms.Bcrew, just so you know, you and I (and Mr. Bowman) interpret parts of the Bible as we want…and we believe the parts we like. It may be irrational, but it is a thoroughly human tendency and practice. This is why it is terribly important that we expose ourselves to folks from all corners of the household of faith–it helps us sharpen and clarify our ideas…and even helps us correct our extremes. I heard one pastor say, “We all have our Bible within the Bible,” referring to those pet passages that resonate with us…while conveniently ignoring those passages that rankle….

        • Bcrew

          No, we don’t. There are parts of the Bible that I don’t like at all or have a hard time with but I still accept them as truth. There can be minor differences in interpretation but much of it has a clear meaning. Many just don’t want to accept it. Believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible means you don’t pick and choose what you want to believe. You accept the entire Bible as God inspired truth. Sure there are parts that are obviously not literal like parables but again clearly parts were written as a historical account and as absolute truths. Some people don’t accept this. When you pick and choose how can you say the parts you choose are true and other parts aren’t? Plus the Spirit should guide you as well.

    • Jon Herrin

      Mr. Bowman (I don’t know you, so I’ll not call you ‘Bob’), you’ll want to check the definition of ‘irony’ (has to do with ‘opposites’); perhaps you mean ‘exaggeration’ or ‘misunderstanding.’ Also, I find it rather amazing that you are able to discern the thoughts and intentions of “those American adults” to the extent that you can confidently speak for them all. You have done an excellent job of defining ‘literal’ to your liking (while completely missing the actual definition). Once you established your own definition–somehow making it mean historically factual and morally binding (which, by the way, sounds a whole lot more like saying Scripture is ‘true’ rather than ‘literal’)–it’s very easy to negate and miss the truly important points of Ms. Munir’s prose (don’t know her personally either). Finally, where did Buddhism and marriage issues come from???

      Ms. Munir is quite clear, succinct and correct in her conclusion: “…some ideas are simple and straightforward [this is a reference to those passages that can be taken literally, literarily speaking]. But there are verses in all scriptures that require interpretation of figurative language to gain a deeper understanding. If we ignore that, we can very well miss the point.” There is room for all of us at the table….

      • Rob Bowman

        Mr. Herrin, those who know me also don’t call me ‘Bob.’ Take another look at my name.

        I shouldn’t have to explain my use of the term ‘irony’ to a former English professor. An established usage of the term refers to a situational incongruity, i.e., a situation involving a striking contrast between what one might expect and what is actually the case (there are your “opposites”). Here, the irony is a writer faulting people for literalism but doing so by falling into literalism herself, rather than grasping the subtle nuances of language in the matter at hand as one would have expected.

        Your charge that I am presuming to know the thoughts of “all” of the American adults in question is either silly or ignorant, perhaps both. I have had extensive experience for nearly forty years with American Christians throughout the country and of a variety of denominational backgrounds, and I have read and heard statements affirming the practice of interpreting the Bible ‘literally’ hundreds of times. I have yet to meet or hear of or read a statement from anyone, anywhere, who denied the presence of figurative language in the Bible. Thus, Ms. Munir’s criticism on that point was a straw-man objection, pure and simple. I don’t have to know the hearts of all people to know that. The burden of proof is on you if you wish to maintain that any American adults (let alone a third of them!) deny that figurative language occurs in the Bible.

        I have not defined ‘literal’ to my liking. My liking would be to avoid using the term in the way I explained many evangelicals and other conservative Christians often use the word. However, my liking is not the issue, nor is it whether those who use the term in this way are using it in the best way. Rather, the issue is what they actually mean by it, and whether Ms. Munir has adequately understood what they mean. The undeniable fact is that she has not. They do not mean that the Bible contains no figurative language or that its verbally superficial meaning is all there is to it. No one thinks that. In any case, one of the dictionary definitions of the word ‘literal’ is “completely true and accurate,” and that’s basically what I said — and what you claimed should be said. If you take your own advice (in another of your posts) and actually acquaint yourself with evangelical Christianity, you will understand why they came to use the word “literal” to describe proper biblical interpretation. They were opposing esoteric ways of handling the biblical text that were designed to circumvent the text’s actual intended meaning (what it meant as communication between the author and his original readers). These esoteric interpretations have often been aimed at remaking Christianity into something quite foreign to the Bible, hence my reference to Buddhism, for example. You do know there are people trying to construe the Bible to teach Buddhism, don’t you? The broader point is that many people are distorting the Bible by impugning the “literal” reading of the text (again, using the straw-man caricature I have pointed out) and then jumping to the conclusion that the Bible is compatible with all sorts of claims it clearly denies.

        The trouble with the article is that it gives no examples of people actually misreading the figurative language of the Bible as not being figurative. Ms. Munir points out that Isaiah 64:8 does not mean that human beings are literally composed of clay. Quite so; but no one thinks otherwise. Nor does she provide any examples of statements in the Bible that she agrees should be taken “literally.” It’s true that her closing comment seems to admit such statements exist in the Bible. On the other hand, she had stated toward the beginning of the article, “Taking any text literally is incompatible with human nature because it forecloses thinking and leads to a confined state of mind.” That claim is incompatible with her closing remark, isn’t it?

        Finally, I don’t know what your point is when you commented that there is room for all of us at the table. I do, of course, recognize the metaphor! What I don’t understand is the relevance of the remark. Nothing I said was in any way excluding anyone from the discussion.

  • ReluctorDominatus

    Very much enjoyed your article and the points made are well made and taken. I tend to lean toward a view that religion should be examined in the context of a political expression of faith…with all of the attendant human foibles. I am also of the mind that there are actually three distinct phases of elevation that can be readily discerned from scripture and history; Judaism as primary, Christianity as secondary and contemplation of both though the lens of contemporary knowledge. If one one takes the time there is substantial evidence to that thesis and also to an actual, and evident, plan in action. Unfortunately, there is one aspect of our primary education that seems to have been lost during the 2000 year evolution of the very Christian western civilization; the open debate and inquiry you allude to.

    Judaism has an admirable history of inquiry and debate which is largely lacking in the Christian tradition which, ironically, had originally been open to deep and thoughtful debate in the Judaic tradition eg. Antioch and Arian theology. I am very comfortable with my reasoning and logic as it relates to reconciling the Judaic and Christian concepts of Satan which found its most profound expression of “hinderer” in Revelations. That book is largely responsible for the end of debate and adoption of fear as a political tool of the politicized Christian church which resulted in strict proprietary control of access to scripture for the next 1000 years until the age of enlightenment; the “Dark Ages”.

  • Arbuthnaught

    When reading the bible we should read the poetry as poetry, the allegroy as allegory, the metaphors as metaphors, the similies as similies, the hyperbole as hyperbole etc. It should go without saying that we should want the highest standards of scholarship on the ancient cultures, languages and figures of speach found in the bible. It is indeed a mistake to missapply literalism to figuratvie language.
    Thou shall not steal is a simple declarative statemen. It is not figurative.. It would be a mistake to read it figuratively. It would also be a mistake to fuzzy it up, define it away, or destroy it with post-modernist jibberish. The problem we have today is not taking the simple declartive statements as literal.
    The problem larger than missapplied literalism is the problem of the post-modernists using their so called “critical tools” to remove all authoritative teaching from the bible. When the post-modernists get through with the bible the historic authority is gone.
    Also, just because figurative or poetical language is used in a passage, does not mean that there is not an authoritative or larger meaning. That is something I see on a regular basis. I have never seen a christian take we are the clay you are the potter literally.
    While I certainly would not want to limit the God, I would not want to define away the traditional teachings of the bible. Today, “limiting God” usually translates as God is so big that anything goes, God is so big nothing bothers him, or your God is too small for the modern era.

  • David Tiffany

    You know, not publishing my comment tells me more about you and what you’re doing. This site is definitely not intended to be a public forum. You’re pushing an agenda. You ought to be ashamed of yourself for trying to convince others that the Bible is not to be taken literally.

    • nwcolorist

      David, I sympathize with your frustration of having reasonable comments removed from these pages. I’ve had more comments removed from this particular site since I began commenting a year ago than from my previous 6000+ comments over the last seven years on all other sites.

      There seems to be an sensitivity to criticism here well beyond that of the average website. I looked for a comment policy statement, but was unable to find any.

    • Jon Herrin

      Perhaps you should pop a cold one, take a few deep breaths, and read the article again. The author is not trying to convince others that the Bible is not to be taken literally. She argues that there is MORE then just the literal level of understanding. If not, cut your hand off–take it literally!–next time it causes you to sin…and pluck out that eyeball. What? You don’t want to take it literally?

  • Squid Hunt

    1. Who said that understanding scripture was within our capacity? I Cor. 2:14

    2. Strawman argument. Not a literal strawman, but…you know.

    3.Too much water will kill you. Don’t drink water.

    4. God said it best. His ways ard not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts.

    5. I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. That’s the end of the debate.

  • BornAgain123

    Not even sure where to start with this article….but let me try. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that… “ALL (emphasis mine) scripture is God-breathed (written) and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” It doesn’t say “some” scripture or only scripture with which you agree, it says ALL scripture. Therefore, to say that you cannot “interpret” the Bible literally means that God is either a liar or doesn’t really mean what he says. To those of us who have trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, we know that God is not a liar and absolutely means what he says. The Ten Commandments are not suggestions or good ideas. The Beatitudes and parables are not some flowery words Jesus spoke to entertain the people. This article is really nothing more than a justification for “American Christians” to select cafeteria-style those parts of God’s Word they “agree” with and ignore those they don’t. This is precisely how homosexuality has been dismissed rather than recognized for what it is….sin. However, as we are ALL sinners, the Bible teaches (assuming this is a part the author believes you CAN take literally) that we are to love and forgive all sinners. The Bible also teaches us to flee from sin, not embrace it, celebrate it or legitimize it.

    • Jon Herrin

      “…to say that you cannot “interpret” the Bible literally means that God is either a liar or doesn’t really mean what he says.” First, Ms. Munir did not say that one “CANNOT” interpret the Bible literally. (Besides, if one is taking it ‘literally,’ there is no interpretation involved….) She argues that we should not attempt to understand all of it ‘literally.’ If we all had advanced degrees in ancient Middle Eastern history and culture, and if we could all read Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek fluently, we wouldn’t have to mess with much interpretation. But, alas, that’s not the case….

      • Squid Hunt

        So basically when God said He would purify his word, He only meant until the end of the bronze age? I guess we can just put the Bible on a shelf with all the rest of our poetry and literature and make it up as we go along. If there is one thing that is stressed over and over in the Bible, it’s that God’s word is true and we have to believe it. Attacks on God’s word have been going on since the Garden. “Yea, hath God said?” Literally.

  • sl1024

    If I write you a letter, are you going to study each syllable or take me at my word?