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.
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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.
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