Taking it literally

When terrible events such as the Charlie Hebdo attack occur, hoardes of atheists flood social media agitating against Muslims but also against anyone who “takes their holy book literally”. Here’s an example:


“Literally” in these contexts is often synonymous with “seriously”. The implication is that sane, moderate, educated religious types don’t really believe what their holy books say; to take your holy book seriously is to be a moron at best and a killer at worst. While understandable, this generalisation is both ignorant and incorrect.

The dictionary definition of literal is as follows: “in accordance with, involving or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical.”

In the Bible, there are broadly seven classes of writing:

  1. Historical report
  2. A record of instructions given to the Hebrews
  3. Prophecy
  4. Poetry/song
  5. Wisdom (maxims, proverbs)
  6. Teaching given to the disciples by Jesus
  7. Teaching given to the early church

Clearly, many of these categories merge, mostly with prophecy which is contained in all other types of writing in addition to the books of “the prophets”.

Looking at this list, one thing should become clear: Only one of these categories can be acted upon in a literal fashion. Most Christians accept that they are living in the same epoch as the early church – after Christ’s death, resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, before Christ’s return – and therefore with minor cultural tweaks, advice from Paul, Peter and John contained in the epistles should be directly applicable to us today.

All of these missives are theological explanations, exhortation to good works and practical guidance on how churches and church meetings should be arranged. None of them include instruction to kill, conquer, subdue, forcibly convert or anything of the sort. The principle way believers are told to interact with unbelievers is to be so honest, loving and peaceful that those who wish to find fault will be unable to do so.

That some people in history have tried to make arguments for persecuting others or forcibly conquering foreign lands from a Christian perspective does not change the fact that no such exhortation to Christians exists in the Bible.

The teaching Jesus gave was to his disciples and also the crowds that followed him. Whilst this can also be understood to apply to modern day Christians, very little of it is moral instruction (contrary to popular opinion). Most of it is a cryptic mixture of metaphor, prophecy and messianic proclamation, intentionally difficult (in fact impossible) to understand with human intellect alone.

How does one take the statement “I am the bread of life” literally?

How does one take a song written by an ancient king to his God literally?

How does a modern day believer take the instruction of Moses to an ancient tent-dwelling people “literally”?

The more you look at it, the more absurd the notion of “taking the Bible literally” becomes. It cannot be done, and even using the phrase immediately reveals one’s ignorance. But that doesn’t mean it cannot be taken seriously!

I have heard some people say “I take the Bible literarily”, by which they mean they approach it with the same textual analysis they apply to all literature: Defining the audience, purpose, genre and so on. This is perfectly reasonable but I do not think it is a requirement, and the education, intellect and resources needed to do so are not available to everyone. It also creates the danger of contextualising the meaning out of scripture; given that none of the Bible is directly written to modern day Christians and is quite old, it would be very easy to say that none of it applies in any meaningful way to us (and many people do this). Studious Christians often say “if you take a passage out of context, you can get the Bible to say anything!” This is often repeated but it is not true. It is quite the opposite: with “context”, you can quite efficiently stop the Bible from saying anything at all.

Paul tells us that “the law is spiritual”. Jesus tells us “my words are spirit”, and that he came to fulfill the law and to point to the true meaning behind the laws of the old covenant (the rules and rituals given by Moses). So to look at an instruction in Leviticus, eg. the sacrificing of two doves, and see that it relates to the two works of Christ is not to somehow disbelieve it to make life less messy for ourselves. It is to take both Paul and Jesus “literally”. Anyone who reads the law and heads out to the pet shop isn’t a “real Christian”. They wouldn’t be the ones “doing it properly, unlike the moderate pretenders”. They would be ignoring the clear, primary, direct teaching in the New Testament.

I hope I’ve made this fairly clear. The reason it is important is that to my knowledge it is not true of the other Abrahamic religions. The Jews should still theoretically be following all of those rituals; I’m not entirely sure why they don’t; probably something to do with not being in Jerusalem, or the destruction of the temple. And Muslims should be following the instructions given by Mohammed in the Quran and by other teachers in the Hadith literature.

For Jewish people, this is more a matter of in-house affairs; they can obviously keep to their dietary laws, and should they ever achieve a true, fully Jewish theocracy in the promised land, I suppose they would have to keep those laws fully. But for day to day living, most of the rules relate to keeping themselves separate. Instructions to conquer particular lands were specific to the ancient Israelites at that time; there is no open-ended instruction to invade.

Unfortunately for Muslims, this is not the case in Islam. Verses about casting terror into the hearts of unbelievers, how fighting is prescribed for the Muslim, about how Allah grades Muslims who fight higher than those who sit at home, how a believer must fight nearby unbelievers so that they may “find in you hardness”, to smite the necks of those who disbelieve, to be merciful amongst Muslims but ruthless amongst unbelievers… All of these and more are found in the Quran, and that’s before even looking at the various Hadith writings. And all of these are to be followed by the Muslim.

You might accuse me of picking the worst verses, and I make no excuse for this: I am. But that is the point; there is no further principle which is supposed to put these verses in context, neither are they supposed to be historically specific. Could you pick out violent-sounding passages from the Bible? Absolutely – yet it is clear that these are not instructions to us.

I’m not trying to suggest that all Muslims will or even want to carry out acts of violence, oppression or forced conversion. But I am suggesting that their holy book does pose a real problem for what we call “moderates”; peaceful Muslims who just want to get on with their lives and live side by side with non-Muslims. They only have their consciences and personal limits as a barrier to committing these acts – the incentive from their texts is clearly present.

This is why, unfair as it sounds, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that these acts of violence we see worldwide are very much related to the religion of Islam (contrary to the immediate pronouncement of politicians), whereas similar acts, eg. as committed by Anders Breivik, cannot seriously be considered a logical consequence of fervent Christian belief.

Finally, I do not write any of this to encourage persecution of Muslims, limits on religious freedom or to create barriers between differing cultures and beliefs. I wish to foster peace, trust and cooperation between those of all faiths and those of none as much as anyone else. However, I cannot go as far as some and proclaim that “Islam is a religion of peace”, or encourage Muslims simply to be good Muslims in the hope that this will calm the conflict. Flawed ideology and incendiary scripture will not result in peace and prosperity, even if for the most part people’s own inherent goodness keeps them from following Mohammed’s instructions to the letter.