Last night I watched the first two episodes of a new sitcom on CBS called "Living Biblically." The show tells the story of a man who recently lost a best friend to death, and who also recently received news that he and his wife were expecting their first child. As a result of these two significant life-changing experiences, he decides to make a change in his life, and that change is to take the Bible "literally," word for word, for at least the next nine months until his child is born. As you can probably guess, his commitment to the "literal" interpretation and application of the Bible leads to (supposedly) hilarious outcomes (although I watched the first two episodes and only snickered once).
But this isn't the first iteration of the culture's attempt to take the Bible literally. 10 years ago, author A.J. Jacobs wrote the book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible to rave reviews among secularists and Christians alike. In the book, Jacobs describes what his life is like when he follows every command of the Bible to the letter. And just a few years ago, Rachel Held-Evans wrote A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband 'Master', in which Held-Evans recounts her attempts to "literally" obey every biblical command directed toward women for the period of one year. As you might expect, both Jacobs and Held-Evans have plenty of interesting and strange stories about what it's like to follow Old Testament laws and commands in a 21st century world.
If nothing else, these cultural excursions into the realm of biblical Christianity have served to show that people are generally very confused about what it means to take the Bible "literally." The culture believes that taking the Bible literally means following each Old Testament command to the letter, and obeying every obscure Jewish ritual and tradition. For instance, one of the first changes the character Chip makes in his life in the show "Living Biblically" is to make sure that he only wears clothes that are made of a single type of fabric. After all, Leviticus 19.19 says "Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material" (NIV). So if we take the Bible literally, we shouldn't mix fabrics, right?
Similarly, Christians are often maligned in the culture when they insist upon the Bible as an absolute source of moral authority. Christians are charged with inconsistency at best, and hypocrisy at worst because, after all, there are plenty of laws in the Bible about not eating shell fish, and we don't follow those. The accusation leveled against Christians is that we pick and choose which parts of the Bible we want to take "literally."
So what does it mean to take the Bible "literally?" According to the culture (and even to some within Christendom), it means to follow every jot and tittle of every command in the Bible, irrespective of when the command was given, why it was given, and to whom it was given. If the Bible says it, it must be obeyed, no matter what - shell fish, fabrics, and everything else. And that's what it means to take the Bible "literally."
Except...no. That's not it. Not even close. As with almost every attempt the culture makes to determine just what it is Christians believe about a particular doctrine, this one is a resounding swing and a miss. To take the Bible literally does not mean to follow it word for word, or to obey commandments that were given to a nomadic people group three thousand years ago as they wandered around in the wilderness.
Well then, what does it mean to take the Bible literally?
First, it means to believe that God wrote the Bible.
Taking the Bible literally means believing that it is actually inspired by God, and that the Bible contains God's message to human beings. The Bible is a revelation of God's character and nature (who he is and what he is like), and a message to human beings as to how we are to respond God's revelation of himself. What does he want from us? How are we to act towards him? Can we live in relationship with him? And if so, how? God himself tells us these things in the Bible. Did you catch that? God himself tells us these things in the Bible. The Bible was written by God - the Creator of the universe. If we are believing that the Creator of the universe communicated with us personally, we will be far less likely to treat the Bible flippantly or in some silly manner. The first step to taking the Bible literally is to believe the Creator of the universe wants to communicate with you, and he has done so through his word contained within the Bible.
Second, it means to receive what God has said in context.
The Bible wasn't written to you and I - it was written for you and I. Over 70% of the Bible (the Old Testament) was written to the ancient Israelites who lived 3000 years ago in and around the nation of Israel as shepherds and farmers. Thus, the commands were given to them in their specific time, geographic location, cultural context, etc. It would be (and is) ridiculous to try to "literally" apply commands given to nomadic shepherds 3000 years ago to our modern day lives.
Put simply, there are a myriad of differences between us and the people to whom the Bible was written (time, culture, language, political, geographical, covenantal, etc.). It would be ludicrous to not recognize these differences as we seek to understand and apply the Bible in our lives today. However, this is exactly what A.J. Jacobs, Rachel Held-Evans, and the producers of "Living Biblically" are doing when they universally apply commands given to a specific people, in a specific geographic location, in a specific culture, etc. to our present circumstances. It's no wonder that several Old Testament laws seem foreign to me: I'm not a wilderness-wandering shepherd living in 3000 B.C.
In order to take the Bible literally, we must understand it in its historical and grammatical context. This means that in order to understand what God told his people, we first have to understand them: their history, their culture, their language, their socio-political circumstances, etc. God's commands to them will only make sense to us if we know who they were, how they thought, how they lived, etc.
This does not mean, however that because I am not a wilderness-wandering ancient Israelite that the Old Testament is obsolete or irrelevant to me as a 21st century American. Far from it! Remember, the whole Bible shows us God's character and nature. So although I don't apply the Old Testament purity and cleanliness laws (such as the laws regarding fabrics, shellfish, etc.), those laws tell me about a holy and righteous God who desires to live in relationship with his people. I don't apply the laws literally, but I apply the principles communicated by the laws when understood in context, literally.
Also, we need to realize that the Bible contains different genres of literature. This means that different parts of the Bible function differently from others. For example, history books tell an historical story. Poetry books contain poetry. You wouldn't read a poetry book to learn history, nor a history book to learn poetry. So then, we have to take the Bible "literally" according to the rules of interpreting literature.
Case Study: Exodus 21.28-29
Let's use an example to see how we can apply Old Testament commands literally. Exodus 21.28-29 says, "When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death."
This law was given to a vagabond nation of wanderers about 3500 years ago. These people kept livestock as a regular part of everyday life, so God gave them rules and laws that would bring order to their society and help them to live in relationship with him. Then how can I - a 21st century urban American who does not own livestock - apply this command "literally?" By knowing the history of the people to whom the law was given, and the genre and grammar of the literature in which it was communicated.
According to our culture, in order to apply this command literally, I'd have to go out and buy some oxen and then make sure to keep them penned up securely. But to do so would be just as ridiculous as wearing clothes of the same material or swearing off shellfish. Instead, I can literally apply the principles of this command by interpreting what it is saying. For instance, from this command we learn at least three things about God: 1) Human life is valuable to God. God does not desire that men and women be killed by animals. 2) Personal responsibility is important to God. God expects people to act responsibly so as to minimize any potential threat to others or to the community. 3) Justice is important to God. In each scenario, punishment is meted out to fit the crime.
When we take this command literally, we don't go out and buy oxen and make sure to put up a sturdy fence around them, because this command was not given to us. Instead, we interpret the command, and apply the principles the command teaches to our lives literally. This means that we literally love and value life because God does; it means that we literally take responsibility for our actions for the betterment of ourselves and our communities; it means that we literally work and advocate for justice in our society. If we do these things, we will have obeyed the command to keep our rambunctious ox penned up, literally.
*Note: for a great guide to how to read and apply the Bible literally in the ways briefly mentioned here, check out the book Grasping God's Word by Duvall and Hays.