"I'm head over heels in love!" My friend was ecstatic, by far the happiest I'd ever seen them.
"Tell me about this person! Why are you head over heels in love?"
My friend began, "Well, my newfound love is 5'8", 157 pounds, with brown eyes, and a small scar from a biking accident."
"That's great!" I said. "What is this person like?
"I told you. My newfound love is 5'8", 157 pounds, with brown eyes, and a small scar from a biking accident."
"I get it," I said, "but what are they like?"
"I told you! My significant other is 5'8", 157 pounds..."
There is something wonderful about literal truth. Somewhere, long before we made the discovery of primitive language deep within the caves of Lascaux, human beings created a series of numbers, symbols, formulas, and logic that has allowed humanity to progress in the most profound ways.
In fact, literal truths that come in the form of numbers, symbols, formulas, facts, and logic account for history's greatest feats. Without literal truths concepts like mechanics, engineering, machinery, and computation cease to exist. Literal truths are the catalysts for the evolution of humankind. Literal truths have allowed humanity to explore what was never thought possible. Literal truths are the reason we're able to sit at the computer and read this blog post.
And yet, literal truth does little to help my friend describe the profound change taking place in their life and relationship. Literal truth can be used to describe my friend's love interest but can't explain why it is they're actually in love.
Literal truth is limited. It can only tell part of a story. Literal truth can only capture a small part of our reality.
Literal truth can create a plane that flies from New York to San Francisco, but it can't tell us about the excitement a young child feels flying on that plane for the first time.
Literal truth can create skyscrapers but can't explain the feeling of awe that comes over me each time I drive down the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and see those skyscrapers.
My friend can describe their new love interest with literal truth, but at some point, my friend must speak a different kind of truth. If I'm to get the full story of why my friend is "head over heels in love," eventually they must start speaking in metaphor, figure of speech, feeling, poetry. In order for my friend to describe love, they must tell me how they feel.
And feelings are also truths.
Recently I heard my coworker say, "I feel like I'm drowning." But there they were, breathing just fine. There was nothing around that could even provoke the experience of drowning, and yet my coworker told me a very real truth. Difficult circumstances in my coworker's life brought about a struggle akin to losing one's breath. My coworker was indeed drowning.
My friend who is in love did not keep repeating the same literal truths about their love interest. My friend told me how they laugh together, find deep meaning in the spiritual, and enjoy simply being with one another. This is truth.
Our feelings of love, anger, vindictiveness, grace, sadness, peace, and joy are also important truths. They validate our reality and are just as important in allowing humanity to progress in the most profound ways.
This brings me to the literal truth of the Bible.
Lately I've been asked about my stance on scripture. "Do you see the Bible as truth?" they ask. "Do you see it as literal truth?" they press further.
I know what they're asking. Do I see the Bible as truth that comes in the form of numbers, symbols, facts, formulas, and logic?
For some reason, well-meaning church folk have trumpeted the Bible as being absolute truth, objective truth, literal truth. The Bible falls under the same category as numbers, formulas, logic, facts, and all of the rest.
And honestly? This diminishes the impact of the Bible. It takes the truth out and leaves us with propositions. It's boring.
Is there really a Satan?
How can Adam and Eve be real if they only had two sons?
Do you think the walls of Jericho literally fell to the ground?
Did Jonah really get swallowed by a fish?
Did God really make a bet with Satan over the life of Job?
I would argue these aren't the questions we really care about. They don't speak to the struggles of our lives. These are not the deeper questions. They miss the truth of our scripture and keep people from understanding the incredibly good news of the work God is doing in the world.
What if we stopped worrying about a literal Satan and started working to defeat the truths of slavery, hunger, ecological apathy, and many of the other evils?
I don't care if Adam and Eve existed. I care far more about the story of how humanity struggles to find meaning and knowledge and how there is a God who is in the midst of continuing redemption.
Whether or not the walls of Jericho fell down is irrelevant. I'm interested in the truth of a people who see God as a deliverer.
The unconditional grace of God towards creation is far more profound than Jonah getting swallowed by a fish.
The idea of God making a bet with Satan is preposterous. The story of Job shows us how to grieve well.
We have this beautiful library filled with accounts, fables, letters, poems, and songs. Yes, there are literal truths in this comprehensive library. But the literal truths can only take us so far.
Focusing solely on literal truths robs the scriptures of their beauty and takes away their power.
By looking only for literal truth, we miss out on the deepest longings, the struggles, the journey, and the mystery of God.
Do I believe that the bible is true? Absolutely.
Do I believe that the bible is literally true? We're asking the wrong question.
Literal truth is not the reason that this library was written. It was written so that we can live in the mystery of this beautiful, profound, contradictory existence that we call life. And maybe, just maybe, see the fingerprints of God along the way.