I Take Bible Too Seriously to Take It Literally

The only book we had in my childhood home was the Bible! Though my mother had only a sixth grade education, she read the Bible daily until her death at age 96.

In our home, the Bible was more than a book. It was a revered icon, a visible repository of God’s revelation. We learned its stories, memorized verses and entire chapters. It was the source of our ethical compass.

The church of my childhood proudly described itself as “fundamentalist.” The King James Bible reigned supreme as “God’s Word,” as though dictated by God rather than being published in 1611 under the direction of Anglican King James I.

One of my most dramatic and memorable childhood experiences was seeing a copy of the newly Revised Standard Version of the New Testament burned during worship. The preacher declared that “Communists and atheists” translators had “tampered with the Word of God.”

He proceeded to set the pages on fire so that this “corrupt” version of the Bible would burn, just as its translators would “burn in hell.”

The preacher’s point was clear: We must take this book seriously; tampering with it has drastic consequences!

His point is correct! The Bible is to be taken seriously. Failure to do so has far-reaching consequences.

The problem is this: “Seriously” to the preacher meant “literally.” He failed to realize that literalism can be a way of avoiding taking the Bible seriously, and the results can be devastating.

Literalism tends to rob the Bible of its depth, beauty, mystery, and imagination.   Taking it literally means you don’t have to probe its meaning because the meaning is self-evident (” the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” or “it means exactly what it says”).

Literalism can be an avoidance mechanism against the deeper meaning. Focusing on the details of whether a great fish really swallowed Jonah distracts from the harder truth of the story: God loves our enemies as much as God loves us!

Or, reading the first two chapters of Genesis as factual accounts of how creation came into existence enables us to avoid the question why and our role as participants in the ongoing nurturing of the earth.

In reality, we are all selective literalists. A participant in a Bible study challenged my assertion that one can believe in Genesis and in evolution.  He argued, “The Bible clearly says that God created the world in six days. Evolution contradicts the Bible and I believe the Bible. The Bible means exactly what it says!”

A few weeks later, we had moved to a discussion of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s admonition to “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” and “go the second mile.” I asked, “What are the implications of these passages for our criminal justice system and the use of the death penalty.”

The man who had previously insisted on a “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 responded: “Well, it can’t be taken literally or we would have to be pacifists.”  He obviously was being selective in his literalism.

Some passages should be taken literally: The Great Commandment, love your enemies, the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13 to name a few. But even these have to be interpreted, amplified, explained.

Taking the Bible seriously requires that we interpret each part by the meaning of the whole. That is, every passage has to be viewed in terms of its relationship to the overall theme of the Bible–God’s mighty acts of salvation of human hearts, communities, and the entire cosmos.

Ripping verses from the Bible and using them as “proof texts” is tantamount to a surgeon removing an organ without knowing the organ’s relationship to the whole body. We would charge such a reckless surgeon with malpractice.

I firmly believe in the authority of Scripture! Its authority, however, does not reside in its verbal inerrancy.

Here is my understanding of the Bible’s authority: Its authentic witness to the Word-Made-Flesh and its power through the Holy Spirit in community to transform human hearts, relationships, communities, and the entire creation into the likeness of Jesus the eternal Christ.

Being transformed by the Bible requires more than superficial reading, like reading a fortune cookie or daily horoscope. It requires delving deeply into the context, language, nuance, ambiguity, contradictions, and mystery beyond the literal words.

Taking the Bible seriously involves the insights of the community, including the scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding the Scriptures.

Serious reading of Scripture requires putting ourselves in the stories and being changed by the message. Scripture interprets us as surely as we interpret Scripture. Only those willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture take the Bible seriously.

So, the final test of how seriously we take the Bible is the character formed in us. Is the Bible —

  • shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who is the true Word of God?
  • expanding our capacity to love, including those deemed the “other” or “enemy”?
  • deepening our commitment to and practice of compassion and justice?
  • empowering us to participate fully in God’s present and coming reign in Jesus Christ?
  • increasing our faith, hope, and courage to live God’s vision of a healed, just, and reconciled creation?

If the answer is “no,” we aren’t taking the Bible seriously, even if we literally “believe every word it says.”

31 Lessons Learned from Persons Living with Dementia and Care Partners

I strong affirmly and testify to the lessons identified by Dr. Daniel Potts. Dr. Potts is a neurologist and a strong advocate on behalf of persons with living with dementia and their care partners. I am honored that he wrote a strong endorsement of Ministry with the Forgotten: Dementia through a Spiritual Lens.

The Wooded Path

The following are lessons that I have learned as a neurologist and care partner, both from my father, and from others who are living with dementia and their care partners. These were first compiled for a webinar for the Dementia Alliance International. I am thankful for opportunities to be in relationships with those who are living with dementia.

1. Care partners are curators of another person’s museum of life.
2. The innate value and dignity of human beings cannot be stolen by any condition or circumstance. To care with compassion, we must first believe that all people retain an incontrovertible identity.
3. The beauty, vitality and relational energies inside the very one living with dementia can provide the inspiration for the care partner’s journey.
4. We should love and honor persons in their current state, rather than holding them accountable to be what our egos need them to be.
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A Surprising Word of Grace

I entered Linda’s room shortly after she had been bathed. She was wide awake! When our eyes met, a faint smile appeared. I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. I remarked as I combed her hair, “You look pretty in that pink gown!”

Then, I spoke the words I say several times every day: “I love you!” Seldom does she respond, or seem to know what I’m saying, or even who I am. But not this time!

She looked intently into my eyes. A broad smile appeared. Then she clearly spoke these simple, surprising words: “You’re wonderful!”

Such poignant moments of connection are inexplicable and rare for someone in the advanced stage of dementia.

The question often haunts me: Does she know that she is loved, that I  love her? So seldom does my presence make an observable difference.

Feelings of powerlessness in the face of her restlessness and agitation are the norm. Sadness and grief are always lurk in the shadows.

But unexpectedly, inexplicably comes a moment of connection, an assurance that love endures, that persistent expressions of devotion matter.

I don’t know what neuroscientists would call it. I call it GRACE!

Lingering Advice from My Dad

My dad only completed the sixth grade in school. He became the primary breadwinner in his family of five sisters at age fifteen when his father died. His was a hard life of 84 years.

He was a farmer, textile mill worker, and handyman. His life was defined by hard work, unquestioned honesty, no pretense, and stubborn perseverance. Though not demonstrably affectionate or complimentary of his kids, we never doubted his love for us or our mother.

He adored our mother and treated all women with respect. He never considered himself better than anyone else; and he was totally unimpressed by titles, wealth, or positions of authority.

Though he was a man of few words, some of his messages formed me. Here is one of them.

“If a bully picks on your brothers or sister, he’s picking on you. So, help your sister or brother.” As tenant farmers, we moved around. Schoolyard bullies often tested the new kids. The first days in a new school were frightening. One of us usually got pushed around by a “tough guy.”

There were four of us Carders, three boys and a girl. Dad’s admonition worked! It didn’t take but one encounter for the bullies to learn — jump one Carder and you’re up against four. My sister, by the way, was the one most feared!

The world is full of bullies in high and low places. They are bullying and exploiting the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless, the immigrants, LGBTQ+ colleagues, the powerless, the vulnerable. They are bullying our brothers and sisters.

Resisting bullies and exploiters is a joint effort! The writer of Hebrews states it strongly:

“Keep loving each other like family. Don’t neglect to open your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it. Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place”(13:1-3 CEV).

Dad was right: “If a bully picks on your brother or sister, he’s picking on you. So, help your sister or brother.”