Dualism is deadly little disease. The odd thing is that in our overexposed-undeveloped era of information saturation, terms often get thrown around without a working understanding necessarily being in place. I’m not talking about full blown mastery of a subject. I’m just taking about clarity.
This can be especially limiting when it comes to reading the Bible. I’ve said before that I am a big fan of the Reformation impulse to put a Bible in everybody’s hands in their own language. I also recognize the danger or limitations if the reader is not discipled or empowered with good tools of interpretation (hermeneutics).
I thought it would be good to throw out two items for clarification that relate to our discussion last week about “A Better Way to Read the Bible”. I posted in Moving Mountains and Signs that make you Wonder some of these issues, so this would be part 3.
Dualism is not simply the presence of two categories. Jesus and Paul had all sorts of pairings: body and spirit, law and grace, etc. That is not dualism. Dualism begins when those categories are excluding and non-overlapping.
Many of us have been groomed to think in mutually-exclusive oppositional pairs. Democrat-Republican, Creation-Evolution, Lost-Saved, Man-Women, etc.
When it comes to reading the Bible some of us have been told there are two categories: literal and allegorical. It is built on fiction or fact, real or fake, true or false.
This is not helpful. Literature comes in all sorts of diverse genres that both reflect and represent reality in various ways. Texts portray their subject and the reader interprets it. Both of those are lenses that need to be accounted for. Both the genre and the interpretation matter.
I often hear the term ‘Allegory’ used in contrast to ‘Literal’. This is horrific for at least two reasons:
- A) No one reads the Bible literally. No one. Many parts aren’t even meant to be. So even people who say that they do, actually mean ‘we read the parts literally that we think should be.’ There is a hermeneutic at work even in that decision of which parts are literal.
- B) Allegory is something really specific. Not every poetic, mystical, mythical, or prophetic reading is allegorical. Allegory is assigning of symbolic meaning to every character and aspect in a story to a corresponding element in the real world. So my favorite example is from Jesus’ parable from Matthew 13:33. The women would represent the church, the flour is the gospel, and the number three is the three continents that the gospel went to (Asia, Africa, Europe). It is a modern assigning of meanings that may or may not have anything to do with the original context of the text.
Understanding these two things releases us from the round-and-round arguments about those famously contentious passages in the Bible (like Genesis 1-3). We are free to see Jonah or Job as a theatrical script instead of a newspaper report. We can do that without the “real or fake” pressure of “fact or fiction”. Thinking that Jonah is a parabolic presentation of a story that may or may not be grounded in actual events is not allegory. It also does not undermine the authority or trustworthiness of the Bible.
I am aware that there are two dominant responses when I post things like this:
- Duh! Everyone already knows this.
- What? That is crazy and not true.