In his book The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins writes, “We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision…” (p. 269). Note the implicit contrast; according to Dawkins, Christians either “believe” scripture – by accepting it literally – or “write off” scripture – by interpreting it any other way. The unstated assumption is that the fundamentalists and literalists are the “true Christians,” and that everyone else is merely compromising in a hopeless attempt to reconcile scripture with reality. (Elsewhere, Dawkins has suggested that “[i]t is only quite recently that Christianity reinvented itself in non-fundamentalist guise.”)
Never mind that “everyone else” includes…pretty much everyone. Ironically, it even includes modern-day fundamentalists, (almost) all of whom reject the literal interpretation of scriptures that describe God as having a body or the Earth as flat. Dawkins still seems to believe that the very same fundamentalists whom he describes as having “mind viruses” are the ones with the greatest understanding of ancient Near Eastern religious texts – the ones who “believe” scripture rather than “writing it off.”
Unfortunately, Dawkins is far from alone in his opinion – not merely among non-Christians, but even among believers.
I have a joke I like to tell about George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It’s not particularly good, but it’s based on a true story. Whenever someone mentions having read novels at a young age, I say, “I read Animal Farm in the second grade. I thought it was about animals on a farm. I was wrong.”
My second grade self notwithstanding, it is clear to pretty much everyone that George Orwell did not intend Animal Farm to be a reflection on the trials and travails of farm animals; he intended it to be a dystopian satirization of Stalinism. To stop at the “literal reading” of the text, in other words, is to miss the point.
My point does not apply only to Orwell’s writings; with almost any text, we are willing to allow for the possibility of metaphor, symbolism, allegory, and multi-layered meaning. Why not the Bible?
One quick rejoinder is that the Bible, unlike Animal Farm, was not written as a work of fiction. And my response would be that the terms “fiction” and “non-fiction” do not encapsulate all dimensions of literary genres. It is overly simplistic to say that the Bible is a book of fiction or non-fiction, because the Bible is a book of many things: prophecies, histories, poems, epistles, philosophies, laws, etc. It was written by several authors at several points in time; it, in fact, is a library rather than a book.
I am not arguing that these considerations entail, in and of themselves, a non-literal understanding of Genesis or of any other part of the Bible. I am only saying that there is no prima facie justification for preferring a literalist interpretation of the Bible to more nuanced readings. We are called to take scripture seriously – not (necessarily) literally.
Why, then, do so many of us – Christian or not – share this underlying suspicion that fundamentalists are the only ones honestly engaging the biblical texts? Why are so many non-Christians dismissive of moderate or liberal Christianity as inauthentic? Why are so many Christians who believe in evolution wary of it? I believe there are multiple reasons.
1. Perhaps most important is the impression that Christians are (in C.S. Lewis’ words) “always engaged in the hopeless task of trying to force the new knowledge into moulds which it has outgrown. … [I]t seems to [the non-Christian] clear that, if our ancestors had known what we know about the universe, Christianity would never have existed at all…” (Lewis, “Dogma and the Universe”). The perception is that Christians who reject certain literal interpretations are retreating from historical Christianity. I cannot emphasize enough how incorrect this notion is. To retreat from nineteenth-century American Protestantism is not to retreat from “historical” Christianity. To retreat from nineteenth-century American Protestantism is not to retreat from “historical” Christianity. On the contrary, Christian thinkers throughout history have endorsed all sorts of cosmologies. It is fundamentalism that is anachronistic in its dogmatic insistence on particular readings of Genesis.
2. Fundamentalists can be the most vocal Christians and, to many non-believers, the most annoying. There’s a reason Fred Phelps is better known than Rowan Williams. This means that more attention (and, strangely enough, legitimacy) is given to fundamentalism than to other varieties of Christianity.
3. Fundamentalism is simpler. It is easier for non-Christians to engage (or dismiss), and it is easier for everyone to understand. Christians, in turn, are afraid of a “slippery slope.” If Genesis 1-11 is figurative, what about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? This is a legitimate concern – some Christians have re-imagined their faith beyond recognition – but fear cannot dog our exegetical steps.
I know several people who have devoted their lives to comprehending the Bible, most of whom I would not consider “fundamentalists.” These men and women may be completely incorrect in their interpretations of the Bible, but they certainly have not “written it off.” Instead, it is they who have been written off by Dawkins and others who (intentionally or not) implicate them with the fundamentalists. I pray that we will not repeat their mistake.