Literal versus Metaphorical

I recently read Jim Wallis’s Christ in Crisis?: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus and found it most provocative.

Near the end of the book, Jim was shared a story about meeting with a group of Jesus Seminar scholars (progressive theologians from the Westar Institute). They were discussing resurrection stories, and the Westar scholars suggested that these tales are metaphors. Jim reminded them that he accepted those stories as literal truth. He then asked if they thought a merely metaphorical Resurrection would be adequate for Desmond Tutu (alluding to apartheid in South Africa) He claimed that no one responded.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I would have reacted immediately and asked a series of questions, but that’s because I still haven’t mastered this necessary lesson: Never try to argue with a fundamentalist. They don’t, won’t, and can’t have an open-minded discussion. I strongly suspect that’s why no Westar scholar responded to Jim’s literalism.

I, however, would have asked Jim if he was aware of these facts:

  • The centurion who presided over the Crucifixion would have been executed the next day if he had allowed Jesus to come off his cross in any other condition than stone-cold dead.
  • A body starts to decay four minutes after death.
  • The original version of the Gospel of Mark, written around 70 CE, did not include any postcrucifixion appearances by Jesus.
  • The modern version of Mark does feature postresurrection appearances (16:9–21), but these are redactions added sometime during the second century CE.
  • A more elaborate Resurrection story first appeared in the Gospel of Matthew, which was written fifty to sixty years after Jesus died.
  • The writers of the New Testament were primarily Jewish. They were not recounting an actual event (Jesus rising from the dead is impossible) but weaving a tale of religious history, which requires looking deeper into a story to find its true meaning.

I suspect Jim would not be able to “hear” a thing I said because he takes the Gospel literally, but I would still like to hear his reaction.

Then I would say, “Jim, I think a metaphorical resurrection would be much more helpful to Desmond than a literal one. To me, the Resurrection stories are about transforming our Good (or Bad) Fridays into Easters through agape.”

My wife, Annie, and I once visited South Africa after apartheid ended. Agape was hard at work through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Whites asked for and received forgiveness for their racism—without violence ensuing. The nation wanted to move forward. Justice (Jesus’s kind) prevailed, and South Africa avoided a bloodbath. A Bad Friday transformed into an Easter for that country.

I have no idea how a dead man walking around could eradicate racism, hatred, and violence. However, unconditional love, forgiveness, and caring are some of the greatest tools I know for moving forward in life.

I hope Jim will see the power of Easter as a metaphor someday.

What think ye?


Image courtesy of Kodi Tanner (CC BY-ND 2.0)

4 thoughts on “Literal versus Metaphorical”

  1. Great point, Bil. The idea of “literal truth”, and “it really happened”, contradicts the 5000-year old Story-Telling Tradition. The whole point of a story is Metaphor, according to no less than Origen, 185-254 ce. Origen’s detailed studies of scripture were widely-read, although toward the end of his life, he was persecuted by the Church for his Unitarian Universalism, and his works were burned.

    Of course it is “science” itself that demands literalism. The laboratory wants actual facts, not faux data. We now witness Fundamentalists who demand “facts” of their Scripture, but deny the facts of Nature. Is this ironic?!

    I love your suspicion that “Jim would not be able to ‘hear’ a thing I said”. Not sure why you would ever let that hold you back! Never give up on the Dialog.

    Your point about the “power of Easter as a metaphor” is what makes irony tragic. Jim is missing the power.

  2. I have almost always, since becoming an adult, taken most of the stories in the bible as metaphor. They make so much more sense that way. No way can a dead body resurrect.

    I also think all of Jesus’s stories were metaphor, meant to teach…not actual miracles. I do not believe in miracles. When something unexplainable happens there is always a logical reason for it. We may not know the reason but thee is one.

    For instance, I think the body, controlled by the brain, is often able to make a change what appears to be miraculous.

  3. Thanks Bil, one of my recent reads was about approaching the Bible as an ancient, ambiguous and diverse book leading us to wisdom rather than answers. Without myth, metaphor and allegory, the scriptures make little sense …literally, Jesus should have returned within Paul,s lifetime or at least according to Matthew, within the lifetime of Jesus’ immediate followers, etc. You are so right, metaphor adds depth and awakenings to the Jewish writers tales around the purpose of the Jewish Jesus’ life, and the vision of “a new community under God.”


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