Is Truth Hidden in Literalism or in Front of Our Eyes?

Posted: July 28, 2021 in Uncategorized

Is Truth Hidden in Literalism or in Front of Our Eyes?

Last week for those who follow the lectionary the text took us to Mark’s version of the feeding of the 5000 This week we continue the stories about ‘bread’, but I have returned to the storyteller we call John. This week, the crowd respond with the cry: ‘More sir!’.

Indeed, this Lectionary theme of ‘bread’ will continue for several more weeks yet. So, I want to start with the premise that these stories are familiar to all of us.  The people eat their fill of bread. Yet John indicates they are not satisfied. Why?  Well maybe we can think about some of the things we face today for a clue.

How do we, in the 21st century world, receive and interpret the stories from our biblical tradition. This can be a very frightening question to ask and many don’t want to face these questions. I was just at a memorial service for the closing of St David’s Khyber Pass Rd in Auckland and if I was being critical, I would have to say it was head in the sand, scared of the future sort of stuff. Not in the closing but in the unwillingness to ask the hard questions about the future of the church. The proceeds of sale were to be spent on trying to do what was done in the1870s and while it succeeded then it has failed in the 1990s

For me and for many progressive and thinking people this is an important question.
Because the competing answers are so different, it can be very frightening to face the reality of today and it is easier to just fall back on the traditional and the one time successful but it is a denial of the present and thus the future.

In this and the other stories on ‘bread’, all the storytellers have Jesus trying to get the people to look beyond the literal to the meaning and world view the teller is inviting them to consider. But like many of us they either refuse or are unable to do so. So, expressing a degree of frustration, John’s Jesus says: ‘you are not looking for me because you have seen the signs, but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat’.

Jesus has just fed them. They were hungry because of staying on the hills and listening to his words, and he had compassion for them. But they continue to want the actual thing – the literal answer. Like many of us they wanted the renewal of the past. And like today there is no literal answer given, because Jesus argues that it leaves everyone just as hungry as before. They are unable to look beyond the words. That is too complex.
Too difficult. Too stressful. They settle only for what they see and taste and touch.

Like many progressives I think John’s Jesus is a realist. He knows these people are looking for actual food that fills the hungry stomach. They want miracles that will make their lives easier in a rural peasant culture. A culture;

• where food is not always plentiful,

• where peasant farmers had been forced off their land, crushed by the rich and powerful,
• where people are persecuted because of their beliefs… magic or miracles are easier and more welcome than the grind of daily reality.

Let’s be careful here not to label them as backward, dumb or wrong. The last thing we should do is suggest that somehow these people deserve their plight or are responsible for it, or if they only prayed harder, or had more faith, their situation would change.

What John is trying to suggest through this story, maybe 60+ years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, is for them to look, listen, hear, imagine beyond the literal words. This is an indication that as the gospel took hold on minds across the world literalism began to take over from a metaphorical world view and the fundamentalisms of today would suggest that there is a need for John’s message again today, if we are to understand spirituality, religion and its place in our societies today.

Katerina Whitley, a professor of communication at one of the state universities in America,
who has also reflected on these stories, suggests: ‘The words of Jesus, though based on what the people knew from experience, always point to that which is true, to that which does not perish.  But the people clamour for more assurance than that. Like then we too get caught up in the demand for certainty for us rather than the truth that transcends time and culture. Never more so is this need than today in our so-called ‘postmodern’ society.

We live in an age where the ‘literal’ is constantly struggling with the ‘more than’, in a climate where answers have international or global implications. And the literal seems to be winning. Fundamentalists still ask for a sign, an answer, that is firm and unquestionable:
to the sadness of abortion, to the fear of terrorism, to the problem of disobedient children,
to the rapid technological changes, that baffle them.

In our moment of time, indeed for more than 25 years, we are particularly conscious of this ‘firm and unquestionable’ position, in regard to the questions of difference in sexuality. It is easier to retreat from the world and its problems. Most of us want concrete and secure answers. Ambiguity is troubling.  We want definiteness. And literalism, even as it picks and chooses only those portions of the Bible it can manipulate, gives to the fundamentalist this assurance. I can remember the debates at a 1986 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in NZ where biblical texts were thrown around like statements of infallible truth as people sought to impose their truth on the Assembled. All that happened was that scripture lost out to its own ambiguity and contradiction.

Katerina Whitley also points out that: ‘Literal interpretation of what we don’t like gives us permission not to love those who are different from us’ (Worship that works Web site 2003). And that too is very serious!  I happen to agree with many that

This confirms for me the main problem with literalism and it is that it does not reveal truth, in fact it hides it. Literalism comes from a position of fear, and is fueled by what is a misrepresentation of religious experience. And when it comes from within the Christian community it is often all the more dangerous and vitriolic. Bishop John Shelby Spong knows about all that. In his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, he writes: ‘I have had a ‘truth squad’ based at an evangelical theological college in Sydney follow me throughout Australia wherever I lectured, handing out their tracts and publications designed to mute my witness.  I have lectured with guards protecting me in Calgary… (and) endured a bomb threat… in Brisbane.  I have been the recipient of sixteen death threats, all of which came from Bible-quoting ‘true believers’…’ (Spong 1998: xvi).

This all suggests that in taking up Spong’s challenge of a ‘new Reformation’ one, requires courage and will be at some risk. And it has to be said that a lot of thinking people are not prepared to take risks, either for fear they shall be criticised, or dismissed from office, or both. I happen to believe that an ‘honest church’ requires its theologians and ministers to be that – honest as opposed to being right. John’s Jesus was not a literalist. The eating of bread is much more than the mere ingestion of food as nourishment for the body. It is the symbolic sharing of our common humanity, in mutuality with those around us. So, John the storyteller invites his listeners, then (and I reckon, now), to seek the meaning beyond the words, beyond the ‘bread’.

For in the doing of that we are freed to go on the journey chartered by Jesus rather than being caught up in worshipping the journey of Jesus, as do the literalists. Such a ‘Jesus’ theology’ is, I believe, liberating because: it shows us something of what it means to be human, it invites us to find in ourselves the same powers that were manifest in Jesus, and it means we are to be co-creators with God. Now, if we have the courage, that can indeed be a great blessing!

In closing I want to offer something that is not about knocking what was or complaining without offering a way forward and while it is a huge challenge to predict anything I want to suggest a definition of spirituality that might help and make a few suggestions about what that might look like. What if ‘Spirituality’ is the experience of living in the moment of human interactions that are bristling with virtues and values? Spirit is what occurs between souls as we interact with each other, with nature, and with things. It is what happens in our brains when we encounter another person, receive any sensory input and process it, or manipulate tools and materials. Therefore, spirit is the driver of our mental assembly of new responses to what we have seen or heard, or what has happened in our surroundings, and is the cause of all our questions. Spirituality then is the experience of living in the moment of human interactions that are bristling with virtues and values, even if those interactions were in the past, and even if we participate through print or visual media. Many of us would agree here with Dominic Crossan when he says, I can no longer distinguish between prayer and study. If the function of prayer is to allow God to get at you, then scholarship is where that now happens for him. It is where I am at also in facilitating conversation during and after a sermon, it is because I want to explore the idea that the incarnation as a living dynamic theology is to be found in the interactions, in the conversations, in the sharing of being human through language. Sermons should not be a one-way communication event. Why? Because when the right and left hemispheres of our brain clash with one side seeking security and the other growth it is only through the creative use of metaphor that the clash can be transcended. The truth is actually that the whole world is a metaphor for something else. A sermon that explores the ’what if it is like?’ is a healthy sermon. Literalists forget to use ‘it is like’ and we end up in trouble. We need to critique the tradition and we have a growing need for experimental language and thought to explain religious experience so that we can place it in our lives with greater understanding. It must become common sense rather than something to believe or else.


Spong, J. S. 1998.  Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

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