Getting Past Literalism, with Jesus’ Help

John 3:1-10

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I am pleased and honored to be with you at Marsh Chapel this morning. By way of introduction, I want to say that my wife, Jennifer, who is the Pastor at Church of the Covenant in Boston’s Back Bay, is also preaching on the Nicodemus passage this morning. Our two sermons are interconnected, and they are the product of a number of conversations we have had throughout the week. As we explored this text from the Gospel of John together, we felt ourselves joining the ancient conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus and wondering how Jesus would have wanted Nicodemus to respond.

Let me begin with a question. What does it mean for Christians to take the Bible seriously? We who live in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in a time of political transition and economic collapse, of war and climatic upheaval, face no shortage of questions regarding how we ought to live our lives. The questions for our time are many and momentous, but none is more fundamental for Christians than this: What does it mean to take the Bible seriously? The answer we give to this question bears on any other we might give. We are a people of “the Book.” Our identity is tied, both theologically and sociologically, to the ways in which we use this collection of sacred texts to orient ourselves in, and make sense of, the world.

In many parts of contemporary American culture, to take the Bible seriously means to take it “literally.” This usually means accepting what the Bible says as historically accurate, whenever it refers to worldly things and events. It also means accepting that the Bible can and ought to function as an instruction manual for how to live one’s life. These two aspects of biblical literalism are closely tied to one another. Without historical accuracy trust in the Bible’s prescriptions would be misplaced, and apart from its being a source of instruction there would be no point in worrying about its historical accuracy – or so the argument goes. Biblical literalism, then, is really about the Bible’s authority to instruct, and literalism construes this authority chiefly in terms of fidelity to historical fact.

To appreciate the dominance of biblical literalism within our culture, one need only recall that the appropriateness of reading the Bible literally is the single point on which fundamentalists and atheists can agree. Both contend that the Bible must be read literally if it is to be understood rightly. Of course, atheists think that the Bible thus understood is false, both in terms of what it reports and in terms of what it prescribes. But, like the average fundamentalist, the average atheist is quite invested in believing that the only authentically Christian reading of the Bible is a literal one. Any more sophisticated, less “literal” approach is typically dismissed by fundamentalist and atheist alike as nothing more than a modernist, ivory-tower, elitist – in a word, inauthentic – attempt to evade the clear meaning of the text.

How did we get here? How did America get to a place where the dominant view of the Bible, among both believers and nonbelievers, is that Christians must read their Scriptures literally if they are to understand them rightly? After all, it wasn’t always the case that Christians understood “literal” as a synonym for “most authentic.” For much of its history the Church in its various forms and locations has recognized the legitimacy and necessity of a wide variety of interpretive approaches to biblical texts, even and especially those texts which are now regarded by more conservative Christians as being plainly “historical.”

A key part of the story of the rise of biblical literalism in the late nineteenth century lies, I think, in the challenge posed by Darwin’s account of evolution to Christian theological views of the uniqueness of the human person, which, especially since the Enlightenment, has been couched primarily in terms of the capacity to rationally determine and do what is in one’s own best interest. Of course, the singular place of humanity among all creation is a basic theological theme that runs throughout the Bible, from the creation accounts in Genesis to Paul’s remarks in Romans 8 about all of creation being in bondage to decay on account of humanity’s deeds. But Darwin’s view of the origin of species, with its elimination of the genealogical boundary between human and non-human life, threatened people’s ideas of human uniqueness and with it their sense of being rational agents capable of controlling their own behaviors and beliefs.

Rather than rethink the meaning of human uniqueness, conservative American Christians by and large have chosen to respond by attacking Darwinism, claiming that it is fundamentally incompatible with the creation accounts of Genesis. Significantly, though, this line of attack has required an interpretive innovation, namely, that the creation accounts in Genesis be construed primarily as historical reports of humanity’s physical and biological “origin,” rather than as theological accounts of humanity’s spiritual “condition.” This interpretive innovation has happened under the guise of rejecting modernity, but it has a distinctively modern feel: out with condition, in with origin; out with value, in with fact; out with meaning, in with reference. As creationist Duane Gish once put it, “The Bible is [the Christian’s] textbook on the science of creation!”

In the face of such stifling and stultifying innovation, what is a Christian to do who feels the full weight of her tradition against literalism? How to break the chains that have bound authenticity to the rack of literalism? How to avoid misusing scripture by, turning the Good News into a Bad News that yields arbitrary and false certainties and makes the Bible irrelevant to the real struggles and questions of our day? Where to turn for a richer, deeper, more faithful understanding of how a Christian should read the Bible for the sake of living a life pleasing to God? Where to go for an authentic alternative to the inauthentic and impoverished view of God’s Word as a scientific textbook and a moralizing instruction manual? Where to go for a view of the Bible as an entryway into a divine world of meaning that one can call home, a river of divine sympathy that buoys up the deepest and most complex truths of one’s own life, a human-divine hand that can steady the soul in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death?

Where? To the Bible, of course. To Jesus. And, I think, to Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. There is a long tradition of interpretation around this story that reads Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus as a confrontation. I think this line of interpretation is mistaken, and I think the story actually invites a helpful comparison between how Jesus wants to be “read” by Nicodemus and how God wants to be “read” by us through Scripture.

When Nicodemus first comes to Jesus, he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus responds that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Now, this answer has traditionally been interpreted as a rebuke, but I see nothing in the surrounding text to support this reading. In fact, it strikes me as an anti-Semitic reading born of a desire to see the Pharisees in general, and Nicodemus in particular, as emblematic of a Jewish fixation with the law. To the contrary, I hear in Jesus’ response to Nicodemus a guarded affirmation of his ability to see God at work in Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus affirms Nicodemus’s judgme
nt in a way that invites him to say more, to explain himself, to claim his own view of Jesus’ identity. Jesus gives Nicodemus the benefit of the doubt, despite the lateness of the hour, opening up a space for the two of them to enter into conversation. Notice, as well, that in this first response Jesus answers Nicodemus not with language about “entering” the kingdom of God, but with a remark about “seeing” it. Nicodemus has said that he sees the “presence of God” in Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus responds by saying that anyone who sees as Nicodemus does has been born from above. This is an affirmation of Nicodemus’s insight and an invitation for him to say more.

But Nicodemus does not attempt clarify his own views. Instead he hold his cards close to his chest and asks Jesus a question of clarification. Having heard “born from above” as “born again” – the Greek can mean both – he apparently thinks that Jesus is instructing him on some esoteric connection between “entering” the kingdom and physical rebirth. So he asks Jesus, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?” Jesus, with more than a little patience and grace, follows this obtuse line of questioning, even as he corrects the underlying misunderstanding. He shifts to Nicodemus’s language of “entering” but clarifies that he is speaking in spiritual rather than physical or biological terms. What is at stake for Jesus is the mystery by which people see, or don’t see, God at work in the world. When Nicodemus’s second response reveals that he is still thinking “literally,” Jesus becomes exasperated. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Having tried and failed to draw Nicodemus into conversation about his own views, Jesus then embarks on a lengthy monologue about his relationship to God. This monologue includes the beautiful and well-known verse expressing God’s love for the world, John 3:16, but sadly the conversation with Nicodemus is over.

What does it mean to take Jesus seriously? He wants a conversation with Nicodemus, but Nicodemus deflects the offer. Instead, he flattens out Jesus’ remarks and persists in trying to make literal sense of them. Jesus wants to engage Nicodemus as someone who had seen God at work in the world. In return, Nicodemus treats Jesus as a cultic instructor who might show him how to unlock the door of salvation. “Could you clarify that please? What did you say about entering the womb? And I didn’t get the part about the wind. How exactly does the wind blow?” Sigh.

Taking the Bible seriously does not mean fixating on the “literal” meaning of its words, any more than taking Jesus seriously means fixating on the “literal” meaning of his words. Taking Jesus and the Bible seriously means responding to a divine offer for honest and complex conversation about our own views of Jesus’ ministry, the world, and ourselves in it. It means making the Bible more important rather than less important in our lives. It means letting the Bible function as the primary world of meaning we inhabit as we try to make sense of our lives and as we decide how to live them out. It means weaving together the stories of our own lives with the stories in God’s Word, so that they become inextricably linked.

The real challenge of faith is not to believe in the literal truth of the Bible but to make the Bible – and through the Bible, God – a real conversation partner in all parts of our lives, not just in isolated moments of prayer or religious ritual but in the real, specific challenges and questions we face in our work, our personal relationships, our social and communal lives. Whether consciously or not, we all make meaning out of the stories of our lives by holding them in conversation with other narratives. Some of us do this with novels, some with movies, others with talk radio, TV, or magazines. Who and what are the primary narrative partners in your life? Have you ever considered letting the Bible play this role? Can you imagine taking the Bible seriously enough to do so? Can you see why the literalist approach is so poorly suited to allowing the Bible to play this role?

As a seminarian in the early 90s, I participated in a reading and discussion group with several other students who became close friends. At one point we decided to read the story of David and Absalom, which spans a number of chapters in the book of Second Samuel, and which is as powerful and complex a family story as any to be found in a contemporary novel or an HBO series. As we read and reflected on the story together, we found ourselves coming to new insights about our own families. We did not find any clear “answers” in the text, nor did we feel ourselves or our families “fixed” by our conversations. Yet it was powerful to share and reinterpret our own family stories in light of this ancient biblical drama. Perhaps what it means to be born anew, or from above, is to enter into deeper conversation with God through the biblical narratives, so that we begin to see more and more of our own lives from inside the biblical world and more and more of the world around us in terms of God’s transforming presence.

What does it mean for Christians to take the Bible seriously? It means letting the Bible function as a entryway into a divine world of meaning that one can call home. It means letting the Bible function as a river of divine sympathy that buoys up the deepest and most complex truths of our lives. It means letting the Bible function as a human-divine hand that steadies our soul when we find ourselves in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death. This way of reading the Bible has the potential to take us to a place far beyond literalism, a place that is at once authentically Christian and stubbornly nonliteral. Jesus wanted Nicodemus to go there with him, but he didn’t. What about us? Will we enter that sacred space?

~ Dr. Kirk Wegter-McNelly
Assistant Professor of Theology, Boston University School of Theology

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