Bill Maher is on the loose with his new film Religulous. Proving yet again that within the breast of every dime-store atheist beats the heart of a Christian fundamentalist crank, the latest pop paladin of Truly True Scientific Atheist Thought sallies forth to combat the ravages of faithheads like Louis Pasteur who promote irrational superstitious belief in unseen realities like “God” and “germs.”

Maher’s method for dismissing religion puts me in mind of something that once happened to me while I was in Ireland to do a series of talks about The Da Vinci Code. I was being interviewed by the umpteenth UK journalist and answering, for the umpteenth time, the question, “But seriously. You don’t mean to tell me you, a man of the 21st century, take the bible literally, do you?”

I had tried repeatedly to answer that question with long, wordy distinctions and carefully parsed sentences over the course of several interviews with different reporters, only to see one MSM Brit after another glance at their watches in the middle of my nuance-filled replies and abruptly cut me off with something like “Mmmhmm. Look, we’re up against the clock. Thanks for talking about your quaint backward religion, which we totally respect. Next up: Posh Spice and Paris Hilton go bar hopping!” Then the firm handshake, the walk to the studio door, and the distinct sound of snickering just before it closed.

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This time, however, was different. I was tired from running all over Dublin. It was the end of the day and this was my last interview. So when he asked The Question in that “What a maroon!” tone of voice and looked at me across the table in the radio studio with that “Let’s see if the American Howdy Doody wahoo can form a coherent sentence” look, I wearily mumbled, “Which part of the Bible do you mean?”

The sneer slowly melted into a blank look of bewilderment. Through the fog of exhaustion, as I watched him quietly begin to panic, it dawned on me that I’d accidentally been clever. So I pressed him: “Do you mean to ask if I take it literally that David hid from Saul in a cave? Or do you mean to ask if I take it literally when Genesis speaks of talking snakes and the psalmist says his life is poured out like wax?” By this time, he looked pretty shaken and muttered something about how he didn’t know anything about the Bible. Now fully awake and suddenly unexhausted by the smell of prey, I suggested to him that he perhaps should stop asking that question if he didn’t know what he was talking about. It was a gratifying moment after a week of having reporters talking to me like I’d just fallen off the turnip truck.

And it’s something I’d suggest to Maher, too. The dude needs to learn how to read books written for grownups and not just content himself and other illiterate literalists with Beavis and Butthead levels of laughter at Christianity.

Here’s the thing: The Bible, while it is a single book authored by God, is also 73 books authored by men writing under inspiration. Those men were not robots zapped by a God Ray and forced to write against their will. They were perfectly free and writing exactly what they wanted to write. This means, among other things, that they were writing a lot of different kinds of literature and were by no means all writing newspaper language. Therefore, the very first step we should take as readers in understanding a biblical (or, for that matter, any) text is to determine what literary form the author is employing. Is the passage poetry? Historical narrative? Philosophical reflection? Pastoral instruction? Apocalyptic? Myth? Scripture is simply crammed with a wide variety of different kinds of writing, and the kind of writing you are reading will greatly influence the way in which it is intended to be read.

For Bill Maher, it is all the National Enquirer. This leaves him ill-equipped to cope with a complex adult document like the Bible, because when he is confronted with the fact that — mark this — every biblical text has a literal meaning, he instantly assumes a “literal meaning” is identical with a literalistic meaning.

In theological terms, the “literal” sense of Scripture is, “What the author was saying in the way he tried to say it.” But Maher makes the mistake of assuming that an author who uses metaphor, fiction, hyperbole, or various other figures of speech does not have a literal meaning. Thus, for instance, if I say, “My heart is broken,” people like Maher mistakenly imagine that I “meant nothing literally.” But, of course, I do. I literally mean I am deeply grieved and I am expressing that grief via a metaphor. Likewise, if I say, “The line for Religulous was so short, you could measure it in microns,” I am using an exaggeration to communicate another literal meaning: Not many people are going to see Bill Maher’s ignorant rant against the Christian faith. Indeed, more often than not, figurative language is exactly the right vehicle for conveying a literal meaning and is far better than nonfigurative language. The shortest distance between two minds is a figure of speech.

That is why Scripture employs dozens of different devices to communicate literal meanings. “I am the vine and you are the branches” employs a metaphor to express the literal meaning of the Christian’s complete dependence on Christ. Likewise, the author of Genesis uses various linguistic devices (such as measured Hebrew poetry and the image of six “days” of creation) to convey a literal meaning, but many modern readers mistake the device for the meaning. The literal sense of the author was, “Creation is the orderly act of a loving Creator God.” What the modern fundamentalist — both atheist and Christian — often hears, however, is, “The universe was made in six 24-hour days.” This is as wrong-headed as taking me to mean that my cardiac tissue has been torn in half or that Christ had delusions of being a grape plant. It is necessary therefore to distinguish between the literal meaning of an author and the various literary devices he may employ to communicate that meaning. 

Take, for instance, the parables of Christ. Jesus tells us the parable of the prodigal son. In relating this story to us, does Luke intend as his literal sense to tell us a true story about a historical Palestinian domestic dispute? Obviously not. His literal meaning is, “God forgives the repentant sinner.” But he has used a particular literary device employed by Christ to get that literal meaning across.

All this is fairly smooth sailing. But when we get to fiction rather than parable as the means for conveying a literal sense, the waters can sometimes get a little choppier. Good examples of this are books like Tobit or Judith in the Old Testament. For some reason, the Mahers of the world who (one hopes) have no difficulty recognizing that the fictional parable of the prodigal son communicates a literal meaning somehow are mystified when Old Testament books also aim to communicate truth via fiction. Thus, when Tobit or Judith are shown to contain a number of historic and geographic inaccuracies, some people get the vapors and imagine this means they could not have been inspired by God.

This is why it is so important to notice what the Church says in Dei Verbum: that we must interpret the books of Scripture “following the rules of sound interpretation.” When we do this, we find the Church teaches that, to understand the truth of Scripture, we have to have in mind what the author was actually trying to assert, the way he was trying to assert it, and what is incidental to that assertion. So, for instance, when the Gospels say the women came to the tomb of Jesus at “sunrise,” they are not mistakenly asserting the truth of Ptolemiac astronomy or promulgating a dogma that the sun rises rather than the earth moving. The “error” of the Gospels here is an illusion because the Gospel writers are not making any particular truth claims about astronomy to be in error. They are simply using human language in a human way.

All this appears to be very clear when you think about it. But it becomes more complicated when we are talking about a text that really does intend to tell us, at times, about supernatural and miraculous events. How do we distinguish between the miraculous and the merely fabulous? Tune in next week!


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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