Supporters of fundamentalism and literalism argue that the authors of the Bible were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, that every word is the direct word of God and that, as such, every word must be true.
Adherents of literalism argue that the Bible provides an exact factual history of the world from its creation onwards. According to this logic, through using the Bible we can determine the age of the earth, we can learn about how life was created and prospered, and even (some suggest) how the world will end. Furthermore, the Bible also provides us with our moral codes: its texts tell us what we should and should not do.
There are numerous problems with this approach. To begin with, very few of us can honestly claim to have read the Bible aside from in translation. Few of us can read Hebrew, Aramaic and Ancient Greek. Yet there are many different English language translations, each containing different words and phrases, sometimes including concepts that would be meaningless to the writers of the texts. I will take one example, often misused to show how God condemns homosexuality: 1 Corinthians 6:9.
The Greek word malakoi (μαλακός) has been variously translated as “effeminate” (King James Bible), “sodomites” (Jerusalem Bible), “sexual perverts” (Revised English Bible) and “homosexuals” (Revised American Standard Bible). Some other translations focus on “practising homosexual”, others favour “catamites” or “pederasts” or “male prostitutes”. All of these have different emphases, and none can capture the meaning of the original (which is still debated by scholars). Anyone who has ever attempted to translate a text will know there are concepts and words that do not have exact equivalents. Try translating the Scots word “dreich” into English: several words would be required, and even then the full extent of a typically dreich day needs to be experienced to be understood.
Literalism also fails to explain the contradictions in the Bible: from the two different accounts of creation in Genesis to differences in dating the birth of Christ in Matthew and Luke. Those who reject literalism and fundamentalism have no need to explain these contradictions: we don’t necessarily look upon these texts as an exact historical record. The creation stories are parables – just like the stories of The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son and The Talents (and perhaps we should ask ourselves why Jesus so often chose to use parables when preaching his message). The exact date of Christ’s birth really isn’t important. Just like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela it is his legacy that is more significant.
Literalists claim that scientific truth can be found in the Bible. For example, Young Earth Creationism (YEC) and the only slightly more sophisticated Intelligent Design (ID) claim the first two chapters of Genesis as fact. They argue that much of the science behind geology, astrophysics and evolutionary biology is contradicted by Genesis, and therefore must be wrong. This is probably what theologian Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse meant when she criticised fundamentalism as “the bastard child of science and religion”.
Kevin Lewis in “On the Heresy of Literalism” (1997) calls this attempt to make the Bible scientific a type of idolatry. He writes: “The literalist misleads Christians by asserting the idolatrous notion that the words of inspired Scripture … bind … God … to the narrow limitations of scientific common sense interpretation.” In so doing they lead us away from faith, instead attempting to prove the literal truth of Scripture. In effect, they are reducing the Bible to a text book, containing all the history and science we need.
Literalists also claim that this science and history text book provides a universal and timeless moral code. How the pseudo-science of YEC leads to the condemnation of homosexuality is never adequately explained, apart from the unintentionally comic assertion that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Given the literalist belief in the historical accuracy of Scripture, it is ironic they should see Leviticus as an ahistorical moral code, rather than merely a set of laws appropriate for a society with high infant mortality, short life expectancy, perpetual war, unimaginable poverty and non-existent health care. It is even more ironic when one considers that even the most literal of literalists rejects or ignores some of the laws in Leviticus.
Increasingly, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, literalism and fundamentalism have been at the service of political and moral conservatism. This is most apparent in parts of the USA, where Biblical literalists are among the strongest opponents of gun control, socialised health care, equal rights for LGBT people, abortion and easily available contraception. They also form the bedrock of the influential neo-cons and tea party supporters in the Republican party. Back in the 1960s, they were among the loudest supporters of racial segregation. Much of what they believe in is diametrically opposed to the message of Jesus – yet they have the nerve to claim they and they alone know what is Biblical truth!
Western societies are, rightly, concerned with the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. However, there is an equally dangerous fundamentalism closer to home. As Christ said: “Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take out the splinter in your brother’s eye.” (Luke 6:42, Jerusalem Bible).