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I attended a Christian university in the long ago days of acid wash denim and Commodore 64s. One of my classmates, Ken Jacobsen, had a gift for impersonation. He was renowned for his imitation of Bono on the U2 song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." "I have spoke with the tongue of angels," he'd croon when he got to the fourth verse. "I have held the hand of a devil." But then he'd alter the lyric and sing, "N-o-t literally. It's only a metaphor." That always got a huge laugh.
It's been decades, but I still remember the joke. I realize now it was humorous not only for its inherent silliness, but also for the way it held up a mirror to something funny about ourselves.
Most of us were earnest, sincere evangelicals. We weren't biblical studies majors, but we saw the defense of the Bible as our sworn duty. Against the onslaught of those who sought to undermine Scripture's authority, we committed ourselves to upholding it as the reliable Word of God.
One of the unintended side effects of our fervor was that we took almost everything literally, at least in spiritual matters. Generally, we weren't very good with oblique metaphors and analogies. And if, like Bono, you talked about spiritual things in a seemingly unorthodox way, well, we worried.
There was much that was good about our impulses, and maybe they were necessary in a time when the "battle for the Bible" was raging. But for me, and, I suspect, others like me, our "literalist" convictions left us confused in significant ways—not only about song lyrics, but, much more tragically, about Scripture itself.
All these years later, I'm learning that understanding the literal meaning of the Bible is a more nuanced adventure than my college friends and I imagined. We'd been blithely unaware that there is more than one genre in the Bible, or that literary context profoundly matters to meaning. We didn't understand that when we read ancient Hebrew prose poems (like Genesis 1), wisdom literature (like Proverbs), or ...