Making A Literal Mess of Things

I’ve noticed something. You’re pretty confident when you settle in to read, well, anything. You’re no slouch; you intend to grasp the meaning of the text on the page. Even if the author is difficult (somewhat tedious but good for the gray matter like St. Augustine) or beyond your everyday thinking (like Adam Smith), you go into said reading session with the certain boldness of Genghis Khan expecting a victory. You seem to (rightly) think that the author intentionally wrote the material for you (or someone—perhaps some other cultural audience) to understand. You enter the sometimes arduous task with the happy expectation that even if figurative language is employed, the author actually wants you to “get it”. Like a low hanging apple, each phrase is placed within the reader’s reach.

Applaud yourself for each time you do that you establish another one of my points: books are to be read (here comes one of them fightin’ words) literally.

Speaking to the Christians for a moment: Amillenialists (and Covenantalists) put down your torches; Dispensationalists put down your banners. Charles Ryrie has done dispensationalists a bit of a disservice by claiming that one of the sine qua non of a dispensational hermeneutic is a literal reading of the text and some amillenialists have (rightly) taken him to task for those words. “Not fair,” they would say “we read the text literally as well”. Ryrie would say “not consistently you don’t” to which amillenialists have subsequently said “no fair, we do to: and you neither!” So Christians calm down for second, put away charges of allegory or sensus plenior for a moment while I address this matter of “literally” for everyone else.

“Literally” shouldn’t be jumped on even though many of my agnostic and atheistic friends like to do that. One must note how I’m using the term (and how I’m not). These series of posts has established that words, although special, only have meaning when used with other words and in context (of one another and of some external context that gives them appropriate meaning). That the thought of the writer is being brought to the reader as he properly packages what he wants to say. That the giving of any words (with intended meaning) is always under the canopy of a purpose  (note my intro paragraph). That as he or she writes they try to underscore their point in the way they organize their material, what they keep emphasizing via repetition (even if they don’t use the same words) and lastly if they outright state the problem they are addressing. They want the Reader to Get It and that’s what’s motivating them to finally record it in permanent text. In light of all that, my usage of the word “literally” does not mean “ignoring the figurative” but it means achieving the intended meaning of the author.

Literal reading of any given text doesn’t imply wooden literal interpretation (that the words mean what’s on the page and no further, full stop; feel free to laugh at the silly reading of metaphors) but rather that figurative language has an intended literal meaning behind the figure—even if you debate what that intended literal meaning actually is. Not only are the meanings of words within reach, but like rotten apples thrown at the horrid stage comic, the author hits us with the figurative when he wants us to get his point.

How this is accomplished is a matter of some debate.

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