Everyone has their little annoyances, and here’s one of mine: when people complain about conservative Christians’ “biblical literalism.” This is almost always a misnomer, the one exception coming when the discussion concerns the age of the earth. Young-earth creationists do indeed read the Genesis narrative in a literal, as opposed to a symbolic or allegorical, way (or so they think). But in other cases the term is a red herring; it doesn’t even apply to fundamentalist readings of many other parts of Scripture. Just consider the long history of fundamentalist readings of the books of Daniel and Revelation — a history brilliantly told in Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More: those spectacularly speculative interpretations of Daniel’s dreams and St. John’s visions, with their repeated invocations of the Six Days’ War, the European Union, and the Soviet Union, are anything but literal-minded.
Likewise, many gays and lesbians decry the “literalism” of “Christianists” who cite Biblical sources to condemn homosexuality — but that’s nonsense. After all, it’s not like there’s a possible symbolic meaning for statements like “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination” or “the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another [and] committed shameless acts with [other] men.” Conservative Christians do indeed take those statements literally, but then, so does everyone else, because there’s not another way to take them. The real question is wholly different: whether those passages are to be granted authority, whether people should defer to them and see them as worthy of obedience. That’s the real disagreement here: whether what the Bible says — always assuming that it has been rightly understood — on these matters is binding upon us. It has nothing at all to do with “literalism.”
(And of course, no word is more often abused than “literally.”)