Metaphor, Hyperbole and Context

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A moderate and self-styled ‘intellectual’ Christian told me in a online discussion recently that ‘most of the bible is metaphor’. When I asked what it was a metaphor for, he decided it was time to end the discussion. A metaphor signals a deeper or alternate meaning; the bible cannot be ‘mostly metaphor’ without there being something else – what Christians might regard as a ‘greater truth’ – the metaphor is intended to convey. So, yes, I can see that the Genesis creation stories might be interpreted metaphorically (though symbolically might be a better term) as the inclination of all humans to rebel against God… but then that’s only one of many interpretations, and not actually what the text says. If the bible is mostly metaphor then understanding what God is supposedly communicating through it becomes a matter of personal, subjective interpretation, which is why there are so many factions and sects within the Christian brand.

Similarly, when I challenged Dave Armstrong on Biblical Evidence for Catholicism, about why Christians don’t take everything Jesus said literally, he told me it’s because Jesus was fond of hyperbole and it’s the point underlining his hyperbole that matters. I knew, of course, that Jesus liked to exaggerate so I asked Dave how we know which of Jesus’ remarks are hyperbole and which are not. He declared that this was ‘obvious’. Perhaps it is, in sayings like ‘when your eye offends you pluck it out’, but it’s less apparent with pronouncements like ‘sell all you have and give to the poor’ or ‘abandon everything and follow me’. Again, it becomes a matter of subjective opinion, however learned that opinion might consider itself to be, about which of Jesus’ words are hyperbole and which are meant to be followed to the letter.

When I made this point, Dave decided that, rather than it being ‘obvious’, it actually takes years of study to know which is which: ‘It’s by studying Bible commentaries and linguistic aids, and the rules of hermeneutics and exegesis (Bible interpretation).’ Jesus as the incarnation of the God of the Cosmos, and the gospels in reporting him, could surely have made it clear. Instead, it seems, it takes armies of theologians and commentators, and years of study to work it out.

The third way Christians (of all stripes) manoeuvre around the bible’s shortcomings is to say that anything they’re keen to disregard is ‘context-bound’. There are some matters, they say, that are of their time and ancient place and are therefore no longer applicable today.

There are things in God’s timeless Word that pertain only to the time in when they were written? Who knew?

So, instructions like ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ (which Paul advocates four times in his letters: Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26); ‘women should always have their heads covered in church’ (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) and ‘heal the sick by anointing with oil’ (James 5:14) are now generally considered to be context-bound. This, however, creates the same problem that arose over Jesus’ hyperbole. How do we know which of the bible’s pronouncements are context-bound and which are still of significance today? Answer: we don’t.

It could be argued that, just as ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ is a custom anchored in the first century, beliefs like

the world is populated by demons,

humans are capable of living forever,

and

incantations (that Jesus is the Saviour) work

are equally context-bound. We know categorically in the 21st century, that demons don’t exist, humans cannot live forever and magic spells don’t work. Only those in a pre-scientific age, dominated by superstition, thought so (together with those today who buy into these same ancient beliefs.)

Once believers start claiming – and it’s Christians themselves who do this – that significant parts of the bible are metaphor, hyperbole or are context-bound, then they’re acknowledging that the bible frequently makes little sense, and that significant portions  lend themselves to whatever interpretation suits the individual reader. Some parts can even be dismissed altogether, which is precisely what Christians do with them (how many Christians do you know who believe they can move mountains or heal the sick by laying on of hands?) What this shows is that they don’t really believe the bible is God’s Word, either in the literal, evangelical sense, nor in a moderate, quasi-intellectual way.

In practice, even to most Christians, the bible is a book of no particular merit.

Measure for measure

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I get so tired of being told how I should live my life. Christians do this quite often, either directly or indirectly. Most don’t know me but they think they have a God-given right to tell me, purely out of love of course, that I’m a sinner who lives life in such a way that it’s going to cost me my eternal existence. God has, apparently, given me over to the wickedness of my own depraved mind (Romans 1.26-29) and they just can’t stop telling me. Being judged relentlessly, and condemned, by a couple of Christian ‘friends’ a few years back was what started me writing and blogging about Christianity in the first place.

When the self-righteous tell me how I should be living my life I usually point them to Matthew 7.1-2 where Jesus is fairly clear about where he stands on the judgement issue:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

His followers today, however, as they’ve always done, have all sorts of reasons why Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. He never does when they don’t like what he’s saying. Doesn’t he elsewhere, they point out, judge people for their sins? Yes, he does, which only goes to show how inconsistent he was – or at least how inconsistent those who were inventing his stories were. It’s an own goal, but what do his modern day followers care if it gets them off the hook?

So instead, I try 1 Corinthians 5.12 where Paul says,

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?

Now, I’m quoting out of context. Paul is, in any case, speaking rhetorically/metaphorically/symbolically/out of his arse. (Actually they don’t suggest the last of these even though it’s the closest to the truth.) Christians demand the right to judge. From prominent Christians like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson to common or garden evangelicals, they are commissioned to tell you the good news of Jesus, an integral part of which is to judge you for the louse they think you are. Conveniently, they ignore the fact that Jesus is emphatic that they themselves can expect to be judged in exactly the same way they judge others. Should you object to their sanctimonious condemnation, or worse still, if they have to face the consequences of judging those outside the church, they claim they’re being persecuted, denied their freedom of speech and are having their religious ‘rights’ trampled on.

I grow increasingly intolerant of their intolerance, which I’d say is the sort of measure-for-measure Jesus says can be expected. As far as I’m concerned, they can all take their ‘good news’ and shove it where the son don’t shine.

Why Christians Don’t Do What Jesus Tells Them To …And What They Believe Instead*

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A few days ago, notorious God-botherer and TV evangelist, Pat Robertson, said on his TV Show that churches should revise Jesus’ stern teaching about divorce to better fit modern sensibilities. As today’s Christians divorce at about the same rate as non-believers, old Pat thinks it a mite inconvenient that they should feel guilty about it. He reminded his viewers that Jesus gave the church authority over all things and that it should therefore amend Jesus’ teaching. That’s amend as in ‘ignore completely’.

Which is fine, I guess, if you take the same approach to everything else Jesus said. That way, Christians would be safe to ‘amend’ his commands about feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, healing the sick, turning the other cheek, welcoming the stranger, going the extra mile, forsaking possessions, relinquishing wealth, giving to everyone who asks, not judging, putting themselves last and others first, loving their neighbour and enemies alike… and so on.

But wait – they do that already, don’t they? Most Christians don’t practise these things. They don’t see these commands as applicable to them. They work hard, and unconvincingly, at interpreting his words as metaphorical – ‘he didn’t really mean give everything away because where would that leave us?’ – or claim they’re being taken out of context, or insisting they have a spiritual meaning…

Which is to say, nothing Jesus said is to be taken literally, even though the most straight forward reading of his pronouncements is that this is how he meant them. It’s how his early followers, the people who preserved or created his words in the gospels, understood them. Why record them otherwise?

But Jesus’ moralising is inconvenient, impractical, exacting, extreme; ridiculous, in fact, and Christians know this. Still his commands must be dealt with somehow. So the Righteous™ work round them – like Robertson and the teaching about divorce – or they ignore them completely and replace his priorities with ones of their own: worshipping him; defending his reputation; striving for power; complaining about secular society; promoting aggression; acquiring wealth; trying to control others’ behaviour; interfering in others’ sex lives; suppressing LGBT people; arguing that religious rights trump those of minorities; opposing abortion.

None of these figured on Jesus’ agenda. Some are in direct opposition to what he’s made to say in the gospels.

When we see Christians doing the things Jesus tells them they should be doing, maybe then we’ll listen to what they have to say. When they demonstrate credibility rather than hypocrisy, maybe they’ll have earned the right to be heard. But as there’s not much chance of that happening any time soon, it’s way past time we ignored them, and their superstition, in much the same way they ignore their Lord and Saviour™.

 

 

*See my book of the same name: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/147016373X/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i0 (US) & https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/147016373X/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i0 (UK)