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Set Free From Literalism for Life: The Bible and Child Abuse

July 1, 2002

Ian Lawton

Ordinary Sunday 13     Matthew 10:34-42


Today I want to do the good evangelical thing, and give a three-point sermon, or reflection. My three points will be 1. That literalism is absurd 2. That literalism is convenient and 3. That literalism is tragically dangerous. Overall I want to suggest that literalism runs counter to the style and content of Jesus life, which was a triumph of freedom, reform and contextualised teachings.


Literalism is absurd. There is a radio personality in Canada whose name is Dr Laura Schlessinger. She made some recent comments that the clear teaching of the Bible is that homosexuality is a sin, leading her to be censured by Canadian anti hate laws. A lecturer in religion at the University of Sydney posted an open letter on the Internet to Dr Laura. The letter exposes the absurdity of literalism. Here is an extract……


Dear Dr Laura


Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's law. I have learnt so much from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.


I do however need some advice from you, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.


a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord (Lev 1;9). The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?


b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21;7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?


c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15;19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.


d) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev 11;10) it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?


e) Lev 21;20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20 or is there some wiggle room here?


f) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev 19;27. How should they die?


g) I know from Lev 11;6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?


h) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19;19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/ polyester). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev 24;10-16) Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev 20;14)


I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help me. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.


Your devoted disciple and adoring fan

Carole Cusack


Literalism is absurd!


I had a religious nut in the church during the week; in fact I had several. It must have been the full moon. One of the first questions a young guy asked me was 'Did I read the Bible literally?' He asked whether this was the church that accepts gay and lesbian people? When I said yes, he told me that the NT expressly forbids this and that I was going to hell because of it, and all the gay and lesbian people were going to hell as well. Lest we think it is only the non-mainstream churches which read the Bible literally, think again. A leader in the Anglican church in Sydney was heard by a friend of mine recently saying that no candidate for ordination who supported the ordination of woman would be accepted, as it was clearly against the teaching of the Bible. In fact it was more serious an issue than whether the candidate believed in the resurrection of Jesus. It would seem that literalism is a moveable feast of absurdity. Literalism is not only absurd; it is used as a tool of convenience to justify just about any ideology.


Yet most significantly of all, literalism is tragically dangerous. Take for example our Genesis reading for this morning. (Genesis 22:1-14) Literalistic interpretations of this text would suggest that nothing is more important than obedience to God's law; not even our children's lives. It would most likely go further and suggest suffering is in some way connected to redemption, so justifying any manner of evil and abuse in the interest of salvation. The son would become collateral damage in the interests of the purification of the Father. Of course if literalists are honest they will admit that their ideology involves a dualism of men on the one hand and women, children, animals and the environment on the other hand. The one group serving the needs of the other. Literalism is a political position to take on the text. It is an ideology.


A literal interpretation of this text offers particular offence to families who have suffered the tragedy of abuse either within the family or in the church or some other social group. Here was Abraham, the great patriarch of many nations, standing at a point of power, at the point of abuse. We can only wonder whether that darkness permeates the life of the church today in the discovery of power abuses amongst the church patriarchs. Such a reading of the text is unthinkable, as it leads to the view that God is an abusive God who demands abuse in the interests of salvation. The cross would be tainted in the same way by such literalism.


I prefer a symbolic understanding of the event which may or may not have actually occurred in the way it has been reported. Abraham stood at the point of decision. He stood over the ultimate symbol of his own immortality; his only son, Isaac. It wasn't as much about the sacrifice of his son, as it was about the giving up of his own need for permanence. Freed from that need, Abraham would be free to live life now and live fully without the need for a place in history. In the process the son Isaac might be freed from the need to fulfil his father's immortality and simply live his life as it unfolded.


This of course is a symbolic attempt of mine to reconcile the text to our Gospel passage which speaks again about the value in caring for the little ones. It fits for me with the liberation message of Jesus, as well as with my experience of being a father. The gospel message of care for children, freedom from legalism, liberation from darkness make a literalistic interpretation of Abraham and Isaac dangerously tragic. Families' experience of abuse make a literalistic interpretation of Abraham and Isaac unthinkable. This God would have to be abandoned as cruel and manipulative.


Literalism is absurd, convenient, legalistic, dangerous and tragic in its consequences. The gospel is liberating, life giving, common sense affirming, always open to change and context. It's a message which moves you forward rather than holding you in the past. It opens up possibilities rather than locking you into rules and systems. You choose which makes sense for you. You choose which offers the most to life. Today in Catholic churches an apology will be offered to all victims of abuse at the hands of church leaders. It could well be done in Anglican churches as well, and in most denominations. We can only wonder at the role of the ideology of literalism in such devastation.


The church too will choose; choose to follow literalism or the gospel.

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