One of the nastiest games played by the media and by some speakers is the game of labels. We put labels on people to identify what box they belong in and once we have applied the label, we automatically assume that all the traits which we associate with the box automatically apply. I am an old hand at boxes. When our son Tim, who has multiple birth defects, was old enough to attend public schools, the school guidance person asked me what my son's problem was. The issue that I felt the school would have to deal with was Tim`s mental retardation so I told the counselor he was mentally retarded. She looked at his IQ scores--all ranging in the lower 50s--and informed us that he could not attend the classes they offered because, with an IQ that low, they could not handle him. I asked her why they would have a problem, and she responded that feeding him, having to handle his clothing and books, and not being able to communicate with him would he impossible in a class with one teacher and over 20 kids. "Besides," she said, "these kids are always so loud and disruptive that they interfere with all the other kids."
At that time, Tim had been feeding himself and dressing himself for several years. He would sit for hours and look at books, his vocabulary was almost normal for his age, and he was very qulet and retiring. When we brought Tim into the counselor to verify these things, her response was that he obviously was not retarded as we had said. This lady had constructed a box. Anyone she put into that box labelled retarded was automatically assumed to have a certain set of characteristics. If those characteristics were not present, the child did not belong in the box and a different label would he sought. In over three decades of battling the bureaucracy for our son, we have seen this scenario repeated over and over.
The same thing is true in matters related to religion and faith. Terms like inerrancy, inspiration, theistic evolutionists, creationists, religious right, and fundamentalists are tossed around in books and articles as if everyone knows what they mean. When someone asks, "Do you take the Bible literally?" what is your response? To some people, the question is asking if the person believes that every word in the King James translation of the Bible means what it says in contemporary English. Others would understand the question to be asking if the person believes the concept conveyed by the passage is correct, understanding that the words may have changed with time and that the type of literature may influence the kind of understanding that is made. Still others might understand the question to ask if the person believes that God put a grain of truth in the passage, but the actual description may not be literally true.
An example of the above is Genesis 6:4
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of man and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
Reading the passage as it is stated in the King James Version without looking at the context, one would assume a number of strange things were taking place--including "giants in the earth." To some people, taking the Bible literally means that the giants were real and that a variety of other strange relationships were taking place. A second way of taking the Bible literally is to say that the event being described is true, but it is not what the above interpretation suggests. First of all, Genesis 6 is the flood chapter and so the understanding needs to be made with an eye to what led to the flood. Secondly, when one looks up the word that the King James Version translates as giants, one finds it is the Hebrew word nephilim which conveys a being that has rejected God's will, but not a giant. The word giant apparently came from the Latin gigantus from the Vulgate translation of nephilim into Latin and is not what the word should convey at all. The message is clear--people faithful to God formed marriages with pagan people and the result was catastrophic. Those who believe the passage holds a grain of truth would deny any of the events are historically true. They would argue that there was no flood but that the passage emphasizes the importance of philosophical and religious unity.
At this point, the reader may say, "Well, all you have done is build three boxes!" That is exactly right! Your author does not contend that there are no other insights to be gained or things to be learned. The second explanation is what I believe is the best understanding at the moment, but I am open to new evidence of any kind. The only way that we can grow in our understanding is to have an openness to new understandings and ideas. Taking the Bible literally by this definition is an open, positive process.
What is happening today is that phrases like "biblical literalists," "religious rights," and "fundamentalists" are being applied to people who believe the Bible to be true in any sense. It is time for care to be used in how we identify people's beliefs. A religious prejudice and bigotry occurs that is atheistic in its result, if not its purpose. In the past year, I have had several incidents where radio or newspaper reporters refused to even allow us to purchase time or space. Because I believe the Bible to be true and defend the Bible on a scientific base, I was classified as a person incapable of an open and educationally useful discussion. I have also been castigated on occasion by religious people because, even though I believe the Bible to be true, I do not believe the Bible to teach that the earth is 6,000 years old. Rather than consider whether the case I am presenting has merit, I have been put in a box labelled "theistic evolutionist," and assumed to hold a whole string of beliefs that I do not in any way endorse.
I suspect this problem is at the root of most religious controversy in one way or another. Jesus said, "by their fruits ye shall know them." We need to have the openness and fairness with one another that Jesus demonstrated and taught. Only then will we be known by our unity and our fruits.
-JNCBack to Contents September/October 1995