I was once a conservative, but now find myself more often than not in between the two extremes of most issues. This blog is dedicated to those who live in the tension critical thought can bring. I am the pastor of Harmony Baptist Church in Morton Valley, Texas, and am currently attending Seminary at the Logsdon Theological Seminary at Hardin-Simmons University.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Literal and True

In my church we are working through the book of Revelation in a Sunday Night Bible study, which I am teaching. In the course of our lesson last Sunday, we discovered that the words "literal" and "true" are not synonyms. That is, something can be literal and untrue, and something can be true but not literal. For example, the phrase "This is a table" is literal. There is no figurative language, no metaphor, simile, hyperbole, etc. However, if you are pointing at a chair while making that statement, your phrase is untrue. If you are pointing at a table while making that statement, your statement is both literal and true.

On the other hand, something can be true but not literal. I referred to the tape recorder we used to record the lessons. I said, "This recorder is capturing my words." That statement was not literal. My words are not physical objects moving around on their own, and the tape recorder was not tracking them down and trapping them. What was literally happening was that my vocal chords were creating vibrations in the air. Those vibrations were sensed by electronic equipment in the microphone, interpreted and converted to an electronic signal. The signal was then recorded by aligning little magnetic thingys (here my technical knowledge breaks down) on a piece of tape. Later, we could play back the tape, and the magnetic alignment would be sent to the speaker, which would then convert the signal back into air vibrations, which our ears would detect as vibrations on little hairs in our aural canals, then they would convert the vibrations that our brains would interpret first as sound, then as words, then our brain would make sense of the words.

That is literal. Pretty bulky, huh?

On the other hand, the recorder was capturing my words, in that it could be used to carry the words around and let them out at the appropriate time. The statement was not literal, but it was true. On the other hand, if the recorder had not been turned on, the statement would be unliteral and untrue. Literal isn't always preferable to figurative, since figurative is often quicker, and because it is less bulky, can be more effective.

In terms of the Bible, things can be true but not literal. Take for example God's statement that God carried the people of Israel on Eagles' wings out of Egypt. The people walked out on their own two feet. The statement is not literal. But the statement is true, because it refers to the people being taken out of Egypt by a power not their own (God's intervention to convince Pharaoh to let them go and then protecting the Hebrew's in the desert.

So, literal and true are not synonyms, in fact, literal and true are independent variables, i.e. they are neither dependent on one another nor are they mutually exclusive.


Blogger JC Baker said...

That was a great description of how a tape recording works! Wow, I didnt realize you were so smart, Tank.

All joking aside, you have raised a great point that many in our culture need to hear.

One follow-up question begs to be asked, though. I agree that it is possible for something in the Bible to be true but not literal; can some biblical texts be understood as literal but not historicall true?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005 11:39:00 AM

Blogger Tanktimus said...

It is possible JC. For example, the descriptions of armies in the Old Testament are always rounded off to the nearest thousand. Those are literal statements. However, if rounding was involved, then the numbers are not historically accurate. As to whether or not they were true, that depends on your view of truth. But I do think it works both ways.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005 12:48:00 PM

Blogger BurroJoe said...

You've described what Kenneth Burke called the distance between symbols and real words. He claimed that this distance causes considerable guilt in humans.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005 2:00:00 PM

Anonymous B.L. Baker said...

Since someone mentioned Kenneth Burke, I will also note that we who study rhetoric, semiotics, etc. would argue that words are never really "literal" but instead refer to some presumed reality (e.g. words are not the things), which may or may not be "true." As Michel Foucault so famously noted about a drawing of a pipe, "this is not a pipe." And I.A. Richards claimed that all language is metaphorical.

Following this, Tank, the physical object you point to in one instance is what we, in English, call a "table" (as opposed to the "chair") but that isn't really what it is, in "reality." Indeed, it may be referred to by other words (some more "accurate" than others, e.g. "desk," "card table," "dining table", "mesa," etc.). So, if the concept of "literal" is attached to the real, how can we know that our words actually reflect that?

For myself, given the ambiguities of language, along with the importance of context in understanding that language, literalness is less of a concern in interpreting Biblical texts than the idea of the "true" (which, in my experience, is, indeed, almost always metaphorical).

Thursday, October 20, 2005 2:26:00 PM

Blogger Tanktimus said...

You sound like a modified phenomenologist B.L. I'm somewhat aware of Foucalt's theories, and am not completely enamoured of them. I would not presume to argue that language is capable of being as univocal and clear as the moderns would have us believe. On the other hand, however, I refuse to believe that language is as completely metaphorical as the radical wing of post-modernity (e.g. Foucalt and Derrida) would have us believe.

I would tend to argue that language is somewhere between being absolutely literal and absolutely metaphorical.

Thursday, October 20, 2005 9:23:00 PM

Blogger B.L. Baker said...

Not so much a phenomenologist, but a communication professor with a doctorate in rhetoric & film, and a personal interest in theology (and religious rhetoric). I consider myself mostly a post-structuralist postmodernist feminist theorist (whew! What a mouthful of jargon!).

The idea aboutlanguage as metaphorical that I referenced was from rhetorican I.A. Richards, a contemporary of K.Burke, who wrote primarily in the 1930s & 1940s; his concepts were reinforced by the "General Semantics" movement of the 1950s-1970s (mostly prior to those pesky French postmodernists, although personally I enjoy reading Derrida, and I find Foucault stimulating--he claimed to not be a postmodernist, by the way).

Richards distinguished between the "purely denotative" (e.g. medical langauge) and the "poetic" (literary language), with rhetoric falling in-between. Subsequent theorists have argued that language, in general, is not primarily denotative (that is not reflective of, or pointing to "reality") but more connotative ("poetic") and constitutive (a position similar to social constructivist theory). Language becomes the lens (or, in Burke's terminology, the "terministic screen") for how we know reality. The concept of "literal" then, esp. in a text like the Bible, would have to be contextualized (both in terms of the original language and current use). How were these words used in the ancient world? What are the meanings we can glean from them today? Considering the amount of poetic language in the Bible, a strictly literal reading may very well miss the larger theological point (an argument made by John Shelby Spong, as I understand his writing).

For those of us in rhetoric and linguistics, these are not particularly radical ideas. Indeed, most rhetoricans trained in the last 15 years or so, myself included, probably would argue that most languge also is ideological, as well as constitutive.

I've come into this as someone trained in rhetoric. I'm not really trying to claim anything about the nature of "reality" or a particular sacred text. I'm just raising some philosophical points--ideas that struck me as I read your original post. Personally, I'm glad to see you and other religious scholars struggling with this question of what is literal and true, because I am very dismayed with those who insist on a completely literal reading of Biblical texts.

Friday, October 21, 2005 11:03:00 AM


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