Before a couple of months ago, the idea of taking a politician “seriously but not literally,” was a somewhat laughable notion. Yet, because of Donald Trump’s outlandish rhetoric and tendency to say nearly unbelievable things, this has become a legitimate argument for why he has been so popular among some people. People take his anger, his “get things done” style seriously, they just don’t take him at his word on every last crazy thing he says.
We do, however, apply this logic to other relationships. You hope that if your boyfriend proposes to you, he means it literally. But if he says, “I’ll love you for all eternity,” you know he means it seriously but can’t possibly mean it literally. I remember when I was in fifth grade, a boy hit me in the stomach with the leg of his chair. It hurt quite a bit and I was really angry, so to avoid yelling or punching him, I grabbed the nearest thing to me–which happened to be a pair of scissors–to squeeze, and said angrily, “I’m going to kill you.” Now, I did not think about the fact that squeezing a pair of scissors and saying “I’m going to kill you” could be legitimately perceived as a threat, since I’d never even really been in trouble at school. Yet, he told his mother, and later that night my mother sat me down to figure out what had happened. I tried to convince her that I was not to be taken literally, just seriously–I was just angry, not murderous! But of course, if I had continued to exhibit that kind of behavior, it would be irresponsible to presume that I never meant it literally.
At a certain point, failing to take a person’s words, whether for good or bad, literally (as in, “I mean this exactly how it sounds”) ultimately means not taking them seriously either. And that is a recipe for real world consequences.
One of the biggest problems in the church right now is a plethora of Christians who have realized that the best way to deal with the “crazy” things that Jesus says is to take him seriously, but not literally.** Sometimes the literary style of the gospels makes that separation easier because Jesus often tells parables that make use of symbolism or metaphor-rich characters, and therefore have meanings that can be personalized or made so abstract as to have little concrete value. So the parable of the Good Samaritan can be about me being nice to people down on their luck instead of a subversive indictment of xenophobia and exclusion. Jesus couldn’t possibly be saying something about immigrants and refugees! He means this parable seriously (read: don’t be a jerk) not literally (redefine what it means to be a neighbor).
From there, it is easy to “parable-ize” the rest of Jesus’ teachings. The Sermon on the Mount becomes a lesson in our sinfulness and inability to reach the perfection Jesus says awaits us in heaven.We can personalize “love your enemies,” to mean be nice to your boss or that coworker who is always gunning for your promotion, instead of a call to a new kind of community that extends love and hospitality to those who would do them wrong, refusing to hate or fear the people the government says we should. Teachings about wealth (give all you possess to the poor) and violence (do good to those who persecute you) don’t actually mean for us to do them. The description of judgment in Matthew 25 where the just and unjust are divided up based how they took care of the most vulnerable certainly can’t be taken literally because then our eternity would be bound up with our behavior and we know Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to a church door so that we could all pray the “sinner’s prayer” and get the bar code stamped to our hearts that lets us into heaven when we die.
This isn’t to dismiss legitimate differences of interpretation based on careful exegesis and context. But I would argue that most interpretations of Jesus’s hardest teachings absolve Christians from taking Jesus at his word.
We easily forget that Jesus was a kind of politician. He was running a campaign, calling would-be disciples to join a quiet, non-coercive, nonviolent revolution to take over the entire world right now. He invited them to eternal life, not just in quantity but in quality. He taught how to have an eternal kind of life that is meant to be lived now in order that the world might see the salvation of our God. He instructed them not only that they should (and actually could!) do things that don’t make worldly sense, but that he himself would do something nobody else had ever done: rise from the dead. At a certain point, if you keep finding ways for Jesus’ teaching to be taken seriously but not literally, you no longer have the resurrection. The resurrection demands us take Jesus seriously AND literally.
**There is a caveat here, which is that sometimes Christians have made the mistake of taking somethings too literally in the OT or in books like Revelation. I’m specifically talking here about the gospels. Of course, there is a legitimate debate about what “literally” means when we talk about the Bible, but that is a conversation for another time.**