Margaret and I have been wincing and groaning and rolling our eyes so much over the past few weeks that someone’s liable to lock us up — honestly, though, it concerns not our psychological stability, but the many and various invidious ways that people deploy the term “literal.”
(Not “literally,” this time anyway.)
Margaret’s working on the theology of hope, which involves attention to eschatology. When writers expatiate on the future, however, they demonstrate a terrible tendency to lay claim to authoritative use of “literal.” Fred Clark has pointed to the problem with “literal” in The Worst Books Ever Written (with extra credit for invoking the Muggletonians, a favorite digression in my lectures on Revelation or on the Montanists). Margaret notices that opponents of TWBEW frequently assert contrary “literal” readings that likewise depart markedly from what “literal” ordinarily denotes. And my engagements with hermeneutics and Anglican miasma constantly encounter people who claim that the literal or plain sense of words justify their side of an argument — as though their adversaries were arguing that “pizza” should be construed as “happily” and “bless” as “second-hand tennis shoes.”
The “literal” sense, or the “plain sense,” or whatever one might call it, just doesn’t do an honest day’s work when invoked in controversy. That’s as true now as it was in 1628:
That therefore in these both curious and unhappy differences, which have for so many hundred years, in different times and places, exercised the Church of Christ, we will, that all further curious search be laid aside, and these disputes shut up in God’s promises, as they be generally set forth to us in the Holy Scriptures, and the general meaning of the Articles of the Church of England according to them. And that no man hereafter shall either print, or preach, to draw the Article aside any way, but shall submit to it in the plain and full meaning thereof: and shall not put his own sense or comment to be the meaning of the Article, but shall take it in the literal and grammatical sense.
(I know I’ve quoted that before, from The King’s Declaration Prefixed to the Articles of Religion of November 1628, but it remains as true now as it did then and when I’ve quoted it before.) “Literal” doesn’t function to disprove what an interlocutor proposes; it doesn’t provide a bulwark against misinterpretation; it doesn’t unveil (apokaluptô, “reveal”) the supposed real meaning of words or phrases. There’s no there there. “Literal” always operates only within groups that already share the premise that such-and-such is a literal sense, or that have not already set down stakes for a contrary position.
Where the refernce of a word or phrased has been dispute, loud assertions about what it “literally” means have no pertinence; the meaning is what’s in question. Most claims about what something or other “literally” means should be recast as arguments that readers ought to construe such-and-such literally as X, or that a reading that proposes X as the literal sense of the text provides the best, soundest, most illuminating reading of the text. By the same token, readers who ascribe figurative, allegorical, or metaphorical sense to particular expressions have not taken flight from reality; they assert that the best, most fitting, most illuminating, most persuasive reading of the text emphasizes aspects of the text that extend beyond the literal.
The “literal” sense of these texts is hardly ever what people care about — they usually care about the tropological (ethical implications) or anagogical (implications about the shape of the future) or allegorical (doctrinal implications), which for various reasons they conflate with the literal. Alas, the literal sense isn’t equipped to fulfill their aspirations — so they whip the poor, bare, lexical-grammatical unit like Balaam’s ass, trying to force it to do what it can not. And like Balaam, they’re wrong.
We use “literal” or “plain sense” most soundly when it is trivial, when it’s not in dispute; we used it almost as soundly when we use it in grammatical or syntactical argument, where clear warrants and conventions provide a shared framework within which to work toward assent; we use the terms foolishly and ineffectually when — as is most common — we use tham as rhetorical arm-twisting (or cheer-leading) to assert that we’re uniquely correct in contexts where “literal” or “plain meaning” is precisely what’s disputed.