Literalists. Literalism. Literally. Someone who takes the Bible literally – sometimes literalists in this sense are called letterists, which is a nice word but doesn’t really help explain anything – is someone who believes that Scripture needs no special interpretation and that it can be readily understood by the average reader. That’s because, for the literalist, the words mean what they mean in everyday language. Many literalists will acknowledge that the Bible contains poetry and even metaphor but will go on to say that when such things show up you’ll know it. A more extreme form of literalism would argue that the original manuscripts from which the books of the Bible were taken were inerrant (that’s a term in hermeneutics, which – sadly – has nothing to do with Herman Munster or Herman’s Hermits but refers instead to methods of interpreting Scripture; hermeneutics comes from the Greek word meaning interpret) in the sense that God more or less dictated them, word for word, to human scribes. Using a great big Dictaphone.
Our mail carrier is a letterist.
Where the rubber meets the road in literalism has to do with history. Some All Most Hardly any OK, ten Many literalists – one hesitates to use absolutes for the same reason that your 5th grade teacher told you that a true/false question that contains “always” or “never” is going to be false – would say, for example, that the account of creation that’s found in the first chapter of Genesis is true as history in the sense that we understand history today. As with the account of the Flood and the Ark (about 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 51 feet high: the Ark, not the account). Many literalists would say – as in Genesis 6:20 – that the Ark really did contain the following: “the birds according to their kinds, … the animals according to their kinds, … every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every sort.” And Noah actually was 600 years old, as we’re told in Genesis 7:6. (See? Diet and exercise!)
What if instead of being actual history, the stories of creation (There’s one in Genesis 1 and another in Genesis 2.)(I’m not making this up.) and of the flood were meant to tell us something about God? In a nutshell, that’s the Catholic position. No one is saying that the stories aren’t true, just that they’re true in the sense that myths are true: not as history – although they may contain historical elements – but as larger-than-life stories filled with symbolism, designed to reveal important things about God and reality that everyday language is too small to contain. As Fr. Harmon would say, “Hmmm.”