Many fundamentalist Christians insist on a literal reading of Genesis. Ben Spackman says that the meaning of the word “literal” has literally changed over the centuries!
Ben: The idea of a literal reading goes way, way back to Augustine, actually. He wrote a two-volume commentary on Genesis that he called a literal commentary….When he says, “I want a literal [interpretation].” What he is saying is, “I want to read this according to the author’s intent. What did the author intend this to be?” Augustine’s already a thousand years removed from this Babylonian context. Ben: He has no way of providing an actual, literal interpretation because he can’t get into the mind of the author. He doesn’t have access to the Babylonian material. He doesn’t have access to any of that stuff. A literal reading, and you can find this in the Catholic catechism as well–a literally reading is a reading that gets at what the author intended. It’s a deeply contextual reading. It requires some expertise. It means reading poetry as poetry, reading fiction as fiction, reading history as history. It doesn’t mean a surface reading without context. It doesn’t mean a scientific reading. It means reading according to the authors intent. So, if I have a poem and I try to read that poem as history, that’s not a literal reading. If I have a history that I try to read as metaphor, that’s not a literal reading. If I have a non-natural philosophy creation account, but I try to read as scientific history, that’s not a literal reading. That’s a misreading.
He also talks about religious populism. What is that, and how does it relate to a literal reading?
Ben: our modern idea of literal reading–that I can read it, I can understand it, I don’t need a priest or a pastor, an academic to tell me what it means. It’s part of the populist 19th century, anti-clerical stuff that carries over. It’s not helpful to us. The idea that person “A” reading in English 3000 years removed from these things with no context will understand it the way the author intended, the way the first people heard it is implausible, let’s say kindly.
So how does this fit into LDS history? Joseph Smith had two competing instincts. On the one hand, he was very populist. That’s evident in a couple of places. On the other hand, he studied Hebrew. He did a tiny bit of Greek. He did a little German. He gets asked once, how do you interpret this? And he says, “Well, read it in context.” This is how I would paraphrase. He says, “Well, look at the question, how do you interpret this parable? Look at the question that drew it out, look to context to interpret and understand.” The impulse to context, to Hebrew, to all that kind of thing, I think that kind of died with Joseph Smith. The populism continued. There’s a lot of distrust of experts, of academics, especially academics who have things to say about the Bible, right?