Overview:

John MacArthur's outrageous take on slavery can be directly linked to his literalist Christian beliefs, as can authoritarian leadership in Christian groups.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

A recent post on Religion News caught my eye. Written by Jonathan Merritt, it concerns “the dangers of biblical literalism.” This topic has been on my mind ever since I ran across a major Creationist site insisting that “Genesis is the foundation of all doctrine, the Bible, and our Christian worldview.” The very worst sorts of Christian leaders and groups desperately need their followers to buy into biblical literalism, which is quite possibly the most childish and poorly-informed hermeneutic possible.

Captain Cassidy’s Christianese 101: Literalism edition

A hermeneutic is simply one’s outlook when considering what Bible stories mean. One seminary asserts that there are four major hermeneutics. Literalism is only one of them. Others include seeing the Bible as a moral source, as an allegory, or as something called an anagogical hermeneutic. That last bit mostly means figuring out its various codes for prophecies.

Biblical literalists believe that the Bible is 100% objectively accurate and true in every single way. Creationists are the obvious illustration here, but many others exist.

Closely associated with literalism is inerrancy. That’s the notion that the Bible is correct in all ways and cannot contain a single error. The literalists we’re talking about today tend also to be inerrantists, but this isn’t always the case.

Biblical prescriptivism vs descriptivism: When the Bible asserts something, it can either be prescriptive, meaning it’s something Christians should obey now, or descriptive, meaning it was just what Jews or Christians were doing at the time. Descriptive stuff is more cultural- and context-specific. You can probably guess which side literalists tend to take.

Back when I was Christian, in the 1980s and 1990s, I was a fundamentalist. Fundamentalists tended to be biblical literalists, inerrantists, and prescriptivists. Though we technically formed a subset of evangelicalism, we bristled hard when lumped in with these tribal enemies, because they didn’t go for much of that.

Evangelicals used to accuse my subset, which people called fundamentalists back then, of being childish simpletons who couldn’t handle the deeper meaning of the Bible. Fundamentalists, in turn, thought evangelicals were weenies who couldn’t handle the real deal of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. But then the two groups fused in the 1990s.

You may also see the term exegesis thrown around. That means critically examining something in the Bible. If you need to blend in at an evangelical church, this word makes for some mighty fine camouflage.

Also, when I talk about a group being a tribe, I mean it in the negative sociological sense of tribalism.

My first Pentecostal pastor preferred a bumper sticker based more on literalism

Back when I was Christian, a popular bumper sticker began showing up on the roads of Houston. Heck, it’s still popular. You’ve probably seen it yourself:

The Bible says it

I believe it

That settles it

But my first Pentecostal pastor, a genial old fellow who had led this congregation for decades, said during a sermon that he didn’t like that bumper sticker. He thought it should say something else: “the Bible says it, so that settles it!”

Indeed, a brief search reveals that you can, indeed, get bumper stickers saying exactly that. I reckon he wasn’t the only literalist on the planet who didn’t like the idea of belief informing one’s notion of “settled” in the Bible.

Related: More hardcore than thou: the allure of weird Christianity

But back in the 1980s and early 1990s, literalists like us were regarded by almost all other Christians as weird, fringe, kookoo-wackadoodle fanatics. Just a few years later, though, evangelicals would fuse with those selfsame fanatics—and that fusion would come to overpower that entire end of the Christianity pool!

How literalism transforms a Christian’s worldview

As Pentecostals, my old tribe believed that the Bible was 100% true, real, and accurate in every way; that it could not possibly contain a single error; and that every rule it laid down was meant for all people to follow forever. To use the jargon, we were literalists, inerrantists, and prescriptivists.

Officially, we relied on a Bible verse, 2 Timothy 3:16, which asserted that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” That meant that nothing in the Bible ever went out of date. None of it ever applied only in certain situations or to particular people or times.

You might have just thought of a few problems with that viewpoint. Eventually, so did I. And so have many Christians. Here’s a Bible professor, Wil Gafney, offering food for thought:

Literal readings of nonliteral texts can also lead to fraudulent readings, dogmatic tenacity to ahistorical or unscientific claims, and the loss of credibility for those who insist on nonsensical interpretations.

Wil Gafney, Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament, for New York Times, 2013 (back when people were still arguing a lot about Creationism)

That’s definitely been my experience.

After my deconversion, I began wondering if a nuanced understanding of the Bible as a product of its time(s) just scared the willies out of my former tribemates.

The real answer would turn out to be considerably worse than I could ever imagined.

The literalism wackadoos have taken over the pool

Buying into literalism does something to Christians’ sense of discernment. It’s like the belief turns off their entire apparatus for objectively weighing and assessing the claims they encounter.

The only thing I can compare it to is something some of my friends in tech support used to call “Duh Mode.” We supported a particular brand of personal computer whose user base tended toward, let’s put it charitably, the lower end of computer literacy. I won’t name the computer (but it rhymes with “sympatico”).

As a result, end users who called us for tech support tended to be of the a little knowledge can be dangerous variety. Often, they understood just enough of a system to completely hinder the tech trying to help them. To short-circuit these users, some techs would deliberately deploy a bunch of jargon during the call. The users would feel completely outclassed by the tech, and they’d stop trying to move ahead or click on buttons the tech didn’t want them to click.

Sometimes I think that literalism does much the same thing to Christians. Some very authoritarian leader convinces them that the Bible must be taken literally and considered true and accurate in every way. Once that’s accomplished, all that leader needs to do after that is assert that their interpretations are, in fact, the literal meaning of the Bible verses in question.

That’s definitely how things worked for me, back when I was a fundamentalist. I may have liked some things about evangelicalism, and I might even have thought some of my evangelical friends seemed way more Jesus-y than my fundamentalist peers were. However, it didn’t matter what I thought or how I felt about my package of beliefs.

The Bible had said it, and that settled it.

Why authoritarian Christians need literalism

It is next to impossible to find authoritarian Christians who go for any hermeneutic but literalism. Likewise, non-authoritarian Christians tend to avoid literalism. There’s a damn fine reason why authoritarianism and literalism are two awful tastes that taste even worse together.

It’s not a reason that makes literalists look really good. But then, most reasons for their behavior don’t. Here it is:

Leaning on literalism provides a source of authority that cannot possibly be beat, at least in the perception of the authoritarians who rely on it.

How literalism feeds authoritarian leaders and followers

Authoritarians fall into either leader or follower types. Literalism supports them both in different ways.

Leaders love the fact that their authority source (the Bible) can be adjusted at will to suit whatever their goals are right then. They also really like knowing that their ultimate authority figure, Jesus/Yahweh, doesn’t actually seem to care or notice what anyone actually does. It’s just like not having a boss at all!

Meanwhile, followers love the (false) feeling that they are completely, utterly safe in Jesus-ing the way that their leaders demand. These followers fully embrace the false promises of safety and security that their leaders offer them as part of embracing literalism. Those promises will of course turn out to be false, and constantly at that. However, authoritarian followers don’t tend to stop embracing these promises just because of that!

Having a divine net beneath their feet that doesn’t actually exist means more to these followers than thinking they’re going through life without one at all. Either way, there actually isn’t one at all. But the false promises about that net provide hope that maybe it will materialize after all at some point. If they fulfilled a very extensive asterisked list of requirements. And Jesus was in a good mood that day. Who knows? Miracles happen!

Creationism: A case in point

At the top of this post, I referenced a Creationist post from this past May. In it, noted pseudoscience charlatan and turbo-grifter Ken Ham told his readers this:

When I began speaking in churches (my first creation apologetics church presentation was in 1975), I had a burden to help people understand that Genesis is the foundation of all doctrine, the Bible, and our Christian worldview.

A Biblical Authority Ministry,” May 10, 2022, at Answers in Genesis

He was being completely honest here, but not strictly accurate.

Authoritarian power-lust is his real foundation. Genesis is simply the book of mythology he chose as the conduit for his ambitions, and literalism the engine he chose to exploit that book.

Lots of books can be used this way. And those books aren’t always the ones you’d expect. One pagan I met was even trying to use Greek mythology to gain power over a group of followers! (I’m pretty sure he failed miserably, but it was a heckuva try!)

By pushing Genesis as an objectively true, real, and accurate account of history, Ken Ham could gain a huge amount of power over the people he persuaded. Every time a Creationist follower got slapped in the face by contradictions to reality and drilled down harder on these false beliefs, that follower only became an even more determined and passionate little sheep.

A snapshot of days gone by: 2013-2015

In 2013, when Wil Gafney wrote about “the risks of biblical literalism” for the New York Times, she did so as part of a roundtable the newspaper did. That roundtable concerned Creationism.

At the time, Creationists mounted constant attacks against real science. They used social media, blogs, and lawsuits to try to push their pseudoscience and literalist indoctrination materials into publicly-funded science classrooms across the country. Even though these anti-science hacks had gotten their butts handed to them back in 2005 with the landmark lawsuit Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, they still thought they had hope of success.

Around then, a new breed of atheists arose on social media to join the fray against Creationists. If you’ve ever heard mocking terms like “euphoric” or derisive accusations around wearing fedoras, some of these atheists were the target. They were not nervous or deferential at all, and they made a lot of very good points.

As you might guess, the mid-2010s were a rollicking time, as far as heathen/Christian interaction went.

And around then, I began seeing interactions of a new kind:

Confronting literalists with the really problematic stuff in the Bible, then asking them if they really supported something as awful as that.

A literalism counter-attack that failed absolutely miserably

What we all expected to happen:

The Christian’s eyes get huge and horrified. They stop and put their hand to their mouth. “Oh no,” they murmur. “That’s just too awful. You got me there. Ooh, yeah. You got me. How could I ever possibly support a god who did anything that awful?”

What actually happened:

The Christian is not fazed at all. In fact, they smile as they parrot a well-rehearsed, oft-performed response. “Oh, well, that atrocity you named isn’t actually bad at all! You’re just not looking at it from a certain point of view!”

“See, slavery was just like working for McDonald’s! Biblical slavery was totes fine! The Great Flood didn’t really genocide babies, because we’ve decided that the planet’s women had been infertile for years by the time the waters rose! Jesus didn’t condemn slavery or explicitly end chattel-style marriage or even institute handwashing before delivering babies, but it was all between the lines and those awful Jews didn’t listen! And those Midianite girls were totally of-age and totally not sex slaves at all.”

(And yes. These are all things I literally heard Christians say at the time.)

Literalist Christians only drilled down on the Bible’s many atrocities. They evolved a new kind of apologetics, atrocity apologetics, that sought to give believers a way to square the circle of all that terrible stuff in the Bible. Even Al Mohler, one of the biggest names in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), got in on that act!

Sidebar: This new literalism seems like weaksauce compared to what it was for Pentecostals

That said, literalists today just seem so shallow and weak compared to literalists back in my day. Seriously. Back then, literalists followed a whole lot more rules for absolutely everything:

  • “Holiness standards” for women: uncut hair styled simply; dresses or skirts past the knee; long sleeves and high necklines; no jewelry save perhaps a wedding ring; absolutely no makeup or pants, and nothing styled in a masculine way. Never loud in speech or behavior. No tattoos. Basically, a non-Libertarian version of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
  • “Holiness standards” for men: short top-n-sides haircut; long sleeves at least to the elbow at all times; high necklines; no shorts; no jeans, no tattoos, no jewelry (again: save for a wedding ring), etc. Basically, Don Draper.
  • No sportsball games, movies, concerts, parades, civic festivities, etc. Holidays like Christmas are okay, as long as everyone makes everything involved super-Jesus-y.
  • No secular music. Probably no Christian contemporary music either. Obviously, also nothing with a “demon beat of Africa.” Classical is safe, except for Boléro. Gospel is ideal.
  • Nothing that looks Catholic, including Trinitarianism (the three-in-one god-belief). Oneness Theology or bust, baby!

Maybe it’s my inner Gen Xer speaking here, but if a bearded guy sporting an earring and skinny jeans or a woman in full makeup, pantsuit, and short hair tries to tell me that America should totally put gay people to death because muh bibbical lichur-lizm, I just can’t take them seriously. It’s like evangelicals took the authoritarian power potential of literalism but left behind all the hard parts of living that way.

I reckon every new crop of literalists pick and choose what they will take literally and what they can safely ignore as cultural-specific, even if they officially believe that all of it is in full effect forever and always.

My old tribe did it too, of course, just in different ways.

And now, here we are

After that waltz down Memory Lane, let’s come back up to 2022. Literalist Christians are now a huge chunk of Christendom, not the fringe-dwelling wackadoo extremists that evangelicals once mocked and derided for getting hung up on a childish interpretation style.

And that chunk is indeed big. Lately, I’ve seen a couple of surveys, like this one from Gallup, that had about 25% of their Christian respondents claiming to buy into literalism. The Gallup source indicates that way fewer American Christians are literalists, but I really suspect that Christians in the 1970s through the early 1990s defined literalism in slightly different ways. I can tell you that my evangelical friends really thought they took the Bible as “the literal word of God to be taken literally,” but they were not literalists by any means, not as people use the term today.

Either way, that figure makes literalist Christian leaders wring their hands, but it really alarms me given my background in fundamentalism.

(Back then, I heard literalism called “majoring in the minors,” as well as “legalism.” Legalism is just Christianese for a belief or practice that the judging Christian thinks is a bit excessively scrupulous. If you’re wondering, the opposite of legalism is lukewarmness.)

That is why I really appreciate Jonathan Merritt for bringing up the sheer shocking regressiveness of John MacArthur. MacArthur is one of the most powerful men in evangelicalism today. And he’s saying things his tribe is probably well-used-to by now.

John MacArthur ain’t sayin’ anything strange, by literalist standards

What John MacArthur is on record as saying about slavery is absolutely nothing new or even revolutionary or at all unusual, in terms of evangelical literalists and their atrocity apologetics. They’ve been saying this stuff for literal decades by now. And I’ve been writing about it for almost a literal decade by now.

By the same token, Christian Reconstructionism, a movement that seeks absolute power in all public and private spheres, has been pushing these beliefs—and the various apologetic talking points around them—for a long time.

So it’s really nice to see someone bringing attention to atrocity apologetics in a mainstream site like Religion News. (Merritt even offers a different quote from Wil Gafney!) The more people know about the real extent of literalism and how it is being used to inform hardline conservative Christians’ political opinions and public behavior, the better.

Ultimately, there really is no good side to literalism. It is toxic through and through. It creates too many opportunities for abusers and predators to come into great personal power with no real accountability, then to use that power to abuse their followers without any fear of repercussions. That’s why I’ve said for years that literalism cheapens both the Bible and Christianity. Whatever the ideal form looks like for believers, literalism cannot get them there.

I hope that in the days to come, more people focus on literalist Christian leaders⁠—and realize that their cruelty and overreach are a feature, not a bug of literalism.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...