Literally no-one understands the word ‘literally’ anymore. I suspect that the meaning of the word has changed over the last generation or two. ‘Literally’ came into English from Old French (so blame William the Conqueror). It came from a French word meaning ‘letter’. So when it was first recorded (which was around 1475), it meant ‘to the letter’ or ‘by the letter’. In other words, ‘literally’ began with the meaning that the words were an exact representation of what they said. But that is no longer the case.
Recently on a news program, I heard a senior doctor complaining about the long hours worked by young doctors in hospital. He said, “They’re literally dead on their feet”. Wait a minute! No they’re not! If they were, he’d be ordering coffins, not better working conditions. What that doctor did is what everyone seems to do these days with ‘literally’.
Why does this matter? It matters because as evangelicals, we claim to ‘read the Bible literally’. Our critics sometimes accuse us of this. But it is unhelpful. The truth is, it’s impossible to read any book literally because books are full of metaphors, similes, verbal images and other assorted figures of speech. When Jesus called himself “the good shepherd” (John 10:11), did he mean it literally? No, of course not! But if he had said he was “the good carpenter”, he would have been right on the money. When Jesus declared himself to be “the true vine” (John 15:1), was he speaking literally? No, because he was clearly more biological than botanical!
I think that when people use the word ‘literally’ these days, what they really mean is ‘seriously’. What the doctor I quoted above wanted to do was draw attention to the seriousness of his situation. When we finish a statement with “and I mean that literally”, what we are usually saying is “and you’d better take me seriously”.
So in the midst of this verbal confusion, is it time to stop talking about reading the Bible literally and instead talk about reading it seriously? Should we be speaking about reading the word of God intelligently, thoughtfully and seriously as words directly inspired by God (1 Tim 3:16-17)? We would be saying that we read history as history, parable as parable, poetry as poetry, prophecy as prophecy and so on, and that we are treating everything we read with utmost seriousness because it is God’s message to us.
Perhaps this way we won’t tie up our unbelieving friends in the verbal muddle that ‘literally’ has become. And I mean that seriously.