The very idea of literalism bothers me. It seems to me that there really is no such thing. After all, the moment you read something, hear something or see something, the moment you experience it, you – yourself – are interpreting it, aren’t you?
I’m distinguishing from “factual,” by the way. It seems to me that something being factually correct isn’t the same as literal. Literal must surely mean something is exactly as it appears and not open to interpretation beyond what it literally is, right?
I looked it up online at dictionary.com and it has this note under “usage:” “since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning ‘in effect, virtually,’ a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning ‘actually, without exaggeration.'”
I guess now we’re interpreting literally.
It may seem like I’m being a bit silly about this, but many churches this month are hearing the chapter of John’s gospel in which Jesus describes himself as “the Bread of Life.” It’s the first of a series of “I am” statements that Jesus makes in order to describe himself and what he’s about.
Just to be clear: Jesus says “I am” these things. He doesn’t say “I’m like these things” or “here’s a really cool metaphorical way of describing me.”
This week, he’s a little more specific even. “So Jesus said to them, ‘very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:53-56).
It would worry me a little if people thought we should take that “literally” – the old meaning of literally – that Jesus really wanted you to gnaw on some flesh and drink some blood. Literally. Of course it’s an image to help us better understand the role of Jesus in our lives. Isn’t it?
Let’s step back for a minute. When we hear this today, we employ our interpretative lenses of two thousand years understanding that Jesus was referring to the sacrifice of his life, two thousand years of teaching about the institution of the eucharist, the re-enactment of the Last Supper in which the bread and wine either symbolize or becomes (depending on your tradition) the body and blood of Jesus. It’s not hard for us to understand that Jesus means this “as an intensifier meaning ‘in effect, virtually.'”
But the story’s not from this century and the people listening to Jesus have no such lens with which to interpret it. Furthermore, according to Hebrew law, it’s forbidden to consume “flesh” (defined as meat without its blood spilled) and blood because of the belief that “life” is in the blood. This language alienated some of Jesus followers. It also left the earliest followers of Jesus with a reputation. Seems some people got the idea they were cannibals …
So why was Jesus being this outrageous? Well, it’s not the first time. Think of how many of Jesus’ parables make his point with an extreme image. And what about the miracles? Not long before this story, Jesus fed more than five thousand people with five loaves and two fish.
This “bread of life” story has been going on for a little while in John’s gospel and still the people don’t seem to get it. But I think for once, being literal is on the right track. In that outrageousness is Jesus’ point: it is not enough to change the way you act, it’s not enough to just behave differently, it’s not enough to think or speak differently, it’s not even enough to believe. To become one with Jesus and with God is to take Jesus – and God – within you, to – literally – consume Jesus so that your whole being is fed. Your whole being. The bread which keeps this physical body alive is not enough. Not even the manna in the wilderness can do more than that. Only the “Bread of Life” can feed your whole being in this life and the life to come.
That’s right. It comes down to something we can easily understand: you are what you eat. Literally.