Literal Use of Scriptures No. 5

Spiritual Leader Burnout reason number 5:

Literalism versus Contextual Use of Scriptures

Why should the literal use of Scriptures lead to burn out? I see two main reasons:

First when Christian spiritual leaders read the Old Testament and take it literally, they are basically proclaiming the Jewish law, the Jewish worldview and a Jewish theology to be “Christian”. By confusing the two very distinct parts of the bible, and by taking the historical and contextual dimension out of the Hebrew Scriptures, spiritual leaders have to preach and teach a theology that often does not match what Jesus said or stood for. The consequence is that Christian spiritual leaders are becoming incongruent and contradictory, as they proclaim a Jewish theology while essentially being Christians. This unacknowledged contradiction causes stress and leads to confusion and exhaustion in both spiritual leaders and their listeners/followers.

Secondly if Christian spiritual leaders read the New Testament literally and do not take into consideration the cultural and historical dimension of the many different authors who wrote the New Testament collection of books and letters, they put themselves into the position of asserting an antique and male dominated interpretation and cultural background also as the norm for our current cultural circumstances nearly 2000 years later. This can create great tension between spiritual leaders and their followers. When spiritual leaders take the New Testament literally, then they often have to condemn the current world as it is. When setting the historical time in which Jesus happened to be born absolute, spiritual leaders ignore the necessary hermeneutic practice of translating one context into another, seeking similarities, and acknowledging differences or incongruencies openly. Initially a literal use of New Testament Scriptures might seem to make things easier. However, a literal approach can easily lead to the isolation and estrangement of spiritual leaders as listeners will feel judged and misunderstood by such literal interpretations. Stress and burnout can be the consequence for leaders who believe that their literal interpretation is the only “right one” and everybody else is “wrong”. This kind of thinking can lead to listeners/followers completely rejecting the spiritual leader as self-righteous and judgmental. The leader’s consequent feelings of isolation, resentment and anger/rage can lead to emotional burnout while they lock themselves into false dualistic “black and white”, “right and wrong” way of thinking. They are consequently in danger of embracing fanatism or fundamentalism as further draining and destructive stances that easily emerge when leaders are feeling rejected or challenged.

On the other hand a contextual/historical understanding of Scriptures opens up multidimensional ways of understanding historical and spiritual texts. The process of learning to tolerate ambivalences while openly acknowledging historical and contextual contradictions and differences can lead to a leader’s maturation and greater resilience. Parallel to the spiritual leaders’ increasing flexibility of considering all contexts involved, listeners/followers will also feel considered and understood. The relational and spiritual connections between spiritual leaders and their communities are strengthened. Spiritual leaders’ experiences of “literalism burn out” can be reduced or prevented.

All of us spiritual leaders are encouraged to seek additional and/or ongoing education to learn about the historical and contextual use of all religious scriptures. Professional spiritual leaders need to lead others by becoming deeply contextual while “holding the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other” as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth asserted.