In a previous post, I mentioned 4 senses of Scripture that Christians throughout the centuries have used to better understand the Bible and its impact of their relationship to God and neighbor.
Today, let's briefly cover the Literal sense of Scripture. This is probably the best understood, and the approach most conservative Bible readers take when reading and interpreting the text. On the face, it would seem the easiest to grasp, and it may be but that simple when put into practice.
To recap: the literal sense is the plain sense or the meaning that the original audience would have derived from the text on it's surface. The original audience may have seen implications and applications by what was written, but what is the apparent sense of the text.
As simple, as this may seem, it still may take more than one reading to find out what is going on in the text. Here are tips that can help in understanding the literal sense of the passage:
1. Genre: Within Scripture there are multiple examples of genre: historical narrative, poetry, apocalyptic lit, gospels, letters, theological treatises, and wisdom lit. Words will take on different meaning depending on the genre. For example, poetry is highly expressive and full of metaphors that attempt to make abstract concepts and emotion concrete and meaningful for the reader. To read poetry as narrative generates silly results, and diminishes the force of the language.
2. Context: The surrounding paragraphs and words impact what is begin said. Jumping from passage to passage can be dangerous. Bible mash-ups could lead to heresy. Please don't close your eyes, open the Bible, point and read. When thinking about context, make sure the surrounding verses and chapters are considered. Similar literature and language are helpful as well as books by the same author.
3. Structure: Structure could be a subset of context. Trying to outline a book can often create a birds-eye of themes and purposes that help fit individual stories and passages into a greater context. This is especially true of the Gospel. Asking the question, "Why would the writer place this story here, when another writer included it elsewhere?", could help uncover the structure and purpose of the writer.
4. Audience: Who is the author addressing in the book? What are their issues? For me, this is helpful reading the prophets. Many of the prophets contain long diatribes addressing a pagan nation. These nations didn't care what a crazed mystic from a two-bit nation in the corner of the Middle East think about their actions or destiny. Israel is still the audience, so why would hearing a lengthy curse of a neighboring tribe benefit them? There is no doubt the gospels are written to different groups, and figuring that out helps understand the structure and content of what the author is saying.
Just because it's the plain sense of the text doesn't mean there is no depth. You may still have to wrestle with the text to squeeze out the literal rather than lift it straight from the page.