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Literalism in Religion

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Last week, on Interfaith Voices, I interviewed a young man who calls himself the Son of Hamas. His father is one of the founders of Hamas, and he was being groomed for leadership. But he was arrested and tortured by the Israelis, and finally came to betray Hamas and work for Israeli intelligence. He also converted from Islam to Christianity.

What struck me in the interview, however, was his literalist understanding of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an. To him, it is a terrorist book, and both Allah and Mohammed are terrorists. When I pointed out to him that all scriptures are open to interpretation, and that none of the Muslims I had interviewed before would agree with him, he insisted simply, “I am right and they are wrong.”

For him, there was only ONE possible interpretation of his scripture and his faith. So, in his mind, he had to reject it. Several listeners wrote to us to point out that there are Christians with a similar “literalist” mentality. Certainly, many evangelical Christians read the Judeo-Christian bible that way.

But what about Catholics, I wondered? We are certainly not biblical literalists. But it occurred to me that some Catholics treat papal pronouncements like other Christians treat scripture. Certainly some members of the hierarchy speak that way. They are right and everyone else is wrong. No give, no dialogue, no nuances. We might well ponder that tendency; I doubt that it is healthy for any faith tradition.

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