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Writings show that Dr. King rejected literalism

By Alexander Carpenter
I read this article today in the San Francisco Chronicle and found it interesting in light of the blog conversations we’ve been having over the last couple of weeks about biblical literalism.
What happens when hermeneutics means more than concerns for the grammar and history? Beyond the historical-critical or the Rio de Janeiro stop-gap, might a hermeneutic that focuses on embodying the truth in the text look like the mission of Martin Luther King?
Perhaps when we concretize inspiration into the text we freeze out the same Spirit that moves us to build that arch of history always bending toward justice. Chuck Scriven’s essay “The Bible and the Seminary” nails this point hard.
Frankly, like Jim Wallis points out at the end, I don’t care how we get to acting like Jesus – peace, social justice and compassion – but we need more now. And especially at the institutional church level.
(Because there are several view points in the article I snipped these paragraphs in order, but I left some out. . .read the whole article here.)
Many of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most formative writings and
sermons  —  some dating to when King was a precocious 19-year-old seminary
student in 1948  —  languished for decades in a battered cardboard box.. . .The texts, which illuminate the theological foundations that America’s
most celebrated social activist would repeatedly return to, are revealed in a
book to be released today  —  Martin Luther King Jr. Day  —  by Stanford
University’s King Papers Project.. . .The texts are triggering a discussion about how much King’s rejection of a
literal reading of the Bible shaped his social activism.. . .King was not a conformist Christian. He not only eschewed literalism, he
was a strident critic of how the Christian church perpetuated injustices such
as slavery and segregation.. . .”Too often has the church talked about a future good ‘over yonder,’
totally forgetting the present evil over here,” King wrote in 1952 to Coretta
Scott, his future wife. . . .”Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and
not concerned about the city government that damns the soul, the economic
conditions that corrupt the soul, the slum conditions, the social evils that
cripple the soul, is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood,”
King preached in 1962 to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in
Atlanta.. . .King didn’t believe the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale was
true, for example, or that John the Baptist actually met Jesus, according to
texts detailed in the King papers book. King once referred to the Bible as
“mythological” and also doubted whether Jesus was born to a virgin, Carson
said.. . .For some literalists, King’s belief that not every word of the Bible is
true would mean he was not a Christian  —  even though many others would say
no other 20th century figure more effectively used Christianity to shape
society. . . .Carson also said King criticized the other extreme  —  the belief that
the Bible is purely a political text, devoid of faith.. . .”King’s idea was that by acting nonviolently and by resisting peacefully,
one is re-enacting Jesus’ way on Earth,” Lischer said. “King’s followers didn’t
carry guns. They didn’t kill people. They instead took a beating.”. . .Jim Wallis, an evangelical speaker and author popular with the political
left, believes King’s faith grew beyond the liberal theology of his youth and
deepened as the civil rights struggle intensified. 

“His theological liberalism was not an adequate foundation for what he
would face later,” Wallis said in an interview. “I would argue that the more
deeply one moves in the struggle for social justice … personal faith becomes
more important.”

He disagrees with Carson, the Stanford professor, that King’s liberalism
with regard to the Bible was connected to his social activism.

“It’s a mistake to say social justice comes from demystifying scripture,
becoming a liberal and then you become committed to poverty,” said Wallis, who
has heavily criticized Christian conservatives for their moral attacks on
homosexuality at the expense of working to tackle social problems, particularly
poverty. “There is a tradition that theological liberalism leads to a social
gospel, but there’s also an evangelical tradition that Jesus brings you to

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