What does it mean to read the Bible “literally”?

“It’s a waste of time to argue with fundamentalists. And this film doesn’t do it. It’s designed for intelligent people who are willing to change their mind. And of course, one film is not going to change religious life in America, but it will give intelligent people who want to read the Bible in a modern way a chance. If we insist on reading the Bible literally, in 25 years nobody will read it any longer.”– William Dever, biblical consultant for the PBS film, The Bible’s Buried Secrets4

The objection, “You don’t read the Bible literally, do you?” is a smug retort that characterizes conservative Christians as naïve or uneducated. It suggests that evangelicals robotically absorb every biblical word in a one-dimensional, wooden fashion while “intelligent people” read it with sophistication. But a disdain for reading the Bible “literally” reveals a skeptic’s presumptions about passages rather than his examination of them. In fact, the objection itself shows that the skeptic may not be as sophisticated as he presumes to be.

To read anything accurately, we must read it literally (i.e., according to the context, structure, purpose, and background in which it was written). Informed Christians    recognize that the Bible is full of literary devices and figurative language such as metaphor, simile, metonymy, typology,   allegory, personification, and so forth. The difference between us and most skeptics, including the Bible scholars popular media selectively consult, is that we don’t dismiss out of hand the supernatural elements like they do. Just because the content of a passage seems unlikely to modern-day secularists (Jonah being swallowed, the Red Sea parting, etc.) doesn’t make it figurative. Jumping to a naturalistic reading of a book that claims to be divine (2 Tim. 3:16)* and that has the historical credentials to prove it, shows that literary considerations have taken a backseat to twenty-first-century presumptions.