Thinking metaphorically

Beyond literal belief
Book | Beyond Literal Belief: Religion As Metaphor | David Tacey

Review by Garth Jones

In Beyond Literal Belief, Professor David Tacey presents a passionate treatise, brimming with reverence and ambition, on rescuing the perception of religious faith from literalism and the idolatry and fundamentalism he suggests it potentially begets.

Presenting a series of allegorical readings of well-known Biblical parables, Tacey delves into the work of renowned philosophers and applies their insights to a poetic reading of the scriptures.

Citing the work of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and St Thomas of Aquinas (amongst many others), Beyond Literal Belief unpacks and explores a mythical approach to understanding the Bible, as opposed to the trend to approach it as a historical document devoid of the literary techniques of allusion and metaphor.

This approach is, of course, challenging and perhaps even controversial to many readers. The author’s brazen, contentious language can occasionally border on unforgiving. But, as he notes, the basis for his thesis is rooted in philosophical thinking which has been prevalent for the last several centuries.

Tacey reflects on the compelling spiritual truths locked within biblical text. His ultimate objective is to provide a contemporary framework upon which to build on biblical engagement and the exploration of spirituality, a movement gaining renewed relevance in the 21st century (consider also Daniel Dennett’s recent Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Faith Behind).

Unlocking elemental concepts – including the Resurrection, the Apocalypse, the Virgin Birth and the Kingdom of God itself – Beyond Literal Belief investigates the core literary devices employed by the Bible’s authors to unlock the latent spiritual knowledge detailed therein, canvassing a gamut of beliefs and the lessons they impart.

While bemoaning the abandonment of religious principles, Tacey acknowledges the attraction of secular attitudes and new age thinking. The author proposes a renewed investigation of the parables, a religiosity which is, as he puts it, ‘not delusional but metaphorical’, acknowledging the essential role of mythology in regulating the spiritual life of the community.

As the writer appreciates, ‘the Bible is a tapestry of stories designed to challenge and enhance life’s meaning’. He feels it is a catalogue of transcendent realities, collected wisdom and universal truths perhaps best characterised as a handbook for the enrichment of the soul itself.

He also acknowledges the views of Hitchens and Dawkins, whose case for extreme atheism rests on the fact the texts are not literally true, which the author asserts is to miss the point of faith entirely.

Tacey’s work proposes to liberate and reimagine millennia of dogmatic, entrenched religious thought in a spirited attempt to revivify the spiritually nourishing essence at its root. He embraces a broad array of thinkers, philosophers and theologians in an effort to re-frame the modern attitude to faith.

Beyond Literal Belief: Religion As Metaphor can be a thorny, confronting proposition. But is one with which it is well worth persevering, offering, as it does, an intriguing investigation of alternative principles upon which to frame one’s faith.

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