When teaching at Kalamazoo College, I sometimes had to fight an uphill battle with secular liberal students who basically took fundamentalists at their word that they were following the Bible “literally” and who felt that such “literalism” was somehow the most authentic form of religion.
Throughout my time there, I would emphasize the fact that a literal reading of the whole of Scripture that sticks to the “plain sense” and comes out with a single meaning is impossible. First, there are clear surface-level contradictions, and as soon as you start coming up with ways to explain that away, you’re not being literal anymore. Similarly with the strategy of prioritizing certain books or passages over others (the “canon within the canon” approach) — while such an approach is basically unavoidable, it is also not “literal” because the Bible doesn’t come with its own meta-text telling you which parts to emphasize.
Some students were probably convinced, but I think it’s a weak argument because it concedes the terms of debate to the fundamentalists. It puts literal interepretation into the series that includes allegorical interpretation, midrashic interpretation, historical-critical interpretation, etc., elevating it to a dignity it doesn’t deserve — similar to the attempts of Intelligent Design advocates or climate change skeptics to be accepted as partners in a “debate.”
In the last couple quarters, however, I stumbled upon a new strategy, emphasizing the word “literal” itself as a rhetorical move by which fundamentalists assert their superiority over other Christians. The term “literal” doesn’t function so much as a hermeneutic key (the “heroic” era of fundamentalist commentary is largely behind us, and now their descendants are more or less unapologetically eclectic in their use of Scripture) as an emphatic term. To say they believe in the Bible “literally” is to say nothing more than “we really, really believe in the Bible” and thereby to claim ownership over it for their communities and interpretations. And it tends to be effective, as other groups of Christians are made to feel insecure about their loyalty to Scripture — or, more perversely, try to back away from Scripture to avoid looking like fundamentalists — and outsiders, such as the well-meaning secular liberals who admire religious conviction so much, largely take their word for it.
As support for this, I point out the fact that, seemingly paradoxically, the terms “literal” or “literally” are themselves almost never used literally. Instead, they normally serve to underline hyperbole: “If I read another page of Heidegger, my head is literally going to explode”; “I could literally eat a horse right now”; “I am literally going to die if I don’t find a bathroom soon”; etc. The same, then, would hold for “I literally believe every word in the Bible, literally.”