The following are six tips to make us Catholics into better Bible readers.
Tips at helping us in our faith walk ahead!
Here is a quick post about very practical tips and helps to respectfully read the Scriptures. By avoiding certain popular but mistaken practices, far more can be gained from Bible reading and study. Several items covered below are so common, some may scoff at the recommendations offered. But give it some prayerful thought and you should see the wisdom in abandoning these faulty approaches.
So with that said, here are some tips at helpful directions:
1: The Bible says so many things…
The first of the these tips is, try to avoid saying “The Bible says…” The Holy Bible is a library. That it is also holy and inspired does not change the fact that it remains a library. Have you ever gone around saying, “The Public Library says…”? Look at the video here:
Consider that libraries contain many books that say many things. Would it be proper to claim that the Public Library says “Dracula is the King of the Vampires!” or that “Moby Dick is the greatest of all whales?” No it wouldn’t, even though the plethora of books inside the library contains at least one entry that claims these things.
There are other vampire books in the same section as Bram Stoker’s “DRACULA” (e.g., Anne Rice’s Vampire series, and the Twilight books). Few if any would claim that Dracula, titular character in Stoker’s novel, is King of the Vampires. And there are other books about whales that say things very different than does Herman Melville’s “MOBY DICK.” Similar to any library, the Bible says many things, in many books, in many different genres of literature. Additionally, things said in different biblical documents contradict. As with any library, discrepancies should be expected.
Therefore, even though so many popular Catholic figures mistakenly do so all the time, let’s try to avoid using this overplayed and usually incorrect expression. “The Bible says God is love!” should rather be “the document/letter we call ‘First John’ says “God is love.” And that quote needs to be read in context. What is “love” to ancient Israelites? Baby, don’t hurt me! So the first of six helpful tips is, skip saying “The Bible says…”
2. Beware Bible Quotes
Second of the tips: WATCH OUT! Why? Quoting the Scriptures is dangerous business. But you’d never know that from the cavalier way many U.S. Catholics and other Christians go around quoting verses ripped bleeding from their texts. My day job is directing religious education. Often my catechists, well-meaning people, delight in giving kids little Bible verses written on them. “It gets them into God’s Word!” one cheerfully told me. No, it doesn’t.
Nowadays, when Christians speak of a Scripture “text,” they usually imagine a single verse! Sometimes it’s only a snippet of a single verse, and even less than a whole sentence. Often, these shredded verses are presented as if they bear the meaning that whole biblical texts support. Watch the video here:
Christians do this frequently. You see this abuse on bumper stickers, memes on social media, sporting events, the walls of Christian schools, the rants and ramblings of preachers on Christian media, holiday cards and well-wishes, and tagged at the end of emails. Sentimentality decorates it. Is this cherished, popular Christian practice helping us deepen understanding of Scripture? Not a chance!
Although this sentence-and-phrase approach to Scripture necessarily results in a series of complete thoughts, these resulting thoughts are unrelated and uninterpretable. Treating a biblical text segment as if it were a whole text does extreme violence to the Bible. The meaning the original document intended to convey is lost. Consequently, intelligent reading of the text is rendered impossible. So the second of six tips is: Avoid this verse quoting altogether.
3. God-breathed, Not God-dictated
The next of these tips warns against mistaking what inspiration means. Inspiration does not mean God dictated the Scriptures. Catholics are not obligated to believe in plenary inspiration, meaning that every word of Scripture was dictated by God. While the Bible is the normative written expression of God’s self-communication or “Word,” that does not mean the Bible is God’s words (plural).
The Bible is God’s written Word, not words. Thus with the Bible, we are discovering one self-communicative divine Word being communicated through many messy human words and stories.
4. If Inerrant, the Bible is Salvifically Inerrant
“The Bible was authored by God who cannot lie and therefore it must have no mistakes whatsoever!” So goes the fundamentalist claim that the Bible is inerrant in every way. This claim is itself mistaken. Inspiration happens “in” the human experience, which is messy business. Whatever inerrancy the inspired Scriptures have is salvific, not cognitive.
The Scriptures all together with all of their parts (including the horrifically genocidal, honor-killing, enslaving parts) have an “un-deceivability” as far as human salvation goes. God’s love is messy, folks. But don’t look in the Bible for perfect history, perfectly written texts, compositions free of all mistakes, collections of science facts, etc.
One very wise cardinal remarked at the time of the Reformation, “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Therefore tip four of six: accept the messiness of the Sacred Scriptures.
5. The Bible is Middle Eastern
The Scriptures were not written for, by, or about Americans and Western people. Sorry folks but that’s just how it is. There is nothing in Scripture directly applicable to your daily American life. What about indirectly? Maybe, but only with great grappling. Look at the video below:
If ANY character in the Bible begins to appear or to behave to you as a Western, post-Industrial, introspective personality (i.e, probably all of the people you know in your daily interactions), something is terribly wrong with your Bible reading! Say someone informs you that they easily understand Moses, Abraham, David, and Jesus. If they then admit failing to understand Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi, don’t believe that they understand the aforementioned biblical figures. All of these men come from the same part of the world which has not changed significantly (in terms of cultural values) in over 4,000 years.
This is one of the reasons why the United States bishops warned us about the dangers of fundamentalism in 1987 by instructing us not to look in the Bible for all the DIRECT answers for human living. INDIRECT or sacramental application is possible when the Scriptures are read in/with the Church! Beware fundamentalism (which forces the Bible to mean what we want/need).
6. Every time you read the Bible you are experiencing cross-cultural communication.
If you were traveling in a foreign country, you would try very hard, I hope, not to be “an ugly American.” Well, when you read our Sacred Scriptures please do the same. Beware of anachronism (force-fitting the Scriptures into our historical period) and ethnocentrism (making the Bible fit into our social system and cultural values). Here is another video presentation:
No biblical author could have anticipated an American reader. And no biblical writer shared our 21st century Western experiences, expectations, knowledge, or cultural values we Americans bring to our reading of his work.
But all that gets obfuscated by Christians waxing theologically about how the biblical texts, being inspired by God, transcend culture. These people thus imagine that the inspired Scriptures speak to universal human needs. Do you know what gets completely lost in this theological fancy? The fact that the very means by which the Scriptures speak are intrinsic to the ancient culture in which they first communicated.
Therefore, any attempt to abstract the meaning of a biblical text from its original social and cultural context inevitably distorts what it says. Short and sweet, just as the inspired writers grappled to put into human language Holy Mystery breaking salvifically into their lives, so too we, in the Church, must grapple to understand what they were actually trying to communicate rather than spiritualizing the texts away to our fancies of serotonin and dopamine fluctuations. We must take the prefix “IN” of IN+spiration, seriously.
Great Tips! But Why Read the Scriptures, then?
The Bible is the Church’s normative literature. We read it in the Church—the Body of Christ—to grapple with the Mystery of God breaking into our lives. Just as God did this with our ancient Mediterranean ancestors in the Faith, so God does with us, always in culturally messy ways. By looking at our ancestors grappled, the hope is to see better how we grapple, and by doing so, see God.
This is not looking for marching orders for daily life. And this is not looking for proofs why our tradition is superior to all others—the best, and the first, and the pure, and the only! It’s much deeper than that.