Reading Scripture

Myth is not primitive proto-science. Science might be considered description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible or specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end). Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action). The mythic universe is a place to act. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective valence, their value, their motivational significance.

– Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning

THE POWER OF NARRATIVE

The meaning of the world is contained in stories. Of course, the world is made of things, but the meaning of those things, their connections and purposes, are revealed in stories. Our lives are meaningful to the extent the stories we see ourselves apart of are meaningful. 

Some stories, the enduring ones, embody universal patterns – these stories last, they enter our consciousness, engrain themselves in and form our culture, support our identities and become the underlying web of references on which we structure our interactions and our lives.

That is what the Bible is – a web of interconnected stories, from creative origins, through the garden, to the call of Abraham, through the Exodus, through the prophets, and then into the narratives of the gospels and the other Christian writings – a series of stories that weave a cosmic web of logos – of meaning.

To call oneself a Christian is to claim these stories as one’s own – to locate one’s life in some manner in the ongoing narrative(s). And to be Western is to have some reference to this set of narratives as well.

STORIES FROM ANOTHER WORLD

The worldview of the authors and communities that wrote the various books of the bible understood the world much differently than we do today. Their worldview is not that of our own. Let me repeat that for emphasis – the scriptures were written by people who had a different worldview than our own.

As such, we must filter our reading of the texts through awareness of these differences. Many of the meanings and much of the wisdom of the scriptures remain relevant for us today. We too value kindness, freedom, integrity, and compassion. We can share much of their vision for a better world where the lowly were raised up, where justice flowed like a mighty river, and where healing, peace, and love prevailed.

We can appreciate the meanings of the subplots, seeing ourselves in David’s bravery as a youth but also in his lust. We can appreciate the challenges that Moses faced leading a people. We can lament with Rachel. And we can understand something of the experiences of Peter, John, and Paul as they tried to make sense of their encounters with Jesus.

We can accept many of the truths the ancients conveyed, without accepting their worldview and how it led them to explain things. The opening chapters of Genesis are not scientific texts making claims about astrophysics. Miracles and exorcisms were how people interpreted disease and recovery without the benefit of chemistry or biology. We must read these stories with modern eyes, otherwise we will render them unable to speak meaningfully to us today, turning them into fairy tales and works of fantasy.

THE NATURE OF THE TEXTS

Evidential theology proceeds from the conviction that the Bible is not inerrant or infallible – it is a collection of stories that mix fact with fiction, poetry and prose, metaphor and symbols.

The writings are the recorded collection of our ancestor’s understandings of the divine, notions of goodness, human nature, and the meaning and purpose of life. To claim these stories as meaningful and culturally significant does mean we need claim them as magical. 

The texts were not written to serve as historical, scientific, or even moral documents (as we understand these disciplines today). Scripture instead combines history remembered with history metaphorized, expressing sacred myths that are primarily sweeping spiritual statements, providing context for answers (but not necessarily the answers themselves) to life’s basic questions. Literal readings skew the meaning of the texts and render the core myths irrelevant.

Suppose you find yourself standing in front of a statue of Lincoln swinging an ax to break the chains attached to a slave girl’s foot. Is the statue true or false? Hopefully, you’d realize that truth is layered, and ask, true in what sense? Historically, we have no record of Lincoln swinging an ax to free a slave child. But the statue still speaks a meaningful truth. 

– John Dominic Crossan

Since the writings consist of many viewpoints, and sometimes contradictory ones, our reading is always selective. Further, the texts should be read contextually – from the perspective of the historical periods and cultures in which they were written.

Context matters. Much of the Bible was written by and for Jewish culture – the narratives and wisdom conveyed the basis for the Jewish identity. Later, the Christian community applying midrashic technique to the texts, explicated the meaning of their own movement. A prominent background theme for both sets of writings is the dehumanizing and oppressive effects of empire – be it that of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, or Rome.

No text is self-interpreting, the Bible included. Any textual engagement is by necessity, hermeneutical, and therefore also critical, but not necessarily suspicious. Claiming the Bible as one’s mythopoetic source of religious meaning is a process of ongoing interpretation and application – a conversation with the past and present, with the text and our lives. 

Every reader has a voice in this conversation and a role in the ongoing reinterpretation. Each individual in each age must apply the texts to current realities – with both the text and current understanding of reality in dialog, neither trumping the other in an ultimate sense. Even when we decide to disregard or reject specific parts of the text, we must still wrestle with what the ancient authors intended, and their experiences and concerns that led them to write such. 

FINDING MEANING IN THE TEXTS

Like any text, the scriptures require interpretation and as such, we will never exhaust the meanings of the texts. The narratives are overladen with metaphors rich in meaning – ideas concerning humanity, freedom, goodness, and the importance of love, justice, and kindness. The actual historical circumstance of these metaphors is often clouded.

The Bible contains revolutionary ideas (for their times) – such as the dignity and equality of all humanity and an early sense of the equality of men and women. It dictates love of strangers and calls for the care of the poor and the outcast. These aspects of the text’s vision remains relevant for any people who wish to be considered humane.

Yet in a strict sense, the Bible is not necessary for understanding and living a good life – much of moral understanding is achievable through reason. Yet the priorities and development of moral understanding within the texts are enlightening and point us toward a way of living – a vision that calls us beyond the normal understanding of morality and what constitutes a good life.

The moral priorities of the text are the poor and lowly are the important ones. The humble and imperfect are favored over the self righteous and legalistic. Mercy and justice are ultimate concerns. Marginalization is considered beneath human dignity. The violent power of Empire is supplanted with the gentle power of generosity of self.

Conversely, the Bible also contains many ideas and moral notions that we rightly reject – genocide, patriarchy, sexism, divinely-sanctioned violence, holy war, misogyny, outdated views on divinity, sexuality, and marriage, in part the remnants of an ancient worldview that lacked the benefit of today’s scientific, psychological, and historical knowledge.

Yet at its core, the sacred writings speak of the primacy of the transformative dynamic potential of kenotic love. The vision is one of integrity through love, and the true meaning of sacrifice and self-emptying becomes rawly visible throughout the stories – regardless if the details of such be a blending of allegory, spiritualized fiction, and fact.

READING THE SCRIPTURES

Humans encapsulate our core truths and find our meaning and place in the world with the help of stories. The human person is a story-telling, metaphor-loving, symbol-making being for whom myth encapsulates information regarding fundamental, existential meaning. The human person relates on a psychological-spiritual level to stories, narratives, icons, and parables.

By myth we mean grand-narrative. The story may be true or not in terms of facticity, but on some level enduring myths contain some aspect of truth. Not all myths are religious, one can think of the myth of progress or the myth of American exceptionalism. Myth as grand-narrative weaves its way deeply into a culture, influencing how people see and understand themselves.

Myth provides a culture with central narrative(s), thus establishing the framework for wisdom – a collective sense of purpose, place, identity, and set of shared values. Therefore, the language of spirituality is very much that of myth, metaphor, and symbol.

As our once central myths erode (those of Judeo-Christianity), the West currently suffers from an increasing disunity, loss and even anarchy of meaning and value – we’ve lost an overarching, unifying cultural mythos.

Shatter the shared mythic narratives and symbols that provide a culture with its basis for collective thought and action, and you’re left with a society in fragments, where biological drives and idiosyncratic personal agendas are the only motives left, and communication between divergent subcultures becomes increasingly difficult because there aren’t enough common meanings to ground lasting dialog. (Loyal Rue, Amythia)

There’s a good reason why we read the scriptures at Mass or other religious services. We read these texts aloud in a communal setting because they tell our story. Week after week, we hear the stories of our spiritual ancestors and relate their insights, experiences, and wisdom to our own lives. The scriptures are the Christian myth(s) and the responsibility of every Christian is to find themselves in the narrative and play their part.

The narratives of the scriptures are therefore meant to be entered into and lived. That can only happen if one is familiar with them and reads them. Rote memorization is unnecessary and often a cruel, pointless exercise imposed on children. Rather than memorize them, we need to be immersed in them so that they become familiar. We need not remember every line, or be able to cite chapter and verse, but we know the writings intimately.

The sacred texts need to be encountered as a whole, each text and its subplots and tellings weaving a broader tale of interconnected meanings and wisdom. For this reason, proof-texting or taking phrases or sentences out of the broader context is unwise and should be avoided. This is an inferior way to do theology as well. The bible is not a manual to be rigidly applied, used in rhetorical games of gotcha, or used to control others.

This reasoned, evidential, critical approach to scripture resists literal readings of the texts because it recognizes that the texts often express divergent messages, meanings, and insights. When someone asks what the biblical view on a particular topic is – be it women, sex, violence, war, or some other controversial issue – the answer to such an inquiry is always complex. Complex doesn’t always mean unclear, but pulling select verses out of context to craft the holistic biblical view on the matter is a risky venture.

The central, vital, and repeated themes of the scriptures are clear – kenotic love, generosity of self, caring for the poor, ill, and needy, humility, seeking justice and peace, hospitality, and overcoming prejudice, tribalisms, and divisions – these are the predominant themes. And it’s those themes we hear week in and week out, and why reading them aloud, communally is so important.

Hearing the narrative and then living by it reanimates the myth. It keeps the story present and ongoing in the world. Those who are part of the secular culture might not be in church every Sunday to hear the narrative. But hopefully they’ll encounter it, understand it, and find it interesting, dare we say even appealing enough to consider further, because of how Christians live their lives and embody the narrative.

All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)

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