Comments keep coming in about scripture, puzzling over the way religious people attend to archaic texts. Here Frank Moloney adds to Melanie Landau’s reflection on reading scripture, from the perspective of someone who has spent seventy years (almost) reading and reflecting on the scriptures of his tradition:
I am very sensitive to the problem that many people have with reading Scripture. On the one hand there are many who regard it as pre-scientific, or even just silly: full of the world of a God who speaks to human beings, manipulates human history, works miracles, and even an incarnate Son of God who, though crucified, is reported as rising from the dead. How can such texts, especially such narrative texts (“stories”) claim to be in some way normative for anyone today?
On the other hand, there are many for whom the Bible is normative. They read texts, both the stories and the more didactic material, as if they were either 21st century texts reporting things exactly as they happened, or as if they are to be accepted as literal eye-witness reports, which thus cannot be challenged. To such readers, no critical question can or should be raised.
Most people fall in between, and simply do not bother with the Sacred Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Bible. They are vaguely aware of some of the great stories (often through artistic representation), but would never take a word from Scripture as relevant to their lives.
This is a pity, because the Scriptures had their birth in “real life,” and need to be read in the light of our “real lives” in order to be better understood. None of the biblical authors thought of themselves as writing texts that would become normative for millennia. The authors of the first five books of the Bible (and there are several, as the books are made up of a number of traditions, assembled into their present form at a much later date) wanted to explain why there was so much evil and suffering about. Was God responsible? Does God exist? They wanted to know where the people of Israel came from, how they should live together. They wanted to know more about their choice to belong to only one God. So they thought about these things, prayed about them, told stories about them as they sat by the fire at night … and gradually their experiences began to surface in traditions that meant everything to them. These traditions remained alive, and were eventually shaped into the book of the Hebrew Scriptures.
It is respect for their questions and their experiences that must lead us beyond (and especially behind) a literal reading of a text that necessarily reflects its time and place. The questions that were asked then are asked by believers – and even non-believers – now. Across the centuries, we can sense the experience that we share with them, as they tell their stories, and reflect theologically upon those stories, as they tell of the prophets calling them back to their original faithfulness and so on.
But unless we respect where these experiences came from, and how they were shaped, then however we read (or do not read) Scripture, we miss the point. The biblical Word of God does not plummet into life and society with a “once and for all” response. It asks us to enter into a world where the presence of God has been felt, and asks if we share that experience.
The same must also be said for the Christian Testament. Gospels were written decades after the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the experience of this tiny group of crazy people who believed that Jesus was alive and among them, that they were energised by his Spirit as they tried to live, love, die and rise as he did, that is found in those pages. That is why the four Gospels are such different “stories.” They reflect different experiences of the one determining event: the person of Jesus.
Unfortunately, fundamentalist biblical readers are the people most recognised in the broader discussion. They are courageous and they speak out. They are also members of powerful churches. Indeed, most church institutions are uncomfortable with the type of approach to the Scriptures that I have sketched: an approach that allows the Bible to reflect human experiences matching our own, “sets people free” from the institutions’ use of them for their own doctrinal and legal purposes.
It is important to remember that the experience of believing individuals and communities produced the Bible. Those individuals and communities both created the Bible, and – as institutions – keep it alive in their lives and liturgies. However, the Bible strikes back. Read properly, respecting where, why and how it was written, it is a problem for institutions. All human institutions want to control the Word. But the word bites back, and acts as a thorn in the side of any institution that wishes to be an end in itself.
In the end, this is the dangerous edge of a correct use of Scripture: it asks us to be what we claim to be. This is also a reason why many reject the Bible: it asks the questions they cannot – or do not wish to – answer.
Frank Moloney STL (PSU) SSL (PBI) DPhil (Oxon) STD Honoris Causa (St Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore, USA) FAHA has served as a member of the International Theological Commission to the Vatican.