Text speaks to life-experience through the Imagination.
It is helpful to look at the distinction between textbook reading and storybook reading and to explore where Bible fits in.
When we pick up a textbook to read it we have one attitude or frame of mind, and when we pick up a story book we have a different attitude or frame of mind. In textbook reading we are looking for facts and information whereas with a story we are looking for engagement or pleasure. For example we read a textbook to learn that Newry is in County Down, that Down is in Northern Ireland and that Northern Ireland is in Europe. These are objective facts in the sense that this is the case regardless of my opinions or judgements. It is also true that these facts are static in the sense of unchanging. In learning these facts it is the rational part of the brain that is active.
When we read a story it is the imagination that is active. We find ourselves drawn into the story, entering into the story with our thoughts, feelings and emotions, identifying with the characters or actions, liking some disliking others, feeling with them, suffering with them, celebrating with them, wanting to influence their thoughts, choices and decisions, becoming involved in the movement of the story. A good story engages us at many levels: physically, mentally and emotionally. That is the form of story and that is what it is meant to do. That is how a story works.
And the question is sometimes asked which is the more important: textbook or storybook. And nine out of ten will say textbooks are more important because textbooks are serious whereas storybooks are only for pleasure and entertainment. But if you think about it stories are much more important than textbooks. Because stories communicate values, nurture our attitudes, form our minds and hearts. They are working on us indirectly and moulding and shaping how we see ourselves, how we see others, the kind of people we want to become, the goals or ideals that we want to live up to.
And the question arises: whether the Bible is a textbook or a storybook. The Bible is Story book. Yes, it is possible to read the Bible and glean certain facts and information from it: names of twelve apostles, that Pilate was the governor in Judea at the time of Jesus etc, but that is not why the Bible was written. The Bible was written to communicate values, to form us and shape us into the image and likeness of Jesus, so that we might put on the mind and heart of Christ, that we might become more fully children of God. In his gospel John says that he has written his gospel “so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God and believing this we may have life in his name”, Jn. 20:31. In the Preface for Lent we read “as we recall the great events that brought us to new life in Christ you bring the image of your son to perfection within us.” That’s it. That is why the scriptures were written – so that we might grow into Christ.
The Bible was written as story and if we teach it as a textbook we are going against the very nature of the Bible. If we read it as textbook we are going against how it is meant to be read. The Bible is a collection of story-books and each story book is itself a collection of stories written down so that we might come to experience the presence of God in what he did in the past, in what He is doing today and in what He is always doing.
In this regard you could say that in terms of Christian formation the Bible is far more important than the catechism. For the catechism will only give us facts and information about the life of a catholic and at most encourage us in this regard, while the Bible experience can actually mould and transform us into children of God.
A question that often arises for us in relation to stories is whether they are true or not. You have stories that are fictional – with characters and situations that are creations or inventions of the imagination. While it is an important question it is not the first or most important in relation to stories. Regarding a story the most important question is does it work? Does it succeed in drawing people in? Does it succeed in communicating values – what kind of values does it communicate? Are the values true or false? When Jesus relates stories in the gospel he doesn’t distinguish between true stories and false stories. The story of the Prodigal son begins with “A man had two sons.. Jesus doesn’t preface it with “Now listen to a true story.” What he gives us is one of the great masterpieces of all literature – a story that liberates and inspires and leads us to a truer understanding of God and ourselves. The most important question in reading the Bible stories is not “Is it true” but rather “What does it mean?”
While it is not the most important question in reading a story it is still an important one for us because if the Bible stories are only fictional then our faith is not well founded. They are no more than fairy–tales, good in their intent but deprived of any substance in reality. But the Bible stories purport to be true not only in the values that they communicate but also in their content. In other words the Bible stories are largely based on facts but always experienced and recorded in the light of faith. The Bible stories as they come to us are testimonies of faith. So they are not historical documents per se. They are accounts of the life of Jesus viewed in the light of his resurrection which confirmed Jesus as Son of God, Emmanuel, the Saviour. When it came to writing the gospels, faith in the resurrection would have influenced the choice of historical material recalled, and also how the evangelist would have interpreted it and related it. Furthermore, the experience of the Risen Jesus in the early Christian communities would also have influenced details, emphasis, and memory. Also in writing the evangelists would have been conscious of the challenges in the early Christian community and where it needed to grow; what it needed to hear; what needed to be reinforced and this would have an influence on what is recorded for us in the gospels. Yes, Jesus lived, suffered and died and rose again, and these are the stories capturing how these events were interpreted and written down by people of faith. And these are the accounts that are deemed inspired by the church and given to us for our salvation. It may be intriguing to know what exactly happened, the strict facts of the matter that were later interpreted by faith, but this is not our concern and some would say it is now impossible to determine. But what is more important and what is given to us are stories illuminated by faith.
It is also worth recognizing that the stories of the Bible are suggesting or “indicating stories” rather than “well defined” in terms of colour shape or size. What the bible gives us is a sketch of a situation inviting us as it were to fill it in from our own life experience. In the Bible we get the outline of a story and we are invited to fill it in for ourselves. We are invited to give flesh to it from the circumstances and characters in which we have seen the word fulfilled. It is interesting that nowhere in the gospels do any of the evangelists tell us what Jesus looked like. How tall was he? What colour of eyes had he? How did he wear his hair? What size were his hands? His feet? Was he handsome or ugly? Did he have any unusual physical attributes? That was not because they were unable to describe him or indeed draw a picture profile of him. No, it was a deliberate omission so that He might be free to assume any of the new countenances in which he continues to be present and active among us today. This kind of “indicating stories” invite us to enter in and participate in the discovery and recognition of the Word made flesh today. If you like what we have in the Bible is a résumé in a few lines or verses of some movement of grace but in our correlating life experience such a movement of grace could take a much longer period of time, indeed it could take a lifetime.
This is how God has chosen to communicate with us. And in doing so he has invited us to become free and creative readers of the text. And with this type of communication there is always the possibility of misinterpretation.
The method of Lectio Divina also has some inbuilt mechanisms to minimize the risks of misinterpretation.
In the coming together to offer our meditations we get a sense of whether we are more or less on track.
If our meditations are faithful to the movement of the text we can be confident that our reading of the passage is acceptable.
Our reading of a passage also needs to be in keeping with our experience of Jesus in other passages of the gospels. This is one of the advantages of doing Lectio with the lectionary. As we journey with the lectionary we meet Jesus in all kinds of different situations and we come to a more rounded and more complete picture of the person and values of Jesus. If there is an obvious contradiction, between how we interpret the actions or words of Jesus in one passage compared with the rest of the gospel then we need to look at the passage again.