Bible text speaks to life-experience
It is helpful to look at the distinction between textbook reading and storybook reading and to explore where Bible fits in.
It is helpful to look at the distinction between textbook reading and storybook reading and to explore where the Gospels fit in.
When we pick up a textbook to read it, we have one attitude or frame of mind, and we pick up a storybook 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 distraction 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 mind or head that is active.
When we read a storybook 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 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 molding 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 Gospel is a textbook or a storybook? The Gospel is story book. Yes, it is possible to read the Gospel and glean certain facts and information from it: names of twelve apostle; or that Pilate was the governor in Judea at the time of Jesus etc, but that is not why the Gospel was written. The Gospels were 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 Gospels were written – so that Jesus might live in us today.
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 mold and transform us into children of God.
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.
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, and on the other hand stories that are historical based on actual historical happenings, events, encounters. 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? Jesus spoke in stories. He was a master storyteller. “He would not speak to them without using parables.” Mark 4:34. His stories are from real life: stories about farming and fishing, weddings and funerals, nature and wildlife. These were stories his listeners could identify with, and in doing so could recognize themselves and others, meet the presence of God, and were challenged to grow. He put them in touch with their own experience, things they had lived, which could help open them up to the reign of God. So the stories were both homely in the sense of familiar, identifiable and recognizable, and at the same time experienced as a homecoming – a coming home to the truth of themselves, God and the world.
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 acknowledging that it is not the most important question in reading a story, it is still an important one. Particularly in relation to the gospel stories that recall for us the life, suffering, death of Jesus. Are they true? These Gospel stories are broadly speaking based on historical facts but always experienced and recorded in the light of faith. The Gospel 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 also have had 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, that were later interpreted by faith but this is not our concern and some would say it is now impossible to determine.
We listen to the story-accounts of the life of Jesus in the same spirit and mindset in which the people of his time listened to his parables: letting them put us in touch with life experiences: “What does it remind us of,” and these experiences open us up to the reign of God, the presence and activity of God in the world today – where he is now and how he is calling us to grow. Read in this way the words and activities of Jesus not only recall how God broke into our world back then, but they are “symbols”, “types”, “patterns” or “models”of how God continues to break into our world today.
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 whom we have seen the word fulfilled. It is interesting that nowhere in the gospels does 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. These 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 Gospel passage 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.