The National Catholic Review

Biblical scholars especially, but all of us in general, are sometimes tempted to think of reading and interpreting the Bible as a solitary enterprise. Scholars have no excuse for this egotism, as they should recognize that they are constantly standing on the shoulders of others, some giants and some pipsqueaks, as they interpret. Given that scholars engage a broad scholarship and that the history of interpretation of the Bible stretches back millennia in the traditions of the Synagogue and Church, they ought to know how much they are dependent upon a community of readers and interpreters. In fact, ordinary readers sometimes recognize this even more clearly, since they look to popular or scholarly writers, or priests and ministers, to give them information or to make sense of confusing passages in the Bible.  I think all of us, though, often take for granted those people near to us who help us read the Bible in a new light and here I do not mean professors, teachers or ministers; I mean those people in our lives who do not formally teach the Bible and who have never set out to be teachers of the Bible, but do so by the way they themselves read the Bible and model its teachings. I mean  our parents, wives, husbands, partners, relatives, friends, children and colleagues. How do they do this?  They may do this directly, in the way that they talk to us about the Bible and their impressions of the Bible. They may also, however, do this indirectly, through the way they live out the teachings of the Bible.

Here are three things that my wife taught me about reading the Bible, though she would say that this was a ridiculous proposition and that she could never teach me anything about the Bible. Well, that is the first thing she taught me about reading the Bible: humility. Humility is not an abject self-negation, but a willingness to be open to others, to listen to others and to think first about others. Her humility as a Bible reader has made me a better interpreter because it has forced me to discover that my first task as an interpreter of the word of God is to listen to the word of God. By nature, I am bossy and a know- it- all – I like to think it is part of my charm too, but this could be a delusion – but this is not the proper stance before the Scripture. Tabitha is willing to be taught by Scripture and however much more I know about the data of the Bible, humble listening needs to be the first task of all of us who read the Bible.  It has helped me make sense of this passage from Philippians 2:1-5:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

I was troubled in the past by the notion that I ought, or that anyone ought, “in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” as it seemed to me to suggest a lack of self-worth and even self-degradation. I now understand Paul's advice as a means of caring for and hearing others, not denying oneself. If we read the Bible in this way,not acting from selfish ambition or conceit, we can see that the task is not to remove our own thoughts and ideas from the interpretation of the Bible, but to let it speak before we tell it what to say and impose ourselves on the Scripture.

Another thing Tabitha taught me about reading the Bible was to pray with it. She prays more than I do in general, but her reading of the Bible is often accompanied by prayer. The constant danger for biblical scholars is to read the Bible like a textbook or a sourcebook. It’s an occupational hazard. But after I noticed her prayer, I noticed that Jesus did a lot of praying. It’s not that I was unaware of this reality, that Jesus prayed, just that I would often pass over those transitional passages in which Jesus departed to pray, or that he left the crowd to pray, or went to a deserted place to pray. I would want to move over to the meaty content of Jesus’ next encounter with the Pharisees or a profound healing that he performed.  On a number of occasions, though, Jesus went to gather himself in order to perform these profound works with prayer: “but he would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16); “now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12); “now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28).  If Jesus needed to be in prayer to carry out his mighty works, which included interpretation and discussion of the Bible, why would I not need prayer to read and understand the Bible?

The third thing my wife taught me about reading the Bible is patience. This might also be called a rejection of anxiety or an acceptance of God’s providence. She has done this through the way she lives, but also in the way she speaks of her relationship with God, the need to see God acting in her life, whether it is full of frustration or the fulfillment of dreams. She often expresses her need and desire to see God acting in all aspects of her life, and each time she does this, I think of my own impatience, anxiety, or worry. Impatience, anxiety and worry extend from major life decisions, to academic tasks, to driving home from work, which sometimes seems a more anxiety ridden task than anything else, but seeing God as active in the whole of our lives creates a calm thoughtfulness. This is especially important in reading and interpreting the Bible. Jesus also suggests that calm tranquility might be the best attitude to life:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, "What will we eat?' or "What will we drink?' or "What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today (Matthew 6:25-34)

Jesus does not suggest that there is not trouble in our lives, just that today’s trouble is enough.  A calm thoughtfulness combined with a focus on the here and now is a great way to read and interpret the Bible.

I am a better interpreter because of Tabitha, though she might deny vociferously that she has taught me anything , but is not that they way of the best teachers? You are learning lessons even before you knew you were being taught. Each of us, I think, have people in our lives who have taught us to read the Bible better, to live out the Scriptures more fully, who we might take for granted. Is there anyone in your own life who has taught you, directly or indirectly, to read the Bible better, more carefully, more patiently and more humbly?

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments

Clint HYER | 8/12/2011 - 4:56pm
This may seem off topic but...


I was amazed how different the biblical passage (Matthew 6:25-34) read without the verse numbers!

Is there a copy of the bible that reads as straight text?
Leo Zanchettin | 8/4/2011 - 1:34pm
First of all: Welcome back, John! It's good to see you writing again!

As for the question of who has helped me become a better reader of the Bible, I could follow your lead and talk about my family-especially a couple of kids who have taught me so much because of their innocence and trust in me-but that would take too long. Instead, I will point to a few biblical scholars I know. That's right, biblical scholars. But not the kind one would picture immediately. Not the ivory tower intellectuals who always seem to have chalk dust under their fingers and whose desks are cluttered with half-read books and manuscripts of articles they are working on. No, the ones I have in mind are of a different sort. For one thing, they tend to be members of religious orders, not lay folk or secular priests. And for another, they tend to be of a certain age: into their sixties at least, and maybe even older.

Why these two markers? First, the religious order. I have found that people who live in community tend to be far more humble and willing to listen than those who are on their own. It also helps that they pray the scriptures (the Divine Office) every day, again in community. Such prayerfulness and openness to others rounds off the edges and helps keep professional pride at bay. It also puts them in a position to live out the scriptures more fullly, if only because of the atmosphere and lifestyle of a monastery or friary.

The scholars I have in mind also tend to have other duties besides scholarship. This could be work in a parish, in their order's formation program, or in outreach to the poor. Again, these callings add to their roundedness. They also offer numerous laboratories for living out the biblical passages that they are studying and writing about. So many more things are brought to bear upon their reading of Scripture because their lives are so rich and varied-and because all these aspects of their lives are oriented toward the living out of their vows.

As for the age factor: It seems to me that those who were studying or just coming into their own as religious during the Second Vatican Council have a wisdom that spans both conservative and progressive traditions. They have lived through so many upheavals and changes in the church and have come through much wiser and more seasoned. This gives them a long perspective when it comes to innovations in exegesis as well as the current state of ecclesiastical affairs-a kind of calm patience that helps you stay centered and focused on the word of God and not the controversies of men.

There are a number of people who probably fit this description, and that's just fine with me. I don't want to single out any one or other scholar. I just find the whole bunch refreshing, wise, and immensely helpful.

Now, the fact that I happen to be married with six children, at least fifteen years younger than most of these folks, and the resident of a comfortable exurban house may help as well. You can learn so much more when you listen to people from other worlds.