A recent issue of America Magazine carried an article titled A Fundamental Challenge. The article included some depressing facts, including that many studies find that Catholics are among the most biblically illiterate people in the country and that a not insignificant percentage of American Catholics identify themselves as biblical literalists, ignorant of the fact that a literal reading of the bible is discouraged by Catholic bishops, pastors and scholars. The article identifies various possible causes of what it terms an “unconscious fundamentalism” and bemoans that lack of awareness of most Catholics of the church’s “rich tradition of biblical interpretation.”
The article suggests several ways of addressing this tendency of many to a literalist interpretation. One is that suggested by Prof. Dale Martin of Yale University, which offers a beautiful and useful image to help us think about the Bible. Martin proposes
that we think of Scripture as a sacred space we enter, like a church or cathedral. The Bible functions in much the same way as a sacred building; its very presence orients us toward God; and once we enter, we find many things inside to contemplate. A church building communicates the story of the Christian experience of God, past and present, through a variety of media – stained glass, statuary, paintings and icons. Likewise, Scripture invite us to contemplate God’s communication to us through such methods as historical narratives, poetry, wisdom sayings, prophecy, apocalypse and letters. As with our experience of beautiful worship space, encountering the Bible alone will be different than when the community is gathered to hear it.
The image of Bible as sacred space helps us to understand that there are a variety of interpretive methods for understanding the Bible that are part of our tradition. And, as Martin suggests, encountering the Bible as sacred space allows us to move “around in its communicative richness, allowing our imaginations, our very selves, to be changed by the experience.” And, after all, if we are not being transformed by the Bible, we might as well be ignorant of it.