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Restoring a scriptural imagination in a secular age

In November 2016, I published the first part of a series of columns that would offer an approach to ecumenical encounter among Roman Catholics and Anglicans on the theme of secularization. I noted at the end that three areas where we might work together across confessional boundaries would be scriptural exegesis, liturgical prayer, and a mystical approach to the ethical life. I now fulfill my promise by focusing on scriptural exegesis.

The diagnosis

At present, there are three primary modes of interpreting the Scriptures, all of which are fundamentally related to the effects of secularization as experienced within parochial life. The first is operative within the academy and may best be described as exclusive attention to historical-critical exegesis. Open up any serious commentary, and the author inevitably attends primarily to the history of the redaction of the text, philological history of words, and perhaps references to other parts of the biblical canon that the author is drawing upon.

This work is by no means a foolhardy enterprise. Historical-critical exegesis has a necessary task in biblical hermeneutics. But, as Joseph Ratzinger writes in Jesus of Nazareth:

It [Historical-critical exegesis] attempts to identify and to understand the past—as it was in itself—with the greatest possible precision, in order then to find out what the author could have said and intended to say in the context of the mentality and events of the time. … [T]he one thing it cannot do is to make it into something present today—that would be overstepping its bounds.[i]

In this sense, the privileging of historical-critical exegesis desiccates the biblical text, handling it as evidence of historical and literary proceedings rather than as a sacramental encounter with the living Word. Because the text is not understood fundamentally as a narrative of divine action in human history, it ceases functioning in the present.[ii]

This creeps into preaching in small ways. Preachers now speak about the intentions of the author of the Gospel of Mark rather than Jesus Christ. To the listener of the preached Word, the approach erects an obstacle to an authentic encounter with divine love as mediated through the text. The Bible becomes a memory that has no connection to the present, breaking the chain of memory.

Of course, this totalizing of historical-critical exegesis is mostly rejected by homilists and biblical readers. Preachers come to notice how ineffective it is to speak about redaction criticism within a homily. Teachers understand that unless students actually grasp the narrative of salvation, it seems foolhardy to let them know that the text was constructed in various stages. But, often, these same preachers and teachers are then left with no fundamental training in a form of scriptural exegesis that is life-giving. They thus rely upon personal anecdote or experience in relationship to the text.

Thus, in preaching, the homily quickly leaves behind the scriptural text (especially within the Roman Catholic tradition), becoming a general reflection upon themes of the day. For example, instead of doing the hard work of understanding what takes place in the Transfiguration narrative, how it calls those of us baptized into Christ toward a new form of being in the world, an entrance into radical sonship, homilies tend to give us abstract ethical principles or Father So-and-so’s private reflections on whatever interests him.

This problem is even more acute in the case of private scriptural devotion. Faith-sharing in Roman Catholicism today emphasizes that one should bring no particular hermeneutic to bear upon the text except how it affects one’s relationship with God. Thus, Bible studies are constructed in which the person is discouraged to ask, “Why does Jesus climb a mountain to become transfigured?” Instead, the sole criterion for interpreting the text is its effect upon me. This is a problem, because it is a severing of the chain of memory, as I discussed in my last post (not to mention a separation of the intellect and the affect).

An interrelated problem with scriptural exegesis in the present is the reduction of the narrative to a series of benign ethical exhortations. Once again, the Bible ceases to be a story relating God’s radical entrance into human history. It is instead a guidebook, ethical maxims for human conduct. Since most are not familiar with the particularities of the text, these ethical exhortations are often rather thin. The Bible says be good to one another. The text is read through the lens of what sociologist Christian Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

In each of these three cases, our approach to scriptural exegesis furthers the process of secularization. We shatter the chain of memory whereby the history of salvation comes to matter here and now.

The medicine

To a certain extent, this diagnosis is well-known across our respective traditions. In response, many Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Evangelicals, and Reformed Christians have urged the Church to return to a pre-critical form of scriptural exegesis, such as typology or “figural” exegesis. Yet, this exhortation has problems. It’s not that figural exegesis is pre-critical. Strictly speaking, it cannot be a pre-critical, naïve approach to biblical interpretation. (It is impossible for the contemporary person to return to an era of pre-criticism. We abide in a critical age, with historical consciousness.) Instead, we have to recognize that our biblical (and liturgical) texts were written using typological exegesis.

As Richard Hays notes in his recent Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness:

[F]or the Evangelists the ‘meaning’ of the OT texts was not confined to the human author’s original historical setting or to the meaning that could have been grasped by the original readers. Rather, Scripture was a complex body of texts given to the community by God, who had scripted the whole biblical drama in such a way that it had multiple senses. Some of these senses are hidden, so that they come into focus only retrospectively.[iii]

That is, a true historical-critical reading of the Scriptures necessarily involves opening up the reader to multiple senses.

In this sense, the Church need not be naïve about the restoration of a figural reading of the texts as a medicine for secularity. Instead, it is through critical attention to the meaning of the Gospels and of the Old Testament that we come to discover that figural reading is the original intention of the authors. They read the Scriptures (whatever those were at that time) in such a way that the text offers salvation in the present.

An initial but sufficient example of this approach may be seen in the work of Origen, who is often derided as the worst offender among the figural exegetics. His commentary on the Song of Songs is actually a remarkable reading of this text as a way of opening up the Christian to a lived encounter with Christ in the present — an encounter that avoids the dangers of historical reduction, individualism, or minor ethical maxims characteristic of a secular age. He writes:

As the third point in our exposition, let us bring in the soul whose only desire is to be united (coniungi) to the Word of God and to be in fellowship (consociari) with Him, and to enter into the mysteries of His wisdom and knowledge as into the chambers of her heavenly (caelestis thalamus) Bridegroom, which soul has already received His gifts—that is to say, her dowry.[iv]

This text is the third of three interpretations of the first line of the Song of Songs: Let Him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. Interpreting this line according to the moral sense, the soul is invited to participate in the nuptial imagery of the Song of Songs. The English translation does not entirely capture the sexual imagery employed by Origen. The soul’s only desire is to be espoused (through eros) with the Word of God. This union leads to sharing in common as the Bride of Christ (consociari), a whole form of life. It is the restoration of an original friendship (the heart of Christian marriage in the ancient world) between the soul and God. This union takes place as the soul is brought into the mysteries of wisdom and knowledge mediated through the Scriptures in the same way that one enters into the marriage bed (thalamus) to consummate the union. Origen doesn’t pass over the sexual imagery of the kiss but instead elevates it, allowing it to inform the very meaning of the life of the Christian here and now.

This small example of figural exegesis, as employed to the Song of Songs, rescues the text from historical reduction. The narrative of the Song of Songs forms the reader to encounter the Word of God not in a series of moral principles but in a nuptial union between the soul and the Word of God. The literary focus of the text is upon a future encounter, connecting the soul to the literal and allegorical meaning of the Song.

The restoration of figural exegesis, thus, is a buttressing of the Church against the forgetfulness of a secular age.

The prognosis

While figural exegesis can function as a medicine, the question remains how we form our parishes and our preachers in the art of figural exegesis. Here, there is something to be found in the work of Sofia Cavalletti, the creator of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. While Cavalletti’s Montessorian approach to catechesis has been a source for catechetical renewal of young children in the Church, her emphasis upon figural exegesis has had little effect on the rest of Christian formation and education.

Fundamentally, Cavalletti’s method is a pedagogy of signs. She writes in The Religious Potential of the Child: Volume 1:

The child should be initiated into the language of signs. The child is faced with something that signifies more than itself … for instance, a person he loves, a mustard seed; but for the child to be able to read this in its profundity, it is necessary to help him know the other pole, without which the sign does not exist. Without such help, the thing that signifies can remain mute and opaque, precisely because the sign—composed of something that signifies … and something that is signified … inseparably united—is not formed, and thus there is no possibility of reading it. The universe can remain flat, without perspective. For the sign to become animated, to speak, and to acquire depth, it is necessary to indicate a point on the horizon to which to refer oneself. It is the presence of these two poles that gives birth to that “tension” … which arouses a “creation of sense,” thereby conferring a dynamism to the sign that is not found in either one of the two components alone.[v]

The emphasis upon historical-critical exegesis erases the tensive orientation of the sign. It has no meaning beside the raw, naked text. Likewise, to read the Scriptures simply as an individual message to the soul can also erase the tensive quality to the sign. The sign then only functions if the individual affections are in place. When the affections collapse, so too does the Scriptural narrative.

The re-enchantment of the world is a restoration of the tensive quality to the Scriptural signs. We thus need to work on a common biblical formation that allows one to encounter the text as a series of signs opening up to the story of salvation as it unfolds even in the present. Biblical courses in the parish should focus fundamentally not on a single text alone but on the way that the texts of the Scriptures are necessarily signs of one another. Academic scriptural courses in seminaries should employ historical-critical method but only in the context of other forms of reading the Scriptures, particularly those discernible in the liturgy, in devotional poetry, in the art of the Church.

In particular, Roman Catholics could benefit from a reading of the devotional poetry of the Oxford Movement. In The Christian Year, John Keble resists any attempt to treat the scriptural narrative simply as a past event. Instead, it is the salvation of the world, in all of its particularity, unfolding now in the present. The poetry forces the reader to slow down, to attend to the signs of the Scriptures, and to contemplate how these signs relate to the present. There is no reason, to me, that Roman Catholics and Anglicans of all sorts should not be reading these poems together in small groups as a way of counteracting the effect of secularization.

For we must learn to read the Scriptures again as a history of salvation that implicates our future. Only then will the Scriptures function as a balm against secularization rather than exacerbating the problem. And it is the liturgical prayer of the Church, in particular, where this narrative of salvation comes to be experienced hic et nunc, here and now. It is thus to liturgical celebration that I will turn next.


[i] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, trans. Adrian J. Walker (Doubleday, 2007), p. xvi.

[ii] Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (Yale University Press, 1974), p. 11.

[iii] Richard Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor University Press, 2014), p. 104.

[iv] Origen, Commentary on the Song of Songs I.1 in Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, trans. R.P. Lawson (Paulist, 1956), pp. 60-61.

[v] Sofia Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children, trans. Patricia M. Coulter and Julie M. Coulter (Liturgy Training Publications), pp. 163-64.



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