And the word became flesh and lived among us
- John 1:14a
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus,
‘And who is my neighbor?’
- Luke 10: 29
I concluded my last essay by saying that the contents of Scripture do not simply present themselves matter-of-factly. Rather, by using symbolism both sophisticated and profound, employing energies both conscious and unconscious, Scripture not only attempts to persuade us of its truth but also to imaginatively welcome us into its world.
Scripture conveys a sense of empathy. Scripture knows us for ourselves, and invites us to know its world in turn. But to describe how this anthology of very ancient texts can do so, we Christians must back up a bit. We must ask why we have a book at all.
One either reads the Bible, after all, or hears it read by those who do. For Christians, Holy Scripture is wholly written text. These simple facts pose, for those Christians who see God’s hand in history, a simple-seeming question: why a book for revelation? Why not a succession of prophets or kings? Why not the interpretation of dreams or stars? Why not listen to the still small voice within?
Christians may do those things, of course, and even within the narratives of the Bible people of faith indeed have done them. But for most Christians for most of history the primary instrument of the revelation of God has been the collection of ancient texts known as the Old and New Testaments. Why?
If we do not assume an accident of history, and if we do not read our own tradition cynically, then we must see somewhere in the history of the Bible the quiet hand of God. We have, of course, often thought about this in terms of the selection of canonical texts. Through common criteria, God led bishops and councils to select the proper gospels and eschew the specious or unlikely ones. But a deeper and perhaps more important question might be: Why did God have them choosing any books at all?
One cannot, of course, presume to know the mind of God. But the more laudatory aspects of the history of Scripture in Christianity suggest an interesting possibility: fostering community. Of course Scripture has also been used to isolate and to divide, but from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians to the Baptist “Sunday meetings” of the twentieth Century, the word of God has called communities together around biblical texts.
Though historical-critical analysis tells that the first identifiable Christian communities gathered around oral traditions of the Christ, those same traditions have Jesus reading from the prophets in a synagogue as part of ordinary Jewish worship. That scripture is certainly Christian does not mean that it is exclusively so: all the “people of the book” tie their origins to holy writ, as do Hindus and the practitioners of several other major world religions. Simply put, as loci of communities, texts seem to work in antiquity and modernity alike.
It is not hard to guess why they might do so. One does not often discuss at length a prophecy with a fellow bystander; when the words of God are exactly given, little more need be said. Or once one reads the stars for one’s own self, one has little interest in debating their meaning; there is minimal evidence for worthy argument. And the same is true for the interpretation of dreams. Even in the Biblical narratives there are interpretations which are true and interpretations which are false, but little way of discriminating between them before the events they foretell actually come to pass.
Yet a text provokes discussion immediately and, what is truly important, for all time. Save the Apocalypse, no event is going to come and unequivocally validate or invalidate particular interpretations of Biblical texts. So Scriptures become immediately and inextricably entangled with interpretations of them—discussions taking place through time. And given time, interpreters who agree are going to come together; those who disagree will move apart. Holy writ gives us religious traditions, ongoing conversations of assent and dissent around a common subject, a “place” around which like minds can meet.
What Scripture does not do, of course, is provide us with a reason for reading it. We do that ourselves. Scripture may call communities together, but only communities can decide whether or not they are going to answer. Now we have already said in some detail how Christian scripture may function as unique psychological authority. And we have said that readings that recognize its wisdom may bear fruit—indeed that these will bear more helpful fruit than those that do not.
But if we remember our definition of validity as both strength and appropriateness of explication, we must ask another question. Why must ask why Scripture is particularly suited for—and not only authoritative over—the psyche and soul of what we might call “the wounded reader.” For it certainly cannot be the case that Christians believe they approach the Scriptures as Christ intended them to. And Christians who understand the postmodern concern with self-interested reading will think so even less.
For we interpret with our injuries as well as our iniquities. We come to Scripture seeking solace as much as we come bearing sins. And while Christian history has a long and varied history of attempting to deal with sin, solace and healing of the whole person require a different sort of balm. They require empathy. And if Christians are going to find empathy in Scripture, then they are going to find it through a book. So it follows that the form of the book would matter in this regard.