Bible and Bible Study: October 2002 Archives

I tried to post the following three times yesterday. I am sorry for the delay, but I am delighted that it appears I shall be able to post it this morning.

Wilfrid Stinissen is rapidly becoming my favorite guide to reading scripture contemplatively (in the more common sense of that word, and I hope eventually in the more narrow definition of the word). The following passage is just wonderful for understanding what it is to read poetry or Scripture.

from Nourished by the Word
Wilfrid Stinissen

It is typical of poetry, as for all art, that it appeals to the reader's (or observer's) creativity. A poem is no tract where the thoughts are already thought out and have received their definitive formulation. A poem opens a door, often several doors simultaneously, and readers themselves decide which way they choose and how far they will take it. It is, among other things, this combination of guidance and freedom which causes one to thrive in the domain of poetry. One feel respected and taken seriously. We ourselves get to think and interpret and associate, to be fellow creators ourselves.

This concerns also our company with God's word, which has breadth and manifold meanings that purely human words cannot cover. As one free child of God, I get to play in the Bible's paradise. I get to make the old text into a new song which corresponds to my personal experience, my present needs. I can be certain that God approves of this way of playing with the text: "Then I was beside him, like a master worker: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always" (Prov 8:30). When I do so, I attach myself to the Church's centuries long tradition. The Church Fathers read Scripture in this way and the Church does it in its official liturgy. It is truly not psychoanalysis which has invented the act of free association. The Church makes use of it with extreme virtuosity. (p. 56)

Admittedly, one must be very careful to make a distinction here between individual application (which subsequent passages show that Stinissen is talking about) and individualistic interpretation, which is dangerous and schismatic. Everyone has individual interpretations, but as Catholics, those interpretations are guided and ruled by the general teaching of the Church and held in line by our understanding of the Magisterium. The Church has spoken definitively on the interpretation of very few individual passages of Scripture, but we are guided by the various Pontifical Councils on the Bible to understand Scripture as the Church has understood it for two thousand years. So casting aside the possible reading of this passage as meaning run with whatever meaning you happen to get from reading scripture, we are left with application.

Harold Bloom, speaking of the great books, has a wonderful metaphor for this act of application. He refers to the great books as not so much being read as reading us. That is, when we are brought into contact with a great work of literature, we bring to it all that we are and all that we know. Our reaction to the book is more often what it says about us than what we read in it. This is multiply true of Scripture. When we read a passage, the Bible speaks to us where we are.

You have undoubtedly had the experience either of hearing in Church or of picking up and reading a passage from the Bible and saying, I never noticed that before. If you're noticing it now, pay attention--it probably has something to say to you right here, right now in your life. Application of Scripture, contra interpretation, is the act of realizing what is being spoken to you personally and putting it into action. For example at one time in your life you may have read, "Go and spread the Good News to all the lands." Now, we all know we are called to do this, but at one time you may have felt called to the Priesthood, or to some other vocation that would more directly bear on this verse. You may have been called to stand outside abortion clinics and pray, or called to help serve the St. Vincent de Paul Society, any number of possibilities. THAT is application, not interpretation. You hear the message and act upon it.

Stinissen concludes this magnificent chapter with the following observation, which I believe sums up the nature of personal application:

The playful, personal reading causes the Scripture to become a splendid and constant new instrument of the Spirit. The Spirit blows where it will (Jn 3:8), and if we are sensitive to his wind in our lives, he will show us unexpected and hidden meanings in the Scriptures, and reveal many secrets about who God is. (p. 59)

This sounds vaguely gnostic, but I think it is more along the lines of meeting a woman for the first time. You may have heard many talk of her, you know what she looks like, you may even know something of her quirks and habits. This correlates to a superficial acquaintance with Scripture. But, as you meet and continue to meet, and perhaps fall in love, you discover that your picture was only a small part of what there was to know about this person. I think this is the light in which to interpret Stinissen's statement about "hidden meanings" and "many secrets." They are open meanings and open secrets, anyone is welcome to partake of them, but few choose to do so because it requires application and the hard realization that the words of Scripture are intended for each of us.

I cannot recommend highly enough this slender book . It is only 118 pages long, but it is packed with wonderful insights and guides for helping us to understand scripture.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Bible and Bible Study category from October 2002.

Bible and Bible Study: September 2002 is the previous archive.

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