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How I Read the Bible

Irene Ni Mhaille

A Dublin Monthly Meeting Seminar on February 20, 2006.

I have to admit that I didn’t really begin to read the Bible seriously until I arrived in West Africa, as a missionary, at the age of 30. Bible stories did not nourish my early childhood, as a Roman Catholic. Yet, the Bible, as something sacred, was always in the background of my consciousness from an early age. Certain facts about it were drilled into us in secondary school – that every part of it was inspired by the Holy Ghost, that therefore it was inerrant, and that the right to interpret it belonged to the Hierarchy. But this was somewhat off-putting and intimidating and since I wasn’t allowed to interpret it, it remained remote and irrelevant during my growing up, formative years.

When I decided to become a missionary in Africa at the age of 21, the daily reading of the Divine Office was part of my life. The Divine Office was Bible-centred but was chanted in Latin, five times a day. We covered the 150 psalms of the Bible each week. This chant had a beauty of its own and as I got to know the meaning of some of the psalms, I found them spiritually up-lifting and they provided a welcome respite in the midst of a busy working day. But because The Divine Office was chanted, not recited or simply read, and because it was in Latin, it remained remote and somewhat on a higher level to ordinary daily life, for me, so the temptation to enter into any kind of personal dialogue with the text was zero. I couldn’t really call that, reading the Bible.

But that was about to come. Nigeria where I worked first, as a missionary, was a British colony and the educational system was British. “O” Level Scripture formed part of the curriculum in Second level schools. As well as teaching her own subjects, each teacher had to take one religion class. I suddenly found myself in a crisis situation . Before I understood the Bible myself, I had to start teaching it! The idea was that I was supposed to present the text and use a Commentary to explain it. But any teacher knows that there is much more to teaching than taking hold of words on paper. It is particularly difficult to teach the Bible in a trans-cultural setting and if the students are intelligent and curious as many Nigerians are, the task is full of landmines. Meeting that challenge was the single biggest influence on how I read the Bible today.

Africa taught me, very quickly, and in a very stark way, that the Bible is basically a non-Western book. that favours imagery over facts. Through the insights of African clergy, laypeople and the students I taught, I began to understand that the spiritual message of Scripture is expressed in story and in symbol and can’t be taken literally. There is nothing trivial about this – quite the reverse. Since we don’t have human language to express inner reality and to talk to each other about the presence of, and the struggle with, the divine, deep in our own hearts, we must turn to images and stories. The Bible is a treasure house of these images of uprootedness, wandering, exile, and of arrival, new birth, yeast of risen life. These images echo our own spiritual yearnings and remind us all, young and old, that we are on a very special journey and that our destiny lies ahead. In this symbolic world , I became aware of the closeness of Old and New Testaments and of the way in which the images, symbols and stories of the Old, echo, resound, reverberate within the Old and are re-interpreted and re-echo throughout the New.

Stories, unlike literal facts, can be opened up into millions of meanings that enrich each other without any conflict as we each interpret them differently. This seemed to be the opposite to what I was taught in my childhood, when a literal, single, clear, inerrant meaning was given to much of the Bible. My conflict with the religion of my birth was starting! I was beginning to grow up spiritually and to realise that I could own my own thoughts about what the Bible might mean! A dangerous revelation for a Roman Catholic in the early 60s! This led me into a whole re-construction of the received doctrines of my youth. I had to ask myself, what does the Bible mean when it says that Jesus is “the son of God “or that “Jesus rose from the dead?” Through these questions, I was led gradually to find the human Jesus, the Jew, a man who with the help of the Hebrew Scriptures, came to understood the full meaning of living by God’s Spirit and who showed me that there is no greater goal for any human being.

Then, The Second Vatican Council took place, in the Catholic Church, in themid 60s and this allowed for a new openness towards Scripture and to accepting a lot of the critical studies of Scripture that were undertaken over several previous decades by Scripture scholars. However in 1967, the Civil War started in Nigeria and all missionary teachers had to leave. It was 10 years before I got back again.

The 10 years out of Nigeria gave me an opportunity to study what the Scripture scholars were saying. Just as I had found the human Jesus in Africa, now I was to find out, through the insights of Scripture scholars, what a human document the Bible was. As a result of historical criticism, we know now that both Old and New Testament have undergone a history of human transmission. Our previous understanding rested on historical misconceptions. Not only is the transmission of the text more complicated than we thought, but like the Kingdom of God ,as described by Jesus in the parable of the wheat and cockle, the Bible harbours evil as well as good. It must be read critically and with discernment, like everything else in life. Far from destroying my Faith in the Bible, I felt that this led me into a far more convincing way of understanding it and vindicated much that I had learnt in Nigeria, about a non-literal reading. For Quakers who always practiced a spiritual reading of Scripture, the impact of modern scholarship was less important but for Catholics, it questioned the whole authority structure of Biblical interpretation. I am now convinced that if we make false claims for the Bible, to-day, we do the Bible itself the greatest disservice.

The present debate about homosexuality is a case in point. Some Christians condemn homosexuality today on Biblical grounds while ignoring present day understanding of sexual orientation. The Book of Leviticus, for example, condemns homosexuality and it also says we should stone adulterers to death. Further, it says that women (but says nothing of men) who enter marriage in a non-virginal state should be stoned to death. But why if we no longer take Scripture literally about stoning adulterers to death, do some Christians concentrate on homosexuality for this literal interpretation of the Word of God? The answer to this question is, I believe, that the issue is not about homosexuality, as such, but is rather about how we read the Bible. Some continue to find ready-made, literal truths therein. But, surely the whole Hebrew/Christian religion, in its prophetic strain, is a gradual progression in understanding that the inner law of love replaces the law that is written on tablets of stone? Thus Jesus words about the woman taken in adultery and his similar words to the crowds, “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (Luke 12;57). We, women, moreover, have put up with a patriarchal assessment of what is right and wrong for centuries, in the name of Biblical truth so we can hardly be expected to turn to the Bible today for a readymade solution to our moral problems!

And so is the issue of peace in relation to the Bible an ambiguous claim. The Bible has some of the most up-lifting passages about peace : it is also the originator of religious hate. We cannot, it seems to me, reclaim the one without the other. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews called on God to curse their Canaanite pagan neighbours : There are several passages in the New Testament, notably in the Gospels of Matthew and John, in the Book of Revelation and Acts of Apostles, that have set in train an anti-Jewish polemic. I feel that if we become aware of Christian hatred of Jews in our own Christian tradition, then we can understand how any religion demonises another in its search for identity and how difficult is the way of peace. Without condoning recent Muslim violence in relation to cartoons of Muhammad, I can begin to understand it a little if I try to see it, in the context of the wider picture of religious violence of the past against Muslims, in which we Christians have, shamefully, been a part. Good and evil, like the wheat and cockle of the Gospel parable, grow together. This, for me, is the context of understanding peace as a constant struggle.

Finally, when I retired and settled in Ireland I found myself back in an authoritarian Church and I didn’t fit. Since I joined the Quaker community, I feel an extraordinary openness to The Spirit, that not only allows me to continue my spiritual journey, but challenges me to deepen it. I don’t find this an easy journey but it is really worthwhile. I am constantly amazed to find that George Fox who lived before the beginning of modern scriptural scholarship, was so much part of its insights. From what I have read so far of George Fox, he understood the Biblical notion of The Word of God as not just a word on paper but a living, creative, communication between Divine and Human. He called it “the light of Christ within”. The structures for worship that he set up in the 17th century, allow me ,today, to be faithful to new insights about the Bible, to listen and be enriched by the individual insights of those around me while at the same time living in the real world of modern Ireland and for that I am so grateful.