In the paper yesterday there was a letter from a woman to an advice columnist about how she has lost her faith in “organized” religion and that whenever she reads the Bible she “just rolls her eyes,” I guess because the Bible seems so preposterous to her.
I think this woman just hasn’t learned how to read yet.
What’s interesting about the reading from Galatians today is that it gives us a glimpse into how the Biblical world itself read the Bible it produced—how Paul did, which is how the average educated person of his time read, and how we should read, too. And that’s allegorically. “Now this is allegory,” Paul says, in his discussion of the Sarah and Hagar in the Book of Genesis: Sarah a symbol of freedom, Hagar a symbol of slavery.
To read allegorically just means to read beyond the obvious and read beyond the surface. It’s too assume that the scriptures are full of rich and interesting images and that these images have something to say about our own lives here and now. It’s not to believe in fantasies. It’s not to believe anything that’s contrary to science—beyond science, yes, far greater than science, but not crazy or superstitious—though I think most people who regard the Bible as contrary to science have a pretty rudimentary understanding of what science is, too.
And this is how the Church teaches us to read Genesis and many parts of the Bible, as rich and complicated and interesting literary texts. Even the gospels. The gospels are a different kind of writing, a kind of writing based on history, but the Church tells us to read the gospels, too, with a sense of their complexity and sophistication–not that Jesus wasn’t an historical figure, not that the things that are described aren’t as real as anything has ever been real, not that they are merely symbolic as opposed to real. Not at all. But we are to read these stories as adults, not as children. We are to read them as great works of literature, not as what we wrongly assume are children’s stories we can easily dismiss as silly or naïve.
And in this way we can come into contact with spiritual realities, not merely physical ones, with great beauties and great truths, with mysteries, historical and more than historical and joyous and grand, mysteries that should make us not roll our eyes but open them in wonder.
To read narrowly, in a way that makes us roll our eyes, is to read like Hagar in Paul’s interpretation, to read as slaves: slaves to false notions of the real, to false notions of reading, to false notions of how language works and how God works. To read with open eyes and open minds is to read like Sarah: with freedom.
This is the Joy of the Gospel. That it’s true. Radically true. Truer than anything has ever been true.