Students frequently ask me why it is that we have to study the Scriptures. They seem to think that the Bible is very clear in its meaning and that if they just put in the time reading it (the first hurdle for most students!), they'd arrive at a very clear understanding of the text.
This sort of naive approach, while dismaying, is not uncommon. The Bible is seldom clear and reading and interpreting it requires a certain sophistication, a certain set of tools, to give one a fighting chance of staving off deranged interpretations. One such tool, of which I wrote earlier this year, is the distinction I make between "literal" and "literalist" interpretations of Scripture. On this account, I hold that Catholics do take the Bible literally. By literal I mean exactly what the Catechism of the Catholic Church means: "The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation..."(CCC, 116).
Let me use an example to flesh out this distinction. Imagine that my old friend, Oouhloonnga Matuhmba, comes to visit me from his village in Africa. I go to great lengths to plan a day of activities with him, but in my enthusiasm I fail to consider that while my friend has a good training in the English language, he has not been exposed to hardly any of our American expressions.
So we get up in the morning and I take him out to meet the track coach. The coach says, "Hey guys, good to see you. Why don't you suit up?" So I go in and put my running shorts and shirt on. Oouhloonnga comes out dressed in shiny leather shoes and has a watch fob hanging out of the vest pocket of his finest three-piece suit: he took the coach at his word and went and put his suit on, surely more fitting for a fancy dinner than laps around the track.
Next, we're told to "warm up." I begin stretching and doing some slow laps. Despite the oppressive summer heat, Oouhloonga takes coach at his word and starts to wander about, looking for a heater.
Finally, after a fairly awkward practice (have you ever tried running in leather shoes?) coach dismisses us. "Hit the showers!" I fetch my rubber duck and body wash while Oouhloonga begins punching water fixtures.
So, what gives? Well, obviously a literalist understanding of American idiomatic expressions ("Hit the showers" or "Suit up") fails to grasp the meaning of the phrase. One has to learn how to situate the sayings within a larger context of meaning. Native speakers take these idiomatic expressions for granted because we grew up with them and are used to them. I can still recall the dissonance I experienced hearing an Irish friend say, "I'm going to use the loo." Just who is this Lou and what is he being used for? Hence the reason that, in the study of any language, special attention has to be paid to the colloquial phrases that, to outsiders, sound absurd. In saying this, believe me: I'm not pulling your leg.
Scripture study is no different. Hence I see my role in teaching Scripture courses as introducing my students to both the language and meaning of Scripture: idioms, symbols, metaphors, references. I'd like to think that my gift to my students is an opportunity to come to a more adult awareness of the complexity and beauty of our Scriptural tradition and to appreciate the tremendous difficulty that the authors of Scripture faced: how to express, in finite words and images, a growing sense of a God who was entering into relationship with a Chosen People.