Toward Biblical Literacy

Interview with Theologian Mary Healy

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By Irene Lagan

DETROIT, Michigan, NOV. 13, 2008 ( Although there has been increased interest in the Bible since the Second Vatican Council, most Catholics are still not «drinking deeply» of the Word of God, says theologian Mary Healy.

Healy is one of the two general editors of Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (CCSS), a series of 17 volumes of commentary on the books of the New Testament.

An associate professor of sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, Healy is also the author of the first volume of the series on the Gospel of Mark.

In this interview with ZENIT, Healy explains the genesis and development of the series and its aim in providing ordinary Christians insights into sacred Scripture drawn from the best of contemporary scholarship.

Q: What inspired you to write the series? What are your hopes for it?

Healy: I’m convinced that we’re on the verge of a biblical renewal in the Catholic Church, and that it will be part of the «new springtime» prophesied by Pope John Paul II. There is a growing recognition that Catholics need to become much more deeply rooted in the Word of God, and that preaching and theology need to be more thoroughly biblical. The world Synod of Bishop on the Word of God, which took place last month, is a sign of what a high priority this is for the Church.

What inspired us to create this series was the fact that in the last half century there have been some tremendous advances in biblical scholarship, deepening our knowledge of the world of the Bible — its languages, customs, culture, and historical context. Yet at the same time there have been some missteps and some dead ends. One of them is a widening gap between exegesis and faith, due to the drastically mistaken idea that if we want to interpret the Bible objectively, we have to leave our faith at the door and read it like any ancient document.

There has also been a neglect of tradition: the great heritage of biblical interpretation by church fathers, saints and scholars who have prayed and studied the Bible and experienced its power over the last two millennia. We have lost sight of how to read Scripture as they did — as a living word from the heart of God.

My co-editor, Peter Williamson, and I wanted to create a resource that would integrate the best of both — sound contemporary scholarship with faith and the living tradition of the Church. We also wanted to highlight the connections between Scripture and Catholic doctrine, the liturgy and daily life, so that these commentaries would be a useful resource for preaching and catechesis. So we’ve incorporated frequent references to the Catechism, fathers, saints and the lectionary.

Our hope is that the CCSS would help both priests and lay people discover the delight of studying Scripture and experiencing their «hearts burning within them,» like the disciples who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

Q: Is one of the goals of this program to promote «biblical literacy» among Catholics, who have often been characterized as being «illiterate» when it comes to Scripture?

Healy: Absolutely! Unfortunately, that description is not far off the mark. Even though there has been a surge of interest in the Bible since Vatican II, there are few Catholics who actually read it on a regular basis, and even fewer who are familiar with its content. That means there is a spiritual hunger that is not being met, a «famine for hearing the word of the Lord» (Amos 8:11). And that situation has a dramatic impact on catechesis, theology, evangelization, spirituality and every aspect of the Church’s life.

«Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,» as St. Jerome said. There is a weariness and boredom with the Catholic faith that comes with not drinking deeply of the Word on a regular basis. Our goal in the series is to help quench people’s thirst by providing a user-friendly means of access to Scripture.

Q: Some modern Scripture scholars, such as, for example, N.T. Wright, have been promoting the idea of the story as an interpretive principle for understanding the message of the Gospel. How does this series incorporate this approach, and do you view this as something that the Church needs to recover?

Healy: Part of the crisis of our time is that people have lost a sense of the «grand narrative,» the storyline that makes sense of all history from creation to the end of time, and into which our own life stories are woven.

For Christians, of course, the center of history is Jesus Christ. Everything, both the past and future, finds its intelligibility in him, in the love of God that he revealed in his own flesh. That biblical worldview is what has shaped Christian culture for two millennia. When people lose a biblical worldview, they become much more vulnerable to the surrounding secular worldview, in which life is meaningless and the most important thing is to accumulate possessions and avoid suffering.

So there is a real insight in the new methods of interpretation that study the Bible, and especially the Gospels, as narrative with all the elements of good narrative: plot, character, setting, point of view, and so on. There has been a lot of good fruit from these approaches.

One danger, though, is that they can sometimes so emphasize the idea of story that they neglect the fact that these narratives, for the most part, intend to report historical events. Christianity is about a fact — God entering time and space — not about a «narrative world.»

Another danger is that the interpreter can sometimes substitute his own version of the storyline for the one given to us in the Bible itself. So in the CCSS we try to avoid these pitfalls while incorporating the insights of narrative approaches.

Q: At the other end of the spectrum is «biblical literalism.» How do we strike a balance between a rationalistic dissection of Scripture versus fundamentalism? Does this series strike this balance?

Healy: Rather than a balance between those misguided alternatives, I would say that what is needed is an approach that transcends both. The mistake of many of the critical methods has been to dissect the Bible into small pieces and analyze each one separately in terms of its sources and historical background. But of course once you «dissect» something it is no longer alive!

It is no wonder that people have often found the results of these methods spiritually sterile and sometimes even damaging to faith. The opposite error — often in reaction to the first — is to treat the Bible as if there is nothing human about it and we can understand it without any regard for the human authors and their historical context. As Pope John Paul II once said, to do that is to fail to take seriously the realism of the incarnation.

What we try to do in our series is take full account of the twofold nature of Scripture as both divine and human, the Word of God in human words. That is the basic principle that the Church gives us in «Dei Verbum» (No. 12) and the Catechism (109-114).

Q: Catholic biblical scholarship during the last half-century has moved at times in questionable directions. How do the principles outlined in «Dei Verbum» help those who teach scripture steer a course of fidelity to the «living tradition of the Church» and yet develop deeper understandings of scripture and its relevance for Christians today?

Healy: «Dei Verbum» presents a marvelous balance: It makes very clear that we need to take into account all the human, historical aspects of the biblical text. «The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed … in the situation of his own time and culture» («Dei Verbum, No. 12).

Some Catholics want to simply dispense with these methods. But the Council fathers recognized that to do tha
t would be unfaithful to Scripture itself. Biblical inspiration is not dictation. In his wisdom, God chose to use human authors — Jews of particular time periods in history — with all their own thought processes, linguistic expressions, and cultural limitations. That is what makes interpreting the Bible so challenging, yet so fascinating!

Yet for Scripture to be understood adequately, it also must be «interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written.» For that, faith and prayer are necessary, and fidelity to the community of faith in which the Scriptures were formed, the Church.

Q: What are some examples of the pastoral and theological questions that are relevant for Christian life today?

Healy: A theological question would be, for instance, what does the Gospel narrative of the agony in the garden reveal about Jesus’ union with the Father, both in his eternal divine Sonship and in his human nature?

Then there are pastoral questions, for instance, what does the New Testament teach about marriage and parenting, and how can we apply those principles for a renewal of Catholic family life today?

There are apologetics questions, for instance, what are the biblical roots of Catholic teachings on the Virgin Mary, the sacraments, or the priesthood?

There are questions touching on the spiritual life, for instance, what does the story of the Syrophoenician woman teach us about how to approach Jesus in faith?

Most importantly, what does Scripture reveal about Jesus Christ — who he is, what he did and said, what pleases him, and how we come to know him?

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