Rediscovering the Bible

By  Fr. Murray Watson, Catholic Register Special
  • November 9, 2008
{mosimage}Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality by Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM. (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 238 pages, soft cover, $19.95).

If ever there was a “Bible Year for Catholics,” surely it must be this year. Bishops from around the world have just finished meeting with Pope Benedict in Rome to discuss the place of Scripture in Catholic life and prayer. Throughout the Catholic world we are dedicating this year to St. Paul, the “Apostle to the Nations.” And into the marketplace for Scripture-centred books comes a familiar (and yet unexpected) figure: Franciscan Father Richard Rohr.
Rohr is a best-selling spiritual writer. He is perhaps best known to many for his work in masculine spirituality, especially From Wild Man to Wise Man and The Wild Man’s Journey: Reflections on Male Spirituality. But few know how deeply his spiritual writing and speaking is rooted in personal reflection and study of the Scriptures. In this new book, Rohr attempts to highlight key themes of the Bible, reprising and updating a series of talks he originally gave in 1973.

{sa 0867166592}Rohr’s book is not a simple listing of the themes we might all expect (good and evil, forgiveness, community, etc.). It is, instead, a fascinating and extremely challenging effort to integrate a lifetime of scriptural reflection with his own experience and the insights of modern psychology, relying particularly on archetypes and symbols identified in the work of Freud and Jung.

He suggests that, because of a mistaken way of reading the Bible, we have often “missed the big picture” and need to re-learn the foundational messages of the Scriptures. He offers an enlightening — but not always easy — path to re-discovering the church’s book.

Rohr has a number of provocative ideas about the Bible, not the least of which is that the Bible — like each one of us — is not all goodness and light. On the contrary, he says, the Bible is often “three steps forward and two steps backward.” There is much in the Bible that is more reflective of human limitations and sinfulness than of the authentic inspired message of God. Sometimes the Bible penetrates deeply into divine truths, and at other times it simply parrots the worst of human thinking.

This is a concept that certainly challenges traditional notions of God’s word but which may also allow us to better understand some of the dark parts of the Bible.

The Bible, Rohr says, is not simply a sourcebook for answers. It calls us to a journey and then accompanies us as we make the journey — which should lead us beyond easy, black-and-white oppositions toward a deeper synthesis, a certain comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty. The Bible can teach us to see our story as part of a larger and truer story: THE story.

Rohr’s book is rich and complex and defies easy summary. However, central to its thesis are several key themes, code-words or archetypes which run throughout the Bible and are, Rohr argues, “deep truths” that communicate on a universal level — even beyond the bounds of Judaism and Christianity. Among them:

o Water, symbolic of the gentle invitation to spiritual transformation and openness;

o Blood, symbolic of death, which speaks of sacrifice, potential and newness;

o Bread, which speaks of being nurtured, strengthened and filled by God’s grace.

As you trace the presence of these meta-themes through the Scriptures, Rohr says, you will begin to understand their underlying message — of mercy, humility and growth — rather than a more superficial seeking of easy answers in the text. The Bible, Rohr says, is more about journeying than about arriving.

For Rohr, the Bible shows us the slow, gradual evolution of human understanding of God — from the sometimes fierce stories of the Hebrew Scriptures to the revealing of God’s incredible mercy, vulnerability and universal embrace. And yet, as he stresses, humanity (and even Christianity) have often failed to internalize those messages. Too often, we have embraced power and control and have tried to earn God’s love through our own efforts and ability — efforts which are ultimately futile.

We find it hard to believe that God’s love is boundless and unconditional, constantly seeking us out. It’s there if we are simply willing to accept it, despite our weakness and sinfulness.

Rohr’s text can, at times, be a little ambiguous and dense. He tends to employ psychological models and language quite freely. Several chapters demonstrate Rohr’s particular debt to writings of biblical theologian René Girard on the idea of scapegoats and sacrifice. He does not shy away from the kinds of criticism of the church that have sometimes earned him a reputation in the past as a renegade.

Such claims, however, are not borne out by the ideas in this book, which are clearly rooted in a profound love for the church, and a Franciscan perspective which seeks to reconcile opposing tensions and frame everything within the context of God’s abundance, goodness and care for us.

Rohr writes with passion and realism, seeking to bring us home to a renewed, healthier way of seeing the overarching message of God’s Word, so that it can bring us healing, and so that we can bring healing to others and to the world.

(Watson is in Dublin, Ireland, working on his doctoral dissertation in Scripture studies.)

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