Rediscovering the Bible’s radical nature

‘Thinking Allowed’, a panel discussion between different Irish Christian church leaders on ‘What the Bible Means to Me’

Many stereotypes, and the jokes and wink-wink-nudge-nudge comments that flow from them, are empty, born of prejudice or envy. Others, though, have a grain of truth.

An American priest at a retreat I once attended made reference to a Scripture passage, and then said: “Any good Protestant kids here read their Bibles?” There was a good-natured laugh, but a slightly rueful one, because the group had recognised a stereotype of the second kind. Catholics, in general, just don’t read the Bible as regularly as Protestants.

This is something in which too many of us took a sort of perverse pride. Yes, Catholics believe that the Church precedes the Bible, and that Scripture is best read alongside a living tradition – but this doesn’t justify marginalising the written Word of God.

That attitude has changed gradually in recent decades, and the Catholic Church was an enthusiastic participant in Ecumenical Bible Week, which ran between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. I attended an event called ‘Thinking Allowed’, a panel discussion between different Irish Christian church leaders on ‘What the Bible Means to Me’. As the title suggested, each spoke about their personal experience with scripture, rather than on their denominations’ varying approaches to it.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin repeated the familiar Catholic story: in first year of secondary school, he had won a Bible and his parents had nervously asked, “Can you read that?”

He wondered if Catholic Ireland’s past neglect of the Bible had allowed Catholics to “forget what we’re about”.

“How could the Church in Ireland have become what it did,” he asked, “if we really believed in the outrageous, gratuitous mercy of the Jesus of the Gospels?”

Gillian Kingston, former lay leader of the Irish Methodist Conference, said (to the audience’s amusement) that she burst into tears upon first hearing the Genesis creation story as a child. The Scriptures, she said, were “God-breathed, majestic, even magic”.

Sean Mullan, formerly of the Evangelical Alliance Ireland, described a childhood where the Bible was similarly omnipresent. His attitude changed when working as a ship’s navigator, and sharing a cabin with someone reading the Bible (“and it was a massive Bible”) for the first time. The man was so astonished by the radical nature of Jesus’s message (and, indeed, some of the odder stories in the Old Testament), that Mullan was himself inspired.

He said that when teaching Scripture, he always imagined a large ‘So what?’ sign on his students’ heads, to remind him to impress upon them Scripture’s radical nature. Fr Mikhail Nasonov of the Russian Orthodox Church, who as a child in the Soviet Union had no access to the Bible, spoke about the importance of reading it in the context of a Church and a tradition, and of the power of literature to illuminate scriptural truths.

Disturbing passages

As always, the time for audience participation was far too short. As one of the lucky ones who got to ask a question, I asked what the speakers made of the more disturbing passages in the Bible, like God’s apparent exhortation to the Israelites to “mow down the Amalekites”, a rival tribe?

Sean Mullan answered that there are some scripture passages that he doesn’t understand, but was able to “live in tension” with, trusting that the God of the Old Testament was revealed in Jesus, and he trusted Him enough to believe even when he didn’t understand.

The most unexpected words came from Church of Ireland Archbishop Michael Jackson, who responded to a question about reading other sacred texts by recommending spending 10% of your time investigating or learning from another faith tradition – what he called “inter-religious tithing”.

The event was an hour and a half long, and there was little that was particularly revelatory about it. But there was something quietly awe-inspiring about seeing the six faith leaders swapping stories and laughing at each other’s jokes. Just because this sort of ecumenism is increasingly common, it’s easy to scoff at it or dismiss it as shallow. And it is true that focusing only on areas that Christians share will never address or truly heal our divisions.

But to anyone who knows anything about Christian history, to have a Catholic archbishop and Church of Ireland archbishop ruminate together about the best way to relate to faiths outside Christianity, or to have a female lay Methodist leader and a bearded Orthodox priest describe the common shock and wonder they experienced at different biblical passages… it was impressive.

The following week, I read C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity for the first time. That book purports to describe what all the different forms of Christianity have in common, what all hold to be essential in the imitation of Christ.

What both Lewis and the six panellists all understood, and what makes reading the Bible so essential, is that one cannot imitate Christ without coming to know Him.