Joy Cowley – Reading the Bible

CathNews NZ

Reading the Bible

Reading the Bible – Joy Cowley

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Recently I read this statement from a progressive rabbi: “It is a sin to read the Torah as historical fact.”

He then went on to describe the importance of reading scripture as parable,  allowing the Holy One to speak to us through it. Ah, I thought. He’s talking about the Catholic tradition of lectio divina.

Some of us who were brought up on the Bible, have come a long way from believing it was dictated word for word by God. Basic research reveals the Bible as a library of books, a faith history written by men in another culture and other times. Like us, they were trying to find the meaning of life and the sacred Presence that interacted with them. That Presence was beyond human language.

People could only understand God through their culture and speak about God in metaphorical language that related to their lives.

Don’t we all do that?

Talk about dry

As a teenager in the early 1950s I attended a Bible study course on the Gospels. Three learned men talked about the life of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as historical fact, ironing out inconsistencies and contradictions. I was disappointed. The talks were as dry as dust. When I opened my Bible to read these gospels, words came alive. Some words jumped up at me. Some danced, tingling in chest and arms. A phrase or verse could be a companion for a day or more and take me to a wider place that could not be described.

My friend Jesus seemed very close.

The Bible study course had nothing to do with personal experience.

It left me disappointed and bewildered.

Many decades later, I realised I’d been reading scripture as lectio divina, and had placed wrong expectation on an academic course. I also learned that Mark, the first gospel to be written, was at least 60 years after Jesus. Until then the teachings had been oral, passed down by the apostles. So of course, there was no point in making idols out of words. Human memory isn’t that accurate.

How do we read the gospels today?

The clue is in Mark and Matthew where we read that Jesus taught everything in parables. Matthew emphasizes this in the Aramaic way of stating something twice – as a positive and then a double negative making a positive. “Jesus spoke all things in Parables. Without a parable was not anything he said.”

Dear old Mother Church is wise.

The books of the Bible are part of our heritage: in them we have the history of covenant from Abraham to fulfilment in Christ Jesus. We gain much from reading these texts through the process of lectio divina. The words do not stay trapped in our heads but flow through the openness of prayer, to our hearts. There they will feed us. The nourishment we need for the moment will stay with us and the words we don’t need will pass us by.

This is the Spirit of Jesus at work.

And because parables meet us where we are, their meaning will change as we change. Reading the gospels this way brings us to the realisation that all of Jesus’ teachings come down to two things – love and non-violence.

I guess that can be further reduced to one thing. It’s all about love.


  • Joy Cowley is a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and retreat facilitator.


           Here is a welcome bit of womanly wisdom – coming from the mind and heart of our very own New Zealand Roman Catholic, JOY COWLEY.

           Having, in another situation, being part of an audience listening to and questioning this local Catholic woman sage, I have come to relish her occasional writings accessible to us from various of her books and from this current source – CATHNEWS NZ – to whom I am grateful for this article.

           Perhaps because she is a wife, mother and grandmother in a believing Christian family, Joy’s words are part and parcel of the treasure that can sometimes be found among the faithful laity of the Church. Her sanctified common sense shines through her ruminations about life – in the context of her Christian faith and practice.

           This description of her experience of ‘Lectio Divina’ – a way of reflecting upon the writings of Scripture that is perhaps more common among clergy, monks and nuns in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches – may seem to the supporters of the ‘Sola Scriptura’ (Scripture alone) school to be a purely humanly-inspired diversion from the discipline of Scriptural literalism. However, when one consider Joy’s arguments here, one comes to realise how basic and sensible is her contention – that ‘literal  translation of the meaning of ancient texts  out of context can be a very different experience from prayerful reflection on the deeper message of the Scriptures – which can be adequately  understood only in the deliberate context of Jesus method of teaching – through the medium of parables.

         A parable, for instance, does not depend on a literal translation of an historical happening. Its value is in the way it opens up the mind to adapt the story to the substance of our own reality and lived experience – in ways that can be apprehended more clearly and thus applied more effectively. That the Scriptures actually do contain the story of God’s relationship to the people God has created – in the context of the reality of the ongoing activity in creation – cautions us against the folly of trying to relate the circumstances of a specific situation in order to translate it, literally, into our own situation of the present day. Yes, the elements of the story are similar, but they are not the same. They need to be interpreted for our day and age, in order to fulfil their deeper meaning and effective teaching for the Church and society of today.

           One only has to look at the proscriptions of the O.T. Books of the Law to realise that some of them are no longer applicable to our own societal circumstances. Messages about taboos; like the eating of certain foods, the wearing of garments of mixed fabrics; the exclusion of women from society during their monthly periods; the obedience of slaves towards their masters – all products of the local culture and unsuitable in today’s social and cultural environment – were taboos applicable to Jewish culture of that time and, obviously, not applicable for us. All of which reasons support the understanding of Scripture as ‘Written for our learning’ but not as a definitive prescription for our contemporary understanding of observable, historical, verity.

           Lectio Divina is the direct antithesis of Sola Scriptura (a mediaeval literal understanding of the Bible)  giving us a rather more reflective – and therefore humanly accessible – method of relating to the God whom Scripture presents to us through the individual experience of the divine by its human authors. There really was no divine teleprinter for direct transmission of the Word of God. In fact, The Word (definitive) “became flesh and dwelt among us” – the Gospel of John.

                   Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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