How to Get the Most out of Reading the Bible

U.S. Catholic, October 1998 | Go to article overview

How to Get the Most out of Reading the Bible


To people who think scripture comes out of the blue with no history attached, Father Daniel Harrington, S.J. says, "It does come to us directly from God but indirectly in a certain time and place, and to respect that time and place is important to understanding the text." To understand scripture in its setting--historical, literary, and theological--as well as to bring it to life in the hero and now is the task of anyone who wants to face the Bible's challenges and to experience in it God's transforming power.

Harrington is professor of New Testament at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has written and edited numerous books, articles, and biblical commentaries, including How to Read the Gospels (New City Press, 1996), Interpreting the New Testament (1990) and Interpreting the Old Testament (1991), both from Liturgical Press, and New Testament Abstracts.

How did your love for the Bible develop?

I became interested in scripture as a boy. I stutter sometimes, and when I heard that Moses stuttered--that he was "slow of speech and slow of tongue"--I looked it up in the Book of Exodus and found the story of God's call to Moses to speak on behalf of God. In this way I found God in the Bible, and that experience has always been with me.

Then, when I entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1958, I started reading the Gospel of John in Greek, and I never recovered--it was such a wonderful, thrilling experience. I also got some very good advice from one of my seminary teachers, who said that scripture was the coming field and that if he were my age, he'd get into scripture.

There's a certain intuitive sense that you get from reading these texts in their original language that a translation really doesn't allow. To me it was very intellectually exciting, but it was also spiritually exciting because I could find in scripture a set of analogies between my own life and what is described there. You can do so many things with scripture--literary study, historical study, archaeology, theology, and you can use it as I do for preaching and teaching.

Is preaching about scripture helpful to you in your teaching and research?

I've preached every Sunday for the last 27 years, and it's important for me as a biblical specialist to preach to people on scripture texts--to ordinary people who don't have a professional theological education. I'm trying to give people a sense of what the text says, the historical setting in which the text emerged, and what it might mean for their own lives in late 20th-century America.

The Second Vatican Council started us on a very important road that we need to stay with: becoming a more biblical church, and that doesn't happen overnight. Actualizing scripture in one's life means becoming immersed in the Paschal Mystery, Jesus' life, death, and Resurrection. If we can stay the course with this Second Vatican Council path of becoming a more biblical church and use the lectionary, which is a means toward that, preaching will improve.

There's a lot to be said for a theology of the Word of God, which historically has been a Lutheran concept. I remember one day reading an article on the prologue of John's Gospel by Ernst Kasemann, who was a famous German Lutheran New Testament scholar, and all of a sudden the idea clicked. I understood the Word as an active, dynamic presence.

Sometimes I give a homily that I think is really good, and people are yawning and just not getting it. At other times I'll say, "Oh, boy, I didn't do well on this one," but people will come up afterwards and say, "You really spoke to me today." That's the Word, that's not me, and often a homily that's poor for some reason or other communicates to a group or to individuals where one that's artistically presented and wonderfully ex pressed falls flat.

There should also be an educational component to the homily--otherwise a homily becomes "my favorite idea" warmed up over and over again. …

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