THE LATEST FAD IN THE SELF-HELP AISLE AT YOUR LOCAL bookstore claims to reveal the centuries-old "secret" that positive thinking leads to the good life: "As you learn The Secret, you will come to know how you can have, be, or do anything you want.... You will come to know the true magnificence that awaits you in life."
These prospects sound nice, especially when you compare it to Jesus' centuries-old promise: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:10). While both passages promise great reward, positive thinking seems a lot easier than persecution. The Beatitudes require that a Christian be poor in spirit, meek, and mournful to receive any reward, but these qualities hardly seem like "the true magnificence" promised by Rhonda Byrne's The Secret (Atria Books/Beyond Words) in this life.
Still, the Bible remains the ultimate self-help book for respondents to a U.S. CATHOLIC survey on the Good Book. More than 80 percent say Bible reading is an important spiritual practice and 65 percent read it at least once a week. Moreover, 83 percent say they find its stories relevant to their own lives and problems. "The books of the Bible are written by folks who are just like us: same struggles, same doubts, same joys, and same need to love and be loved," says Jim Sullivan of Seattle, Washington.
Those who respond to a survey on the Bible likely fall into a self-selected group of Bible enthusiasts, but if the stereotypes are true, the majority of Catholics are not as comfortable picking it up as these survey respondents. Even regular Bible readers report that it can sometimes be gruesome, confusing, and challenging, but they still return to it again and again for study, prayer, and guidance.
BEFORE BIBLE READERS CAN ASK WHAT A STORY MEANS to them, they must understand it. Reading without help is too much work," says Mary Cronin of Shelter Island Heights, New York, who only reads the Bible on special occasions.
Those who don't read the Bible regularly tend to get caught up in language, long family trees, and difficult names. A reader from Chester, Maryland struggles with "longwinded sentences and hidden meanings." He says that he doesn't read the Bible because "I would interpret it incorrectly."
Even for those who read the Bible every day, Genesis is hard to understand in the light of evolution, parables can seem cryptic, and both the themes and symbolism of the Book of Revelation are frightening. It's "as if someone on acid wrote parts of it," a reader from Naperville, Illinois writes of the Bible's last book.
While other readers relate to these problems, many have found the answer. "It was difficult to understand many parts of the Bible until I got The Catholic Study Bible: New American Bible (Oxford University Press) and joined Bible study groups," says Mary Smith of Gaithersburg, Maryland. "The more you read, the more rewarding it gets."
Bible study groups also helped a reader from Mahomet, Illinois figure out how to get started, a big obstacle for someone who doesn't have a habit of reading the Bible. "I am forced to do homework, to open the Bible to read, pray, and think," she says. "If left to my own devices, I'm overwhelmed by the wide range of choices and the size of the book. Where do I start? How?"
TALKING WITH FELLOW PARISHIONERS CAN BE BENEFICIAL, but some want even more. A Spokane, Washington reader, for instance, says she wants "a good theologian by my side to answer questions."
The most common questions: "What situations were [the authors] actually addressing? How much of the Bible is culturally conditioned?" as Jane Mellem of Littleton, Colorado writes. The context of two sometimes related issues particularly trouble readers: women and violence.
"When it comes to women and Paul, I must constantly remind myself of the time and place in which he lived and wrote his letters," says Rosemary D'Ascenzo of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. …