N., as I have already said, was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him. When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible? A printer reads a Bible for misprints. A Mormon reads his Bible, and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his, and finds we have no arms and legs.
N. was an old Anglo-Indian Protestant soldier. Now, just think what that might mean; and, for Heaven’s sake, don’t cant about it. It might mean a man physically formidable living under a tropic sun in an Oriental society, and soaking himself without sense or guidance in an Oriental Book.
Of course, he read the Old Testament rather than the New. Of course, he found in the Old Testament anything that he wanted — lust, tyranny, treason. Oh, I dare say he was honest, as you call it. But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?
GK Chesterton, The Sign of the Broken Sword
Reflection – Leaving aside GKC’s regrettable prejudice (typical, alas, for an Englishman of his day) against the cultures and civilizations of Asia, this little bit of Brown-ian wisdom really pertains to the whole question of how we read the Bible, how we read it wrongly, and how we are to read it rightly.
‘It is useless to read your Bible unless you read everyone else’s Bible’. Chesterton really has a way of putting very complex matters into pithy little epigrams. This is precisely the mind of the Catholic Church regarding Scripture. We read it, not as isolated individuals getting bits and pieces of random sense out of it as we can, but as a community of believers united in a common reading guided by a common faith.
It is fashionable these days, among the New Atheists, to take all the cruel bits and pieces of the Bible—and there are many of them—and parade them around as proof of what a horror religion is, and particularly the Christian religion. The practice of haram warfare, where all living creatures from babies at the breast to animals in field are slaughtered to the last one, the death of the first-born in Egypt, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter—if you want horror, the Bible can deliver horror.
And if you are simply reading ‘your Bible’ and no one else’s, you may come to any kind of conclusion about all that. In the story quoted above, the sad character concludes that cruelty and vice are acceptable to God; for the New Atheists, the conclusion is that religion is evil nonsense.
Catholics read their Bible as part of a community of believers who extend 2000 years into the past (Sacred Tradition) and across the entire world in the present (the sensus fidelium), and who gather in their reading around a divinely mandated authority (the magisterium of bishops under the Pope). And the Catholic reading of this whole complex messy book is thus remarkably nuanced, thoughtful, careful, and yields profundity of insight and depth of reflection such as a New Atheist would not dream possible.
While it is far too much to go into the whole thing in a blog post, our basic Catholic sense is that we read all the earlier Scriptures through the later ones, and elevate the four Gospels in particular as the interpretive key to the entire Bible. The Old Testament is fundamentally the story of humanity—messy, mixed-up, ugly-beautiful, good-bad, chaotic, tumultuous, passionate, violent, lusty, hungry, hopeful, despairing humanity—met at each turn by this most mysterious God who only gradually reveals Himself to them in full.
The earlier parts of the Old Testament—haram warfare, etc.—are a very incomplete and poor revelation of this God. The later parts—the late prophets with their extension of God’s promises to all the nations, for example—are a more complete one.
But it is the Gospel revelation of Jesus Christ that gives the right sense and proper meaning to every bit of the Scriptures, and we have 2000 years of comprehensive sweeping commentary and lectio divina on just how this is done, from the most horrific tales of violence to the most obscure precepts of the Mosaic Law. In Christ, and only in Christ, do we read these and understand anything of what they mean here and now.
So that is the Bible of Fr. Brown, and of Chesterton, and of myself, too (not that that matters much). And that is our answer to that aspect of the New Atheist critique of religion.