In reflecting on the value of figurative language in On Christian Doctrine, Augustine explains that “I contemplate the saints more pleasantly when I envisage them as the teeth of the Church cutting off men from their errors and transferring them to her body.” I’m totally with him in that I love the idea of Aquinas, Joan of Arc, and hey, maybe Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon too, chomping us down into the digestive tract of Christian devotion; it offers something for the imagination to chew on during a dull sacrament meeting. However, for Augustine, this isn’t just a useful way to clarify the role of the saints in salvation; it’s how he reads the Song of Solomon: “Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing” (4.2). In Augustine’s reading, the speaker is addressing the Church, the Church is like a sheep, and the toothy-sainty mouth of the Church is the way to into Church central. This has to be what the Song of Solomon means, because it clearly can’t be what it appears to be, a lover’s song to his beloved.
Augustine knows that it can’t be a lover’s song to his beloved, because he knows that the Bible teaches only caritas (charity, or the motion of the soul towards God), and such a lover’s song would instead teach cupiditas (the motion of a soul toward other souls, for its own sake rather than God’s). His rule for interpreting the Bible is the “rule of charity”: if a passage appears to teach charity, you interpret it literally; if it appears to teach anything else, you need to find a convincing metaphorical interpretation. This allows him to resolve the Old Testament to the New, and provides a means to read the OT’s anthology of ancient political, historical, spiritual, and literary writings as texts that have something to say about Christianity. For Augustine’s purposes (which don’t exactly include a reading the Old Testament as Hebrew scripture through a culturally sensitive and pluralist hermeneutic), it’s an elegant and tidy solution.
It’s also, however, quite Procrustean – this doesn’t fit your beliefs about the Bible? well, make it fit – and circular. The Bible teaches nothing but charity. How do we know that? Because the Bible told us so. Where? In [pick a passage], which can be read to figuratively state that the Bible teaches nothing but charity. And how do we know to read that passage figuratively? Because the Bible teaches nothing but charity, so there’s no other way to read it. It’s always a bit unsurprising when you approach a text already convinced of what it’s going to say, and discover that, indeed, it says what you already planned on it saying. It’s also a bit too easy to gloss over all of the more problematic, culturally distant, and frankly disturbing aspects of the Old Testament as being “just” allegorical.
Fast-forward through several centuries of Augustinian hermeneutics, add some Tertullian and Origen, throw in a little Aquinas, and you’ve got a long and rich tradition of reading scripture in a manner more figural than literal, using allegoreisis to make Old Testament texts look more Christian and therefore more legitimate. And, all these centuries later, this tradition is today alive and well nowhere more so than in our very own LDS Church Correlation Committee. The Old Testament Sunday School manual teaches the stories of Jonah and Isaac as “types and shadows” of Christ. David and Goliath is a story about overcoming challenges: Goliath isn’t a giant; he’s a figure for pornography, alcohol, and the corrupt multimillion-dollar industries who are out to get us. Lot’s departure from Sodom is actually an allegory of repentance, and Lot’s wife looking back is easily mappable onto Christ’s injunction to leave everything behind in following Christ (Luke 9.62). The lesson on Job is titled “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” and he’s constructed as an Everyman Christian and assigned a testimony of the Savior, which is what allows him to endure his trials so gracefully. Never mind that he’s supposed to have lived long before there was a Savior; the Song of Solomon was written long before there was a Church or saints, and that didn’t stop Augustine.
Certainly all of this serves to make the text more handily didactic, but at a price – and the price is the text itself. If you teach diligently from the manual, it turns out you hardly need the Bible at all. You can just look up the verses the manual uses to proof its moral, figure, or allegory, and skip the context. In fact, you pretty much have to, because the context will almost invariably complicate the tidy figural reading of the lesson manual and raise awkward questions the manual can’t answer. Job’s line about “my redeemer” comes after a long and detailed complaint against God, and in the context of him bitterly wishing for a judge between him and and the Divine. (Closer inspection does suggest he’s a little angrier than the figure of patient suffering we’ve canonized him into). If you put aside the ostensible figurative meaning of Isaac’s near-miss sacrifice, you have to confront a much more disturbing story about a God who demands things like the sacrifice of one’s children, and then backs out with an angelic “Just kidding!” If the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land is taken as a literal, historical journey, rather than an anagogical figure for our own journey to the Kingdom of Heaven, then you have to deal with several literal, historical genocides on the way, made all the more disturbing because they’re done in the name of God. Allegorizing these stories is a way of glossing over their alterity and avoiding the hard questions they raise, a way of effacing the scriptural text itself in preference for our traditions about it. (Oh yes, what was that about the Catholics and their reliance on tradition instead of revelation?)
In some places, this preference for the allegorical/figurative over the literal/historical actually suggests not that there is a superfluity of meaning in the Old Testament, but that we are actually struggling to find meaning there at all. What is the spiritual significance of Ehud stabbing Eglon so that the fat covers the knife hilt, or Hezekiah stopping up the springs outside of Jerusalem? Is it possible these are recorded as historical events, and that they aren’t meant to be read spiritually at all (though in that case, we do have to ask, what does it even mean to read this text as scripture?) How seriously are we taking the scriptural text if we insist on turning it into a different text before we can find a meaning for it?
Of course, in the immortal words of the Simpsons, it’s easy to criticize – and fun, too! I have no trouble skimming through the manual’s version of the lesson and, maybe a little smugly, deciding it’s of no use to me as a teacher. Working out how I am going to organize the lesson is, however, much more difficult. Given forty-five minutes to teach the entire Book of Job or Judges I can see the appeal of an all-encompassing figurative reading, a clear moral, and characters who are neatly good or bad, who worship the right God or dismiss him, and who succeed or fail in keeping with their faith or idolatry. Besides being easier to plan and execute as a lesson, I think it makes an easier connection to our own struggles in our own lives, and if the scriptures don’t have some meaning for the way we live and worship in our own lives, I’m not sure why we should study them at all.
But I also think that real lives in the real world, whether historical or immediate, don’t fall into neat allegories of spiritual truths, and that the events – especially the tragedy and suffering – of life are rarely given satisfactory significance by the imposition of an external structure of meaning. And I think the way we make meaning out of a text as complex as the Bible will ultimately be not so different from the way we make meaning out of our own lives. I haven’t so far figured out so far how to always keep attention on the text qua text, while also finding a more personal and spiritual dimension to talk about so that Sunday School doesn’t turn into Melyngoch’s Lit-Crit-Lite Hour. Some parts of the Old Testament make it easier to manage this balance than others –the Book of Job clearly has something to say about suffering, sin, and innocence that we can all relate to, while sometimes in Chronicles it’s hard to find much to relate to at all, to say nothing of a spiritual dimension to the text. (And then there’s Ezekiel . . .) But I’m convinced that if we want to find meaning in the Bible that really resonates with our own lives, we have to do it by taking the text on its own terms, trying to understand the beliefs and desires of Biblical characters in making the decisions they do, and thinking through how this portrayal of the experience of God relates to our own. Life is not lived figuratively, and we do both life and scripture a disservice when we allow the meaning we come looking for to efface the story being told.